Football: Nothing Left to Cheer For

How can fans respond to the rash of brutality on and off the field?

Susan J. Douglas

The brutality of high school football is carrying over off the field. (J. Todd Poling/Flickr)

I grew up in South Riv­er, New Jer­sey, the next town over from Sayre­ville, the site of the lat­est foot­ball rape scan­dal. We were a foot­ball pow­er­house, and Sayre­ville was one of our keen­est rivals. And I was a cheer­leader. I still remem­ber those crys­talline autumn Sat­ur­days and such inno­cent excite­ment about the games. I got to cheer for Joey (as we called him then) The­is­mann, lat­er a Heis­man Tro­phy con­tender and Super Bowl-win­ning quar­ter­back in the NFL, and Drew Pear­son, Joey’s suc­ces­sor as quar­ter- back, who became one of the NFL’s great­est wide receivers. Watch­ing Joey throw a per­fect pass, and the lanky, grace­ful Drew catch it, was to wit­ness pure bal­let­ic athleticism.

Football culture has taught those dominant in the game that they are gods, above the law.

Then off I went to col­lege, where I became a fem­i­nist and came to see foot­ball as — par­don the cliché — sim­u­lat­ed war­fare. I still watched it once in a while, espe­cial­ly when Drew or Joey was play­ing, but I was no longer invest­ed. Then I moved to Michi­gan, where foot­ball is a reli­gion, and got sucked back in. So you might say I have a com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship with the sport.

Those of us with mixed feel­ings have been pushed toward
aver­sion, as scan­dal after scan­dal
breaks. Over the past few years, vio­lence and rape cul­ture have
been exposed at all lev­els of the sport — in the NFL, of course, but also col­lege, and even high school.

The for­mer South Riv­er play­ers I’ve spo­ken to are as hor­ri­fied as I am by the recent accounts that sev­en Sayre­ville play­ers, between the ages of 15 and 17, alleged­ly hazed” younger play­ers by kick­ing and abus­ing them, and at least one by sex­u­al­ly assault­ing him anal­ly, a prac­tice known as ass tak­ing.” They have been charged with var­i­ous counts of aggra­vat­ed crim­i­nal sex­u­al assault, and the team’s entire sea­son has been can­celled. In 2008, in one of the more noto­ri­ous cas­es, six high school stu­dents in New Mex­i­co report­ed­ly sodom­ized younger play­ers with a broom­stick. And let’s not for­get the revolt­ing Steubenville, Ohio, case, in which two play­ers were con­vict­ed of rap­ing a young girl, which their friends doc­u­ment­ed (along with their own joc­u­lar atti­tude toward the inci­dent) and cir­cu­lat­ed via social media. One of them is back on the field.

The num­ber of col­lege foot­ball play­ers accused or con­vict­ed of sex­u­al assault is also a nation­al dis­grace. When Flori­da State quar­ter­back Jameis Win­ston was accused of sex­u­al assault in the fall of 2012, his uni­ver­si­ty inter­fered with the inves­ti­ga­tion into the case; a year lat­er, he won the Heis­man Tro­phy. At my own school, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, our start­ing kick­er was per­ma­nent­ly sep­a­rat­ed from the uni­ver­si­ty” as the result of an alleged sex­u­al assault, but not until four years lat­er, and after he fin­ished that year’s season.

Foot­ball is a mul­ti-bil­lion dol­lar indus­try, and as a form of enter­tain­ment, com­mu­ni­ty iden­ti­ty, cul­tur­al rit­u­al and bond­ing, it is woven into the weft and warp of Amer­i­can back talk soci­ety. But despite moments of grace and ath­leti­cism, it relies 
on men vio­lent­ly assault­ing oth­er men on the field. It’s hard­ly sur­pris­ing when this car­ries over into off-the-field behav­iors. In Sep­tem­ber 2012, play­ers on a los­ing high school team in Flori­da rushed the bleach­ers after a game to con­front heck­lers; one year lat­er, at a high school game in Indi­ana, a brawl broke out on the field involv­ing play­ers, coach­es and even fans. After one such brawl, a Kansas City Star colum­nist wrote sim­ply, Vio­lence is a big part of KC high school football.”

For far too many play­ers, their fans, their girl­friends and wives, this cul­ture has become tox­ic, even sadis­tic. It fuels vio­lence against women and against boys deemed weak. Foot­ball cul­ture has taught those dom­i­nant in the game that they are gods, above the law. Why, if they are lion­ized for knock­ing 200-pound-plus guys to the ground, is it a prob­lem if some­thing com­pa­ra­ble hap­pens off-cam­era to some­one small­er and less important?

Despite football’s grip on much of Amer­i­ca, is this a cul­ture par­ents will con­tin­ue to want their sons to imbibe? And if some begin to keep their sons away, will it sim­ply fur­ther trans­form this game into one played by a glad­i­a­to­r­i­al class with few edu­ca­tion­al and career options, whose job is to run fast and throw beau­ti­ful­ly, yes, but also to hit, smack down and dom­i­nate oth­er men, while doing per­ma­nent dam­age to them­selves for a living?

Susan J. Dou­glas is a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and a senior edi­tor at In These Times. Her forth­com­ing book is In Our Prime: How Old­er Women Are Rein­vent­ing the Road Ahead..
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