Sunday, September 28, 2014

Feminism and NFL Fandom: Is Anyone Required to Boycott?

I do not come from a home with a sports culture. My father did not watch any sports at all, and I lived  far enough away from the city that the baseball mania of Cardinals nation reached me without any requirements to actually watch the game.

My high school did not have a football team when I was there (though they have since merged with a neighboring school to support such an endeavor, one my little brother took part in until he graduated this year). We did have a basketball team that was highly praised, but--at least from my perspective as a nerdy high schooler who resented the pep rallies their teams got while my academic bowl team was ignored despite more impressive accomplishments--it was always a co-ed endeavor. We cheered on our boys and girls with equal fervor, and basketball does not have the element of violence that seems to pervade football.

In other words, I come to this topic as a tagalong. My husband is an avid football fan, and he was a college football player when we met as freshmen. I went to his games as a good girlfriend should, I learned a little about the sport, and through the past decade, I have (most passively) watched several hours of NFL football. Sometimes I have found enjoyment in the excitement of a big play, and I've definitely enjoyed the customs of Super Bowl parties and friendly team rivalries. I can't, though, really call myself a fan so much as a ride along in fandom.

Still, I found myself instinctively bristling during parts of Steve Almond's (mostly powerful and reasonable) post on feminism and football. Almond knows he will be attacked as a man writing about feminism and opens with that acknowledgement. That's not what I'm doing here, though. I'm glad to see a man thinking about the feminist perspective of the game, and I think that his contribution to the conversation is really important. He asks a lot of good questions, and his own decision to revoke a 40-year fandom in order to ensure he doesn't pass down a cultural heritage to his own daughters that includes so much misogyny is admirable.

My main points of contention come from a set of questions he asks early on in the piece that strike me as a little tone deaf.

The first question he asks specifically of Hannah Storm and, by extension, to all women of daughters:
why would a mother watch with her own daughter a video of a man knocking a woman unconscious?
Why did anyone watch that video? My hope is that people watched it to confirm the details of an event that had gotten so much press and to try to find some understanding in order to gauge their own reactions (as fans, as advocates against domestic violence, as citizens of this country, as humans, etc.) Almond seems to be suggesting here that watching it with your daughter (who is playing fantasy football so who is presumably an older child and not a toddler) baffles me a little. She likely watched that video with her daughter for the same reason that parents talk to their children about the horrors of drinking and driving, the importance of safe sex, the risks of peer pressure, and any number of cultural life lessons that are part of conversations when you're raising human beings. I doubt her and her daughter were gleefully replaying the horrendous scene of a woman being knocked unconscious and dragged around like an old rug. I suspect that Storm watched it with her daughter because (especially due to her own professional connection to the NFL) she knew her daughter would likely see it anyway and she wanted it to be in a context where she guided the conversation. That's good parenting in a complicated world.

The second question is more nebulous and much more general. Almond asks simply "What's in it for women?" the "it" being NFL fandom in the first place:
As a fan (a heartbroken former fan, anyway) I understand why football exerts such a powerful grip on men. The game is an exalted cult of hyper-masculinity, a place of refuge where dudes can escape the moral complexities and disappointments of adulthood, where heroism is defined as courageous and brutal and, above all, male. 
Well, hell. If women historically confined themselves only to activities free of a "cult of hyper-masculinity," what would we have? Not golf. Not running. Not corporate work. Not law. Not police work. Not the military. Not, well, not much of anything.

That doesn't mean that Almond doesn't make great points about the tensions between feminism and supporting the NFL (and we are, indeed, supporting them every time we let those advertising dollars gain a foothold through our views). He's right to question the ability for the two to coexist, but since feminist battles are often fought in the gray areas of life, I think he's wrong to call out Eliana Dockterman's stance on the issue. Dockterman defends her own fandom by explaining that:
Boycotting the NFL is simply not the best way to change its behavior. In a great video about why she is not boycotting the NFL, Fox Sports’ Katie Nolan says that boycotting would “just remove critical thinkers from the conversation.”
Almond doesn't accept her argument, saying that it is possible to criticize the NFL without watching it. That's certainly true, but it doesn't have the same rhetorical impact to criticize something from the outside. It's an ethos builder to establish your own fandom in the face of critical commentary, and it's a lot easier to criticize something in a way that resonates if you understand it.

The main thing that bothers me about Almond's article is that it comes across as a kind of martyrdom. He had to give up his own football fandom because women won't stop watching it even though they should. I respect that he's putting his money where his mouth is and following through with his own boycott. I doubly respect that he's done so after making the connection to a patriarchal cultural heritage that many women claim to have inherited from their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers.

But his decision to stop supporting an industry whose values he does not share should not be seen as stepping in as a substitute for women who are making poor choices. It is the responsibility of all people to question how their consumer practices impact the world they live in. You don't deserve an extra pat on the back for doing so as a man. If it's the right choice, it's the right choice for everyone.

It's obvious that the NFL has many cultural problems to address, and these problems matter because the resonance of sports operates only because they are an extension of the cultural problems at large. As responsible consumers, we have to ask ourselves what our dollars are supporting and if we can continue to spend them with a clear conscience. As human beings, though, the questions are even harder: what does the NFL as microcosm tell us about our culture? And what do we do with that?

Should a feminist (man or woman) watch the NFL? Should cheerleaders? Should Native Americans? Should neuroscientists? Should dog lovers? Should people against alcohol abuse? Should you?

And if the answer is no, what then? How do we ensure that we aren't just removing mirrors because we don't like the reflection of ourselves but instead are actually changing the picture?

Photo: Matt McGeeDan Tantrum

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