gridiron

by ibull

as a kid i loved football.

along with hockey and the occasional trip to Volcanoes Stadium, football was how i spend a lot of time with my dad. everyone living in the house (except my mom) had a team that they rooted for; i rooted for the Pittsburgh Steelers, brother1 worshipped the Packers, and brother2 and my dad supported the SF 49ers.   my dad always gave me a hard time about choosing the Steelers—i never fully admitted that i chose the team as a 10 year old because i liked the colors of a winning (’79) team in the Madden ’99 football videogame for N64. when the team seemed to be having a good run up to and through their superbowl wins in 2006 and 2009, you can imagine how happy it made a kid-turned-teenager that her aesthetic preferences ensured she was often rooting for the winning team. i only ever got to be a fan for the sport at home or in the stands. when i, along with a friend, tried to play football during recess in 5th grade, we were ridiculed, teased, and dismissed. i already had a hard time making friends because i was overweight, so i eventually stopped. she kept playing; she said she liked the pushing and the shoving, and didn’t care what other people thought of her. i didn’t mind the physical aspects of the sport, but i couldn’t help that the words hurt. i was 10 and the new kid. i didn’t want to be 10 and the new “lesbian” kid, whatever that was. trading Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! cards turned out to be a lot more fun and less alienating. as i got a little older and into high school, i started paying attention to the guys actually playing on the field. Hines Ward & Troy Polamalu turned out to be pretty cool dudes. Ben Roethlisberger turned out to be a rapist. 

photo credit: mr_t_77 cc

photo credit: mr_t_77 cc

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yesterday i got into a convoluted back-and-forth on Twitter over football. the conversation began as a reflective commentary on the newsworthiness of Michael Sam’s recent exposure as a gay man. it devolved into a confusing and reductive exchange on the depth and complexity of football, mass media, and the relationship between to two. i think i was misunderstood as harboring the belief that football is a “simple” site of cultural production—no i don’t think that at all.

i do believe that the coverage of football culture, and the production of stories around that cultural site, refract a relatively narrow spectrum of values, ideals, ideologies that elide histories and experiences that would otherwise disrupt the illusion that football is a mainstay in American culture, that it provides men with a liberating opportunity to express themselves physically and emotionally, that the industry elevates the lives of [black] men who would otherwise wallow in the ghetto.

when we’re finished listening to the long-form documentaries that demonstrate the great perseverance, and personal strife (maybe some philanthropy, or unreasonably bad odds) of a few choice individuals, other stories we hear about football paint players & staff describe these people as both in control of violence on the field, and victims of violence off of it—victims of the violence they commit against others.

on the field violence is condoned, encouraged, championed. injuries are acts of god, or the result of malice or other illicit games. violence can be extremely physically and emotionally abusive.

off the field, violence takes the same forms. In practices football players train with each other—the training is a practice performance for what occurs on the field. not just how a play runs, but what the play experience is like.

when this violence bleeds into the personal lives of players, we see it in the news media as *”alleged”* “rape”//”sexual assault”//”sexual misconduct”//”abuse”//”domestic abuse”//”domestic altercation”//”spousal abuse”// etc.—the list goes on, and on, and on.

*

yesterday, when i wrote

i’m thinking about the ways in which accountability and responsibility are skirted around in conversations around violence and football. no one wants to be painted as holding up the big bucket of bad stuff—the concussions, the suicides, the sexual assaults, the rapes, the murders, the pedophiles, the drug[ging] problems, the alcohol problems, the animal cruelty problems, the racism, the sexism, the homophobia…. which is completely understandable, but that doesn’t make the deflection of responsibility and accountability okay—the deflection makes it worse. deflecting responsibility and accountability away from football players, staff, and fans (who financially support this behemoth) colors the football industrial complex like a guilty pleasure. we should all aspire to not enjoy football because of the prolific, endemic problems that victimize people around the players and the players themselves. but we can’t help it. like a goddamn doughnut or something—if God intended for people not to enjoy doughnuts, he would have intervened the first time some person dropped dough in a frying pan. deflecting responsibility and accountability also minimizes the impact that football players, staff, and fans can have in remedying various solutions that try to address some of the rotten structural elements on which this cultural complex is founded. couching the circumstances that lead to bullying, criminal activities, or worse under the umbrella of “the human condition” isn’t just lazy, it’s another form of violence in and of itself. when journalists, bloggers, and others in the media point to the football industrial complex and say “It’s all a part of the game,” they become complicit in reproducing the same schema that traps and victimizes people associated with it. these writers and talking heads take away the opportunity for someone to stand up and demand that players and staff be held accountable for the beds that they keep and the beds that they mess. maybe they do this because it’s what they are told to write, but maybe it’s because developing that kind of a story would be ….well, complicated.

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