I could feel it the moment I walked into the stadium. Big money, high stakes, and testosterone. The choreography of the day rivaled that of the best Broadway musical. From start to finish each second of the NFL game was meticulously planned from blaring rock music, neon lights circling the massive stadium, flashing beer and car ads, bouncy cheerleader routines (do scantily clad young women still prance around like that?), to fighter jets flying in formation, and the 75-yard long American flag.
Suddenly the players ran onto the field as the music rocked. A giant black inflatable Carolina panther spewed forth fire and smoke as the team literally ran through it, while cheerleaders gyrated in sync. Then the star players ran through one at a time like gladiators into the arena, filled with power, ready to annihilate the enemy.
Sheer power, male power, spewed forth as cheerleaders danced in unison with their pom poms and white go-go boots moving up and down in a mesmerizing unity and I found myself shocked. I had only attended one professional football game in my life and it was 25 years ago. Had I changed or had the sport changed? Clearly it was me. Nothing new here, except perhaps the sheer size and scope of it.
Next came the national anthem, beautifully belted out by a young cherubic looking boy. A dozen New Orleans Saints players sat or knelt during the anthem. One Panthers player remained in the locker room. But in the midst of the overwhelming sights and sounds, I missed their silent protest even though I was looking for it. And the massive celebration continued.
I let out a deep sigh. No wonder, I thought. The bubble effect, I thought. So many of us (women in particular) choose not to focus on what excites, moves, and stimulates many in the rest of our country. Opera and ballet are hardly great American past-times. Nor is theater. Nor are tennis or golf. Nor are basketball and hockey. No, far and away the king of American sports is professional football. And professional football is sheer, raw male power with ever present scantily clad cheerleaders, the epitome of sexism.
And it was equal opportunity sexism with women of every race, ethnicity and hair color included. Someone for everyone to ogle, to covet, to make them believe for just a moment that all women are between the ages of 26 and 33 with the figure of shapely models.
The coin is tossed and the game begins with a soaring kick into the end zone. Within 3 minutes, the Panthers star wide receiver is injured and taken out for the remainder of the game. My mind begins to wander to the many players who years later suffer brain damage due to the heavy, relentless hitting of the sport. Gladiators in the arena risking permanent, irreversible brain damage. For what? Stardom? Glory? Money?
My eyes return to the cheerleaders and I am taken back to my college days. One of my classmates was a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader in the Tom Landry glory days of the team. She, too, was tall and thin with long flowing hair. Beautiful, shapely, the envy of all. Ten years later she stepped in front of a moving train. What is the long-term effect on these young women of being objectified week after week, year after year with a smile plastered on their face, until they’re forced into retirement at the ripe old age of 33?
What is the long-term effect on the players? Concussions and other repetitive play-related head blows have been shown to be the cause of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) which has led to player suicides, memory loss, dementia, depression, anxiety and more (Meehan, Concussions, 2016). Seventy percent of America’s football players are youth, with 23,000 youth athletes suffering non-fatal traumatic brain injuries every year.
What is the long-term effect on the crowds viewing these games? A mindset is born. A mindset is perpetuated through the ages – one that is male dominated applauding aggression, violence, and sexism which spills over into many facets of American life, including politics.
And what of the millions of people watching the games at home? While many delight in an enjoyable Sunday afternoon with family gathered around, others are not so lucky. The Quarterly Journal of Economics reports that calls to police reporting men’s assault on their wives or intimate partners rose 10% in areas where the local NFL team was expected to win but lost, with assaults occurring during the final hour of the game or up to 2 hours afterward (Robert Wicks, “Crime and Football”, UCSD News, March 2011).
“Professional football, like no other American game, clearly represents America – the good, bad, loud, violent, ugly and beautiful” (The Wall Street Journal, 2014). The problem for us as spectators arises when we become inured to what we are seeing and accept it as normal, letting it eke out of the stadium and into our value system, our expectations, our very lives.
Naming the many layers of the complex game of professional football, calling it out for what it is, has the power to save us all – players, cheerleaders, and spectators alike.
If not now, when? If not you, who?