“Football is more than a game, and it’s more than a revenue generator—it’s a powerful agent of socialization.”
~Douglas E. Foley, The Great American Football Ritual
As another fall season comes around, I find myself eagerly anticipating getting my young daughter ready for “back to school” (I love school), decorating the house with candles and cozy blankets, enjoying harvest soups and watching the leaves turn. Fall is my favorite season of the year.
But there is one thing I hate about the fall. Football.
Writing this is scary.
I have avoided writing this blog despite encouragement from colleagues out of fear. I am afraid of the backlash that may come from friends and clients alike. I have written about a lot of controversial or bold topics, but none caused me such concern. It’s not just unpopular to say you don’t like the football culture – it can be career and social suicide in many circles. Many people I love really love football. The pressure to love football is great. So great, it makes me wonder if some “fans” are really just following the masses in the only path available.
I used to like football.
When I was in fourth grade I was bullied by a very mean girl named Corey. She turned all the girls in my class against me and I had no one to play with at recess. It was a tiny school in a small town, and we only had the one fourth grade class, so there were no options of transferring. I came home and cried every day. My mom had no idea what to do. But, I was saved by a great game – football. My teacher, Mr. Ivers, took note of my plight and his solution was to start leading games of “tag” football in the big field by the school at recess. These games were open to everyone – boys and girls alike – anyone could play. So I did. And I was good. I was the best girl and better than most of the boys. I loved it. It was so fun – and more than that, it made me feel strong, confident, and bold. It turned around my whole fourth grade experience.
I also remember when I turned 13 I was finally allowed to watch the movie Wildcats. It was playing at a social gathering I attended with my parents, and while normally they would not have agreed to a movie with such adult content, they bent to peer pressure and I got my big chance. I still remember watching Goldie Hawn show all those boys who was boss! But that’s just a movie. Something like that could never happen in real life. Not in football.
As we grow older we girls quickly learn that this game is not for us.
Now, sure, other sports and activities can also promote sexist attitudes, but none on the scale of American football. As I researched for this blog, one of the first papers I came across was a business coaching piece on “Why women should study football to be successful in business.” It should have been titled “Why women should study football so they can relate to the vast number of men who make decisions in business based on football loyalties and other nonsense.”
I’m not a little girl anymore, I’m a mother. And I have become much more aware of the messages my young daughter takes in. With football’s incredible (and growing) power and reach in our country, it’s time we take a closer look at a sports culture that has become so much more than a mere game.
Lessons from Penn State
In his book review this month, Steve Weinberg notes that the recent Penn State crisis has provided ample ammunition to “previously marginalized critics of big-time football”, yet it brings no joy given the tragic circumstances of numerous adolescent victims. (You can read more of Weinberg’s analysis here) There are critical lessons to learn from Penn State’s story – one of the most important is to understand the root value structures in place that allowed this horrendous behavior to go unchecked – cultural norms that run much deeper than “bad policies” or a lack of formal reporting. Much the same as the Catholic church and the Boy Scouts are struggling with foundational latent values that encouraged “looking the other way” in face of a formidable combination of power, authority, and loyalty, football must address the underlying forces at work in a culture that draws young men in large numbers, ready to prove themselves at any cost. We would be naïve to believe that Penn State is the only program in which such abuse has occurred.
For decades leaders have questioned whether football helps or hinders academic programs in the university system. Weinberg writes, “When the decision makers at Pennsylvania State University decided to tear down the seven-foot statue of legendary football coach Joe Paterno, I expressed my disgust – originally stated at the creation – that such a statue ever existed. If anybody deserves a statue on a university campus, that person would be an outstanding professor or an outstanding student.” The Penn State football program was one of the best in country for promoting the importance of academic performance for its players. But even so, the popularity of the coach and the team cast a large shadow over the entire university. No other sport or academic program could possibly compete. No football coach should make more than a university president, and no college coach should make more than $500,000 a year. Have we lost our minds?
The lessons we can learn from the Penn State story offer hope for the future. Weinberg ends his review on an optimistic note, “Thirty years ago, I began reporting and writing about a terrible mess within the American criminal justice system. As I and other journalists began to document wrongful convictions, almost nobody believed the evidence. Then DNA testing arrived, and public opinion changed. Eventually, the criminal justice system in state after state, county after county, adopted significant reforms. Maybe Penn State will become the symbol of big-time football reform.”
A Culture of Violence, Sexism, and Inequality
In his paper, The Great American Football Ritual: Reproducing Race, Class and Gender Inequality, University of Texas Professor of Anthropology Douglas E. Foley documents how rituals that commonly surround American football sustain a culture of violence, sexism and inequality.
Dr. Foley studied the rituals and habits associated with football in a high school in North Town, Texas. Football is more than just a game in North Town – it’s a big part of the community’s social life. Even the local chamber of commerce is a vocal supporter of the high school team. Football rituals in North Town resemble those in many communities across the country. Students throughout the high school as well as many adults and local businessmen invest time and money in the events associated with the team.
THE MARCHING BAND. According to the football players, “real men” don’t join the band in North Town. The physically weaker, more effeminate young men who could not play football might choose the band. Boys in the band are called “band fags.” The main masculinity test for band fags is to punch their biceps as hard as possible. If the victim returns this aggression with a defiant smile or smirk, he is a real man; if he winces or whines, he’s a fag. “These were moments when physically dominant males picked on the weak to reaffirm their place in the male pecking order.”
CHEERLEADERS. Cheerleaders are acknowledged as some of the prettiest girls in school. Football players who date a cheerleader are sure to see an increase in popularity and be envied by other boys in school who view cheerleaders as unattainable. But when the players discuss cheerleaders with one another, they often refer to the young women as “stuck-up” or “sluts”. “The male players saw the cheerleaders as objects to possess for dominance and status, and conversations about cheerleaders were rhetorical performances that bonded males together and established their rank in the patriarchal order.”
THE PEP RALLY. Before big games like Homecoming, it is tradition to have a bon fire in the parking lot. Students and even some adults attend the event, which is often staged through breaking a few property laws – as team members “borrow” wood, crates and other flammable objects from local stores and houses to feed the fire. “The adults expressed no elaborate rationale for having the bonfires, which they considered nice, hot, and a good way to fire up the team.”
POWDER-PUFF FOOTBALL GAME. In this ritual, the football players dress as cheerleaders and act in silly and outrageous ways,” prancing about in high heels, wearing lipstick and padded breasts” and generally act sexually provocative. Everything, including the cheers they lead is done in a playful, exaggerated and burlesque manner. Senior and Junior girls don football jerseys and helmets and play their part in the game as seriously as possible under the watchful eyes of the boys. When asked why they had powder-puff football games one male student replied, “I don’t know, I guess it gives guys a chance to have a little fun with the girls… The guys get to let off a little steam, tease their girlfriends a little, maybe show them who’s the boss.” In contrast, the girls said things like, “It gives us a chance to show the guys that we can compete too. We aren’t just sissies. We can take a hit too…” and “We can show them football isn’t just for guys… Girls are athletic too.” Sadly, this is not the message the players take away from this ritual. While the players view this “role inversion” as an opportunity to parody females, the females took few liberties with their expression of the male role. They tried to play a serious game of football to earnestly prove that they are equal. “This lack of playfulness is a poignant testimony to their subordinate status [in the community culture].”
THE SPECTATORS: MALE SOCIALIZATION THROUGH EX PLAYERS. Another major aspect of the football ritual is how the adult men in the community socialize each new generation of players. Primarily middle-aged white males with businesses and families can be found in local restaurants and coffee shops praising “the boys” in an almost fatherly way. They invite them into conversations about business, politics and sports. “The men regaled the players with stories of male conquests in sports, romance, and business… Players might ridicule the “old-timers” in private, but the proper response from a good kid was tongue-biting deference.”
PAIN & SACRIFICE. Boys today are willing to endure considerable physical pain, injuries and sacrifice to play on the football team – they understand this is their ticket to social prominence in the community. As one player put it, “Football is a way to become somebody in this town.” Players are encouraged by coaches to “lay a lick on” or “knock somebody’s can off” – to be a “hitter” or even better, a “head-hunter” who knocks out or injures students on other teams. Players strived to inflict enough pain on the “enemy” that their coaches might reward them with names like “animal, stud, bull, horse or gorilla.” Pain is a badge of honor, and “playing hurt” is a sign of true bravery. Boys who are not physically capable of inflicting serious pain and enduring serious pain could play other sports with less physical contact such as basketball, tennis, track or baseball. Football is only for those who are “physically capable of being gridiron warriors.”
DRUGS, SEX & VIOLENCE. While the boys are told by coaches not to engage in drinking, drugs, or excessive sexual activity while in “training”, it is a widely ignored mandate. Several players regularly engage in drinking, smoking pot, and late night parties with young women. When two players were suspended for drinking in school, their fathers quickly employed the long standing argument of “boys will be boys”. Most of the men in the community will give the boys lectures about staying in shape, but are also among the “first to chuckle at old stories of playing with a hangover.” In a town that makes celebrities out of players, it is accepted that a little “drinking and screwing around” will be overlooked. “A real man could be in shape because of his extraordinary will to overcome allegedly debilitating vices. A real man could have it all and become complete through drugs, sex, violence, and glory.” And so “ordinary” kids gather around the bon fire to share beer and pot with their “warriors who had beaten the enemy.”
Another Fall, Another Season…
This week I was on a flight from Portland to Houston for business and sat next to a lovely elderly woman traveling home to Texas. The moment I sat down she started talking to me about football – how exciting it was to have the season starting again this fall, and how her boys both played college ball and now she is going to watch her two grandsons play at their high schools. “It’s a lot of travel, but you have to support them,” she told me. While she chattered away I couldn’t help but notice that every individual seat TV screen in first class was tuned to a football game. She talked about how another grandson was going to play his last year of eligibility at Alabama, but he didn’t need any more classes to graduate and since he was getting married this winter he decided after training that he should probably get a real job. She was very proud that he will have two professional football players as groomsmen – “they stick together, you know!” Now he is looking for a job in finance and swimming a lot to try and lose all the extra weight that they made him gain for football. I said it was nice he is getting married and I am sure he will find a job soon and she replied, “Well, he never had much fun in college, so he is looking forward to beginning his life. You know, it was all just so much pressure.” Four hours later, just as we were landing she mentioned that she also has a daughter, who owns her own lucrative business in antiques and is in Paris buying more stock for the new stores she is opening for expansion. I wouldn’t have minded hearing more about her – now that sounds exciting!
Evolutionary Change for the Great American Pastime
I’m not an expert in football. I’m just someone who was once a little girl who loved playing the game.
It doesn’t feel like a game anymore. It feels oppressive, suffocating, and out of control. I have a friend serving in the military who calls football “the opiate of the masses”. It’s like it’s making us dumber.
I don’t claim to know exactly how to fix football, but I do know that it can be better. Coaches across the country are engaged in vigorous debates about how to solve the many problems they see with the rampant abuse in recruiting practices, glorification of student players and coaches alike, and the common practice of turning a blind eye to player indiscretions, illegal acts and academic failures. And they know a lot more about it than I do. I sure hope they are successful.
The NCAA continues to pursue new ways to hold programs more accountable for failures in collegiate football, but it seems they are fighting an uphill battle against a broken but very wealthy and powerful system. It seems akin to trying to fix the U.S. Congress.
But here is something you don’t need to be a football expert to know: Penn State will rise again. That’s a fact we can count on. The real question now, is how will they do it? The great opportunity is to completely transform the program. Yes, the statue has come down. But, that’s not the end – it’s the beginning. It’s time to completely reinvent the game and become the model for athletic programs of all kinds in the 21st century. This transformation, if done in earnest, will take decades of time, and entire career cycles of coaches, educators, administrators, and Board members. But it can happen. There are people in the sport of football who are optimistic, undaunted by the challenge, ready to throw everything out and start new…these are Evolutionary leaders doing what they do best.
Winning seasons should only happen as a result of a steady practice of doing the right thing, by everyone, all the time. It’s time to demonstrate what we have learned from Penn State. Transforming the game of football in high profile universities like Penn State offers Evolutionary leaders in the game the opportunity to elevate football to a national pastime we can be proud of – not only as a great game, but as a lasting source of American patriotism.
Evolutionary leaders who love the game are the ones who are elevating the values of athletics and academics. I know you are out there. Evolutionary leaders will be the ones developing a more modern, sustainable, safer, and frankly civilized vision of the game. Look around and you will see them. Listen to them.