I have never been what you would call a “sports fan.” When I got my current job and told people I would be moving to Pittsburgh I was told that the only thing I needed to know about the city was that is has three seasons: football season, hockey season, and baseball season. I quickly learned the truth of this statement. I walked into one of my first sessions of a night class to discover that the majority of the students were wearing Steelers shirts. At first I thought I was in the wrong place. Surely this was some type of football club, not a counseling psychology graduate course. The students quickly reassured me that I was in the right place—there was just a big game that evening. In the five years I have lived in Pittsburgh, I have really come to appreciate the love of sports here. For many people, supporting the city’s teams is a way of supporting the city itself—people take pride in a place that has struggled economically and worked its way back to (mostly) secure financial footing. I have come to love this city and call it home, and I enjoying seeing such enthusiasm for the place.
So while I have yet to fully embrace any of these sports, I have learned to better appreciate others’ love of the game(s). Unfortunately, the events that have unfolded around the NFL over the past few weeks have reminded me of some of my concerns related to professional sports.
Two high profile domestic violence cases have spurned on lots of debates about how the NFL handles players who commit such crimes. Ray Rice (formerly of the Baltimore Ravens) had his contract terminated after a video was made public in which he punched in girlfriend until she was unconscious. Adrian Peterson (of the Minnesota Vikings) has been suspended from play pending an investigation regarding whether his discipline of his son constitutes child abuse.
Sadly, these two cases are not isolated. Although they have perhaps received greater levels of publicity than other incidents (possibly because of the release of the video of Rice), NFL players have been involved in numerous other domestic violence cases, as well as cases of sexual assault. And it is not just the NFL. One need only reflect for a moment to bring to mind numerous occurrences of athletes engaged in violence against women, girls, and children. Think: Steubenville, Ohio; Penn State; the Duke Lacrosse team. I could go on, but I won’t. This list is depressing enough.
Now before I hear a bunch of cries of “not all men!” or “not all athletes” let me say I am well aware that not all men nor all athletes engage in violence. In fact, most research suggests that a small percentage of men commit a large percentage of the violence against girls and women. The point here is not that all (or even most) male athletes are committing violence, but it is about examining the culture around sports that may lead to the perpetuation and dismissing of violence.
Critiques about the ways in which football (and other sports) promote messages of hypermasculinity in which violence is not only tolerated but celebrated, are not new. Scholars like Jackson Katz (a former football player himself) have been speaking out for decades about ways in which sports may perpetuate cultures of violence and the need to reexamine messages about masculinity. While some amazing work has been done on this front, clearly we need to do more.
We also can do a better job as a society of not tolerating and condoning violence through inaction and silence. Much of the public outcry surrounding the recent cases in the NFL has been less about the specific individuals involved in the allegations, and more about the ways in which coaches, owners, and the NFL commissioner respond to these events. Although the NFL seems to be responding to pressure from the public and advertisers to take domestic violence seriously, in the past the policies have often amounted to a “slap on the wrist.” It is unclear whether these dismissive approaches were the result of a genuine belief that domestic violence is not a big deal, whether they stemmed from a perception that “boys will be boys,” or if the inaction is linked to men’s own fears about the repercussions of challenging the code of masculinity. Regardless, they allow violence to continue instead of creating structures which demand change and support individuals in getting help to do so.
We all can play a role in shifting cultural norms about masculinity, whether it is by putting pressure on a system like the NFL to approach things differently or changing our own interactions with the boys and men in our lives.
The use of violence to prove oneself is a dangerous aspect of traditional masculinity. But the tacit support that results from the code of silence is perhaps more deadly.
Come on, men. It is time to speak up.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.