6 Critical Reasons to Rethink Football and Kids

The physical risks to football players should be taken with the utmost seriousness, but the more important questions are about what lessons kids are learning about how to define themselves and to relate to one another.
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Beyonce performs during the halftime show of the NFL Super Bowl XLVII football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Beyonce performs during the halftime show of the NFL Super Bowl XLVII football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Warning: This is a long-read, but not nearly as long as an average Super Bowl.

Now that the Superbowl is over, people can focus on what to do about the reality of football-related head injuries and how to manage risks. If you are an adult athlete, what do you do given the possible economic consequences? If you are a parent of a boy who wants to play football, what do you do? And, football is mainly a boy's sport. Girls have the greatest risk of concussion playing soccer. Which is part of why I think these are the wrong questions.

Here are some that I think are more important and inclusive of those above: What is it about football culture that makes "playing through the pain" a norm? Why aren't girls playing and why, when they do, is their athleticism made to seem rare and exceptional, when it is not? What makes coaches and parents continue a pee-wee game in which five little boys get concussions? What kind of people are interested in making a 9-year-old girl feel special, only to have her grow up to realize that there is no place for her in the world that she loves as she gets older? Yes, the physical risks to players should be taken with the utmost seriousness, but the more important questions are about what lessons kids are learning about how to define themselves and to relate to one another.

Football, like all sports, has great benefits for those who play. It's fun to be good at something, to participate in a team, belong to a community and be recognized for your hard work and accomplishments. It's also the way lots of boys bond with their dads. What I'm going to say will be anathema to many who will take my critique personally, but I'm writing about systems, not individuals or specific teams. Some of the sweetest boys I know play and some of the nicest people I can imagine love this game and are rightfully proud of their kids. But our most popular and important game is one that establishes a violent, physical, conformist, sex-based social hierarchy with strong boys at the top and "feminized" boys and marginalized, either sexualized or "masculinized," girls at the bottom.

And, I'm not talking about about sexist Superbowl advertising. Football doesn't have a problem with stereotypes. Football IS a problem with stereotypes. As wholeheartedly supportive as I am of critical campaigns like #Notbuyingit, in terms of football, this is a good start, but it's like about whether to use a blue or green umbrella to stand under Niagara Falls.

What lessons are kids learning in addition to the good ones?

LESSON ONE: It's a man's world. In football, girls can't often play with the boys. Even earlier than necessary, they are separated by gender. We keep getting told this. There are safety issues that NFL rules are constitutionally incapable of addressing. (These rules have changed more than 40 times since 1876, sometimes to ensure safety as they will with brain injury issues; it's just too much to figure out how to allow athletic women to play). There are, however, girls and women who play and play well. They have their own teams, and to date, have been most successful when dressed in lingerie. Or, they're slightly mocked and stereotyped. Or not that well-known. Can you name a women's professional football league? In addition, women apparently can't coach teams of male athletes in this country, especially football teams. You'd think that information is tattooed on our ovaries at birth given these statistics: There has never been a female professional football coach, only 3% of coaches in football college have been women, and there is only one female varsity high school football coach in the country. And, while diversity is a recognized issue in all sports, these concerns rarely extend to women. It's just too much for some people to even consider. Kids aren't stupid. They're just small people.

LESSON TWO: Girls and women are marginal and good for only a few, narrowly defined things: How they look, if they're fertile and how well they can support their men. Women can't play the "real" "game" that everyone loves and admires, but they can entertain from the sidelines. Chances are, they're likely to be serving snacks during games as well. Or "choosing" to confront bias by self-objectifying. Did you watch the Superbowl halftime show? This isn't a critique of Beyoncé, a phenomenally talented woman whose show was great. This is a commentary on the role women played and the way in which we are generally allowed entrée -- pornified and bootylicious. Did you miss the skyview camera pan that captured a dozen dancers lying on their backs, opening and closing their legs in synchronicity? Or just ignored it? I have no problems with women opening their legs, but context is everything and the context for this is a game is not good. I mean, for god's sake, even the NFL's On-Air Talent lineup of 46 people only includes eight women and they are every single one of them beautiful blondes. Consider the optics of the game in general. I know that padding and helmets are for safety and cheerleaders are just wearing cute clothes, but, abstracted, their silhouettes are totems of exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics, especially the men whose protective gear has gotten bigger and bigger, creating a cartoonish male profile. If I wanted to go all conservative brain, Psych 101, bat-shit feminist on you, I'd point out that the silhouette of a cheerleader holding up pompoms in a classic V looks pretty much like a silhouette of women's reproductive organs. See, I made this neat graphic. Eww. Football culture is the acme of a fetishistic conservative approach to gender. These visual prompts are related to ideas about behavior reinforced by the game and a mass media consumed by hyper-gendered stereotypes. The Achilles Effect kind that put pressure on boys play through the pain, for example. Gender stereotypes are rules about how girls and boys are supposed to be and football quite literally embodies those rules.

LESSON THREE: Follow the rules and conform. First and foremost, football is a game about following established rules. All games have rules, but football is seems particularly keen on them. There are plays and game plans and many people policing them. There are lines everywhere. When you break rules, there are penalties. Refs read your infringements loudly and publicly and announce your punishment. Compare this to, say, soccer or basketball (both of which are more inclusive of women as athletes), which are fundamentally different in the way that refs work and how individual players' personalities, creative decisions and fluid responses have the ability to influence a game. It's not a stretch to say that boys who follow the "playbook" in games might be more inclined to similarly conform off-field.

LESSON FOUR: Brute force is power and the key to success. Until recently, largely unchallenged heterosexual brute force and power. This game authorizes and regulates the use of violence. It glorifies physical domination. I know that many sports are aggressive and require the physical domination of others, but none so captures the national imagination or is so closely aligned with American masculinity. Football suggests that this equation of brute force with power and success is the basis for sex-based hierarchy off the field.

LESSON FIVE: There is a sex-based hierarchy and girls are inferior, not just physically, but in terms of their humanity, and being like them sucks. There are not many other places where the routine denigration of the feminine, central to treating girls like objects to do with as you wish, isn't just condoned but integral. I'm hoping this is changing and generationally bound. But, there is no denying that football has well known "machismo" issues involving bonding rituals (really, just click on it) tied to "play through the pain," "smear the queer" and "XYZ Express" mentalities. That's what pink locker rooms and putting tampons in gym is about. This is how helping people out of kindness is called a "pussy on pussy crime." These things aren't "harmless." They're contemptuous and they happen every day, are condoned or initiated by coaches and fathers. In exchange for winning, power, status and fraternity we ask too many boys not only to risk serious bodily harm by refusing to complain about pain or worry, but also to suppress their compassion, empathy and sense of justice.

LESSON SIX: All of the above confer privilege and status. What is it about football that results in documented gang rapes having the power to "divide" towns and in otherwise good football fans ignoring people's pain? Parents, coaches and high school administrators, too comfortable saying things like "boys will be boys," in high school end up doling out ridiculous "slaps on the wrist" for criminal behavior in college. By the time boys get to college everyone understands how important their athletic status is. They understand the hierarchy and act accordingly. Every single day victims are told in no uncertain terms that the careers and feelings of athletes are more important than they are.

There is no definitive way to determine whether aggressive male sports cultures inclines boys more to violent crime or whether predisposed boys gravitate to certain sports. The connections between aggression, dominance, individual personalities and family, campus or team cultures are multivariate. However, for decades we've seen a steady stream of news, every kind of crime from domestic violence, sexual assault and homophobia to punctuating gang-rapes that give everyone pause. These stories often involve football -- either because football players are disproportionately involved or simply important enough to garner a disproportionate amount of attention. While male student athletes make up 3.3% of the U.S. college population, they are responsible for 19% percent of sexual assaults and 37% of domestic violence cases on college campuses. In 2010 more than half of athletes arrested were college football players. Colleges where girls have a 28% chance of being sexually assaulted -- four times the national average. Sports participation does NOT turn boys into rapists, homophobes and batterers. However, participation in high-level, all-male sports cultures indicates a propensity for certain behavior and the statistics are pretty awful.

This isn't a boys are bad and criminal/girls are good and victims issue. It's about how polarized and exaggerated gender norms cultivate sex-based hierarchies that hurt everyone. This is the culture that enabled Steubenville and Glen Ridge and Notre Dame and Jovan Belcher and OJ Simpson and Jerry Sandusky to happen. The fact that Joe Paterno said, after his team lost a game, that he had to "go home and beat up [his] wife," (What a kidder!) is directly related to the decades of tolerated child rape that passed before Sandusky was brought to justice.

By the time an American child immersed in football culture grows up, they will have spent countless days and happy celebrations affirming these lessons. High school parents, administrators and coaches genuinely trying to educate kids to succeed in a diverse and pluralistic society should put a moratorium on playing football and start talking about what it tells kids about how to relate to each other.

For many, women's ideas, especially feminists' ideas about masculinity and football, are like 19 century bastard children: everyone knows they exist and have valid claims, but we would rather ignore them. It takes a man to give them legitimacy. Men like Brendon Ayanbadejo's, Chris Kluwe's, Jarvis Green, and Donald MacPherson understand the kind of change that needs to happen. As NFL host James Brown says, so cheesy I know, "It's Your Call." We have choices about the "games" our kids play.

PS: As of noon the State Department has still not recalled my passport!

PPS: Here's a hat for the next game.

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