Andrew’s insightful post about the Martin/Incognito issue has prompted me to think more deeply about my personal relationship with football. About three weeks ago, I decided to “quit football.” This is a particularly challenging time to do this since Florida State University, my alma-mater, is having it’s most successful season in recent memory and quite possible might make it to the national championship game.
I haven’t entirely been able to articulate the reasons for my decision. I thought for a time it was the CTE head-injury issues plaguing the league. And while that is a big reason why I’m turning my back on the sport, it’s not the whole reason. To say I can’t live with the cognitive dissonance would flatter me too much. I’m a self-identified feminist that on a regular basis is compelled listen to Notorious B.I.G’s Ready to Die album (I’m particularly hooked on “The What” and “Unbelievable” at the moment.
In truth, I’ve been distancing myself from football for a while. And it’s not because of the Martin/Incognito issue. I’ve seen lots of condemnation about a “hyper-macho” culture in the NFL. But let’s be real, it’s not like the NFL suddenly became hyper-masculine. It has always been this way. What makes it the 800-lb gorilla of sports and culture is it’s projection of an almost unreachable masculinity. An ideal form of masculinity that we can view from a distance.
What’s more, we use it as a currency. We use it to brandish a form of masculine “street-cred” that matters a lot in some places. I grew up outside of Miami in what would be called a “lower-middle class” suburb. There was a whole lot of projection of masculinity. one way to “feel masculine” or to “be masculine” was to throw myself headlong into a love of the Miami Dolphins. That’s not the main reason I threw things across the room when Dan Marino threw a pick or Andra Franklin fumbled on the three yard line, but the fact that a love of football made me “one of the guys” didn’t hurt.
My struggle with turning my back on the sport I worshiped as a kid is likely informed by my place in life. As a middle-aged husband and father of a nine year old girl, I don’t need to tap into the idealized version of masculinity that football presents.
But low testosterone notwithstanding, I think that my decline in interest comes more from the selling of the game than the game itself. The selling of the game has increasingly mirrored they bluster and hyper-masculinity of the game itself. This wasn’t always the case. As an example, watch this CBS’ NFL pre-game show The NFL Today from September 1981.
The presentation seems remarkably muted. But this muted presentation made the game itself the spectacle. But today’s coverage of the NFL almost dwarfs the game itself. ESPN has daily, if not hourly, programming that covers Sunday’s games. The game itself seems to exist simply to provide fodder for the chatter about the game during the week. Check out any “take” by ESPN analysts Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. These guys might be outliers of feigned passion and intensity, but they are indicative of a media culture that feels it needs to be as newsworthy as the news they cover. In this way, it seems a lot like standard critiques of the news media’s coverage of American politics.
I’ll always love football. What is appealing about football is the necessity to perform demanding intellectual tasks under intense physical and emotional duress. Reading a coverage, knowing when to ‘break a route” or figuring out who to pick up on a blitz are all the equivalent of brain-teasers happening at 100 miles an hour. Although strength and speed are a must, football is a “smart person’s” game.
But the increasing wall-to-wall coverage, the emphasis on the personalities covering the game rather than the game itself and (most importantly) the increasing evidence that playing football for sustained periods of time can lead to irreversible brain injury, has made the sport feel less mythic, less like an idealized notion of masculinity and more a stylized, exploitative version of its former self. It feels more like a simulacra of masculinity rather than an earnest production of it.
For me, there’s a legitimate societal role for the brand of “toughness” the NFL markets. To often it gets dismissed as a retrograde and archaic view of the world. The problem is not the toughness itself, is the cultural primacy of the toughness and its attachment to specific genders and sexes. As Andrew rightly points out, Brandon Marshall is making an important sociological point about how we talk to boys and girls. We should want them to both cry and “shake it off,” not either/or. But for me, any lesson the NFL could teach boys and girls about toughness is getting muddled by a lack of concern for player safety and an off-putting presentation of the product.