Should We be Done with Football?
Football. All- American. I grew up on college and high school football. I was a high school football cheerleader. I played football with my brothers and their friends and I watched football every Saturday I can remember in the fall. When I grew up the men I dated were thrilled to find a fellow traveler in me. I was game for a long day at the bar watching the game or sitting on the couch eating chips and yelling at the TV with them. My husband and I are faithful college football fans for our respective universities. But this past August, I told him I was no longer going to watch football with him. I, of course, could not keep to my word. I vowed at first just to watch my team. Then I got interested in what my husband’s team (currently in the top 5) was doing. Then I got interested in certain other teams, like what was the hated rival of my team doing? What was Alabama doing? My father was a fan of the Bear so I always have to check in. So, I find myself this November with a conundrum. I am a football fan, a woman and a scholar of sex and gender, specializing in masculinity studies. I should be the first one out there to say enough is enough, because really, enough is enough.
There is so much about football that is wrong. The big news, of course, are the head injuries. A good half of the boys playing football at my daughter’s high school have had head injuries this year, mostly in practice. The star running back has been out since early October after suffering a concussion so severe he was unconscious for hours. It took 16 minutes to remove him from the field. A senior, any hopes of being recruited are likely over. But, that’s one piece of a larger puzzle. The culture of violence is alive and well, despite what such detractors like Jonathan Chait would have us believe. Chait argues that there is a kind of hysteria about the injuries and that the link between the culture and the injuries is spurious.
What exactly do we mean by football culture? For me, it means an environment where hegemonic masculinity is prized and where people who could make a difference look the other way when masculinity trumps the well-being or rights of others. Injuries from hard hits are just one consequence of a culture that equates masculinity with a kind of violence. Chait, himself, argues that football channels those attributes he links to masculinity, instead of questioning which came first, the attributes or the socialization. He takes masculinity as something natural, born with, to be channeled and made to accommodate, rather than the social construction that it is. He argues that not every boy is drawn to football, just as not every boy is drawn to chess. But what he fails to acknowledge is that there is a particular kind of boy who chooses football, just as there is a particular kind of man that chooses the military. Both offer a hyper-masculinized environment that promises to make a man out you. It is a particular kind of man it makes.
College football is rampant with sexual assault and harassment charges and it is particularly onerous because college athletic programs are at the forefront of covering up as much as can be covered up. I am not afraid to say that the James Winston case is a classic example. If there was no wrongdoing, why would Jimbo Fisher and his staff be working so hard to protect Winston from even talking to investigators? Florida State is not an anomaly. The Department of Education is investigating somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred universities and colleges for how they have handled sexual assault claims. Many of those claims were not related in any way to football, but it does speak to something I have long argued in the case of military assaults. When boys and men enter an environment already pre-disposed to a kind of masculine culture and that culture sits within an even broader culture of violence, and gender violence in particular, the results are almost uncannily predictable. Colleges are not doing enough to prevent this kind of violence. Then add a football culture where boys will still be boys and you have a kind of perfect storm.
The problem, as it always is, is money. College and professional football are money machines. Pop warner and high school programs are feeders for the machine. Connor Halliday, Washington State University quarterback, recently broke his leg while playing against the University of Southern California. He is out for good. He will graduate this spring, likely, without an NFL contract. He lamented this fact, saying that he had worked really hard and implied that he would have a lucrative contract if not for this tragic outcome. I’m not sure he would have. I hope he is doing well in school. Too many college football players are taking up seats in classrooms without any intention of learning or prospering academically. College football coaches are paid in the millions while adjunct professors make slave wages and full-time professors make barely more. Full professors are lucky to break six figures. Only celebrity status can hep a professor sell books and command fees for lectures that could enhance that, but no one who teaches in a college classroom is going to come near the $10 million that Nick Saban is scheduled to make this year.
There are things we can do before we ban football or stop participating of our own volition. Last week Army beat University of Connecticut. When I mentioned it my husband said, “yeah and they don’t even recruit.” He was being facetious, but the fact is they don’t, ironically, recruit- for sports. It got me thinking, what if all universities were forced to play the athletes that come their way from college admissions? What if college football players were, in other word, scholars? The field would be leveled in some ways. What if college football players had a higher academic standard to keep in order to play week to week? What if we stopped paying people in universities to abet academic cheating? (See North Carolina for example) What if we stopped paying for bowl games and committees to determine rankings? What if we used that money to fund academic scholarships for everyone in a country where it is getting harder and harder for students to afford college? The list goes on, but the point is priorities. Our priorities are mixed up. We do not value scholarship or women or even boys who play football for that matter. We are doing them a disservice to raise them up in a culture that equates violence with manliness and then protects them from the consequences of that kind of thinking. Maybe it is time to stop the madness.