Feminism in Football

Imagine this—you are sixteen years old, trying to take part in a conversation about last night’s Patriots game in which Tom Brady had made some truly spectacular throws. You say something about Brady’s ability to release the ball so quickly. The group of guys who have been loudly talking about the pass in front of you smirk. One turns to you with a weary expression on his face, like this is something he’s had to deal with hundreds of times before. “Yeah okay, we know you girls just think he’s cute.” You’re surprised; you’ve followed the team for years and watched every game of the season, for nothing other than the way the intensity of the sport makes you feel. You want to tell him that you have their entire schedule memorized, can name the starting lineup, and know how many yards per carry Benjarvus Green-Ellis usually averages, but you don’t. What if you get something wrong?

This is a silence female football fans live with their entire lives. Since the NFL’s official creation in 1920, it hasn’t just been a man’s game—it has been the man’s game. In any form of media and in marketing all around us, it’s emphasized that any “man card” carrying, self-respecting guy’s guy is passionate about the sport. Football Sundays are a day spent with the guys, yelling at the television, and drinking beer, while there’s an annoying woman somewhere in the background. She is usually one of two things: the wife who’s oppressing her husband’s love for the game, or the girl who pretends to be interested in it in order to seem like the “cool girl.”

Both of these stereotypes perpetuate the false assumptions about the relationship between football and women. In fact, 45 percent of the NFL’s fan base are women. These fans spend money on tickets, products, and more. They encourage their friends, who might have been discouraged by men to be interested in the sport, to become fans as well. Female viewership was the fastest growing demographic for the NFL in recent years, but after discontent expressed by many women, it seems unlikely that number will continue to grow.

Imagine this—you are a feminist. You support, admire, and respect women; you believe society doesn’t give them the same opportunities and fair treatment that’s given to men. You fight to change this, for you and women everywhere. You should be allowed to watch football, you should be allowed to talk about it, because no sport should exclude any sex. It is yours, too.

Except it isn’t. You turn on the television and the announcers are praising Ben Roethlisberger, who was accused of sexually assaulting two women. He was suspended for a total of four games. You turn on the television and there is a video of Ray Rice punching his fiancée unconscious, suspended two games. There is CJ Spillman, who received no disciplinary action after being accused of sexual assault twice, and Johnny Manziel, who has not been punished for allegedly physically assaulting his girlfriend. There is Jameis Winston, who was the first overall draft pick in 2016, despite the investigation into a detailed, extensive rape accusation made against him the previous season. The list goes on and on.

The lack of support within the NFL for women who experience violence at the hands of professional football players should be the ignition for a firestorm of questions. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has repeatedly assured the public that he is continuing to alter the league’s personal conduct policy in order to enforce stricter punishments. The proof, however, must be in action. When defensive end Greg Hardy was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend, Goodell suspended him indefinitely as an example of the league’s new low tolerance policy. The suspension, however, was recently expunged from Hardy’s record, and he currently plays for the Dallas Cowboys.

In the midst of the many domestic violence and sexual assault complaints happening in the NFL in the past few years, it seems perturbing that the league focused all its energies on one particular case: Deflategate. Deflategate, the scandal that occurred when the New England Patriots were accused of underinflating footballs used in the 2015 AFC Championship game, was a media frenzy. It remains one of the most talked about topics in the sports world. Quarterback Tom Brady was suspended four games, the same amount of games as the harshest punishment for violence against women, for probably “being generally aware” of plans to deflate footballs. When he appealed the decision and it was overturned, Goodell went so far as to bring him to a higher appeals court to get the decision reinstated. In a letter to Brady on his possible involvement in the incident, NFL executive president Troy Vincent wrote that his actions “clearly constitute conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the game of professional football.”

Fans must ask themselves, however, what exactly the integrity of professional football is, and whether or not they should have confidence in it. It seems that to the NFL, crimes against women require less time and more evidence than crimes involving footballs. It seems that to the men who run the league, public confidence deflates only with the abuse of footballs, not with the abuse of women. Admittedly, it’s difficult to prove the exact level of public outrage on any issue. However, when it’s difficult to prove the difference between outrage over deflated footballs and violence against women, there is a problem. When the question even has to be asked, there is a problem.

You are a woman, you are a feminist, and you are watching the league of your favorite sport care more about deflated footballs than they do about you and your fellow women. You are a fan, you want to continue to be a fan, because that is your right.

But it is time for professional football to do better, and the only way they will do better, is if we demand them to be.

Illustration by Taylor Roberts.

A&E, In The MagazineKatie Zepf