The Trouble with Football

“NFL Coach Blames Hormones for Poor Judgment.” That’s the headine I would have given this article about ill use of a fake punt during yesterday’s Seattle Seahawks-Buffalo Bills blowout. Not that you’ll read it at that link; head coach Pete Carroll’s shifting of the blame to “hormonal moments” was scrubbed from the online version.*

It’s amazing to hear men blaming their own bodies for self-sabotage, when that argument has so often been used to dismiss women as serious candidates for positions of leadership. But at the center of it is an excuse worth examining: Aggression – testosterone, if you will – is what we celebrate. As the harrowing story of a rape by Ohio football players explodes in the national media, it’s a good time to look at the culture of impunity that surrounds male athletes and to ask a possibly unpatriotic question: Why football?

“There’s a set of rules that don’t apply to everybody,” [former Steubenville Big Red player Bill Miller] said of what he called the favoritism regarding the players. “This has been happening since the early ’80s; this is nothing new. It’s disgusting. I can’t stand it. The culture is not what it should be. It’s not clean.”

Tell me about it. I was 12 years old when the O.J. Simpson case unfolded. The culture of impunity for athletes in male-only sports is nothing new. I’m in the process of writing about my own sad history of sexual assault, which I trace back to the time I was assaulted at my high school by two football players – only to be told that disciplining them was not an option. Their social status entitled them to a higher form of protection.

College, at the University of Washington, was no better. Stories about the star football players abounded; only in one incident did I personally see and successfully prevent one of them from raping a classmate as she lay passed out on their couch with ketchup all over her face.

Seattle Times investigative reporter Ken Armstrong published an entire book, Scoreboard, Baby, about how coach Rick Neuheisel allowed his star Husky football team to get away with anything, including, but not limited to, rape. Everyone was complicit, said NPR’s Bill Littlefield:

Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry demonstrate dramatically and in convincing detail the ways in which the coaching staff, the athletic department, the University administration, and various judges, prosecutors, and police officials in Seattle enabled those young men to continue playing football despite the rap sheets they were developing and the lives they were ruining and endangering. Winning football games was more important than the administration of justice.

Littlefield leaves off one major actor: us. We glory in our heroes so much that we allow them to act with impunity. The free pass extends beyond football players and coaches to revered politicians (Bill Clinton comes to mind) and adored pastors (i.e. Ted Haggard). The rules are all well and good when they are being applied to people of little perceived social value – sex workers, minorities, women in general. But they never seem to apply to men at the top of the social hierarchy.

And that hierarchy is defined by testosterone. That’s the reason why football is on television every Sunday while the far more athletic feats of our nation’s gymnasts are celebrated only every four years. That’s the reason why jobs typically held by men pay more than those held by women, regardless of their value to society (everybody needs good teachers, and even men have to get their hair cut). That’s why our military always deserves more funding, while diplomacy is disposable. Rape, I would argue, is the symptom, not the disease. And I struggle to suggest how we might cure it. Football itself is not the problem.

Two years ago, I went to see Jonathan Franzen at George Washington University, where he read a passage from his latest novel, Freedom. The main character, Patty, is raped at a party – and worse, her father convinces her not to press charges. From my seat near the aisle about twenty rows back, I let my hair down over my face, and I wept. Like many women, I have lived Patty’s story and never spoken up about it.

Because, as a friend in high school asked me, what would be the point? Her rapist would have lost his swimming scholarship, and she would never have been forgiven for causing his downfall.

It’s a man’s world, you see, and even with all these tragedies, that never seems to change.

* Here’s what’s in my actual morning paper: “Carroll acknowledged he’s sometimes prone to what he calls “hormonal moments” – when his natural aggressive urges are at odds with situations demanding a more circumspect kind of game management. He’s working on it.”

3 thoughts on “The Trouble with Football

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