By Jenny Jocks Stelzer, English Faculty.
I know that I’m most likely overthinking, overreacting, and overstating this, but I find myself constantly on the defensive over my love of football, probably due to the unrelenting pace of my Facebook posts with tiny hearts and hashtags like #lovethenfl #lovecollegefootball, #adrianpetersonissohot, etc., etc., etc.
I’m a woman. I’m a feminist. I’m an annoyingly self-righteous progressive. So, in light of the social, ethical, and safety concerns brought about by the sport, I’m supposed to be a hater. My love of football is oxymoronic. It befuddles some. It irritates others. It appalls a few. So, I love it.
Like any form of entertainment, art, or sport, football creates a cultural and social space. It’s an integral space where men can be “men” in ways that are stereotypical and sometimes repellant, to be sure, but also kind of awesome. Our society expects men to maintain the precarious balance of command and cooperation, strength and tenderness, primal physicality and intelligence. All of this happens on the football field. The players we talk about most are aggressive, unrelenting, self-aggrandizing, and Superman-tough, and I usually love those guys, so I catch a lot of shit for it. I’m supposed to oppose this kind of hyper-masculinity, because it upsets the social expectations of my feminist-liberal position. Certainly, I’m not supposed to enjoy the muscles and the trash-talk and the brutality. So, I love it.
Not only is it unrealistic to expect men to maintain the difficult primal/social balance of appetite and acceptable behavior, it is simply NO FUN if we demand that they adhere to such a strict social protocol at all times. Football creates a space wherein men can growl, pound their chests, and smash into each other with primal aggression, and I get to watch. Now, THAT is fun. They get to channel animal urges toward a common goal and I get to enjoy, unapologetically, watching men with superior physical strength and mental acumen crash their big, strong bodies into one another and out-think their opponents. Then, they do awesomely cute little dances, flex their muscles for the camera, and slap each other’s asses adorably. So (of course), I love it.
Now, I realize that this celebration of hyper-masculinity is not securely contained within the cultural space of football. I know the serious social and interpersonal problems that present when a man is encouraged to be aggressive and self-important, when physical violence is the go-to solution to a problem, when putting one’s health and future at risk is expected toward the aim of winning a superficial game for money and fame and to enrich a few a-hole owners and a grossly flawed system. These are problems, and I know I should be repulsed, but it makes football dangerous. So, I love it.
I know, football promotes many of the negative aspects of stereotypical masculinity, and it subsequently facilitates serious social problems like domestic violence, economic inequities, and mental illness when those aspects creep from the cultural space of the football field into the social space of the actual world. I get that, and it disturbs me. I don’t mean to embrace or forgive any of these social problems, but football is complex enough, and compelling enough, and fun enough, that these dangers create, for me, a conflicted set of feelings. I’m supposed to hate it. So, I love it.
For these dangers, and the sex-appeal of athletic bodies in strenuous battle, come with another level of complexity. All of these “negative” aspects of masculinity bring with them impressive and undeniable displays of camaraderie, cooperation, intellect, and, yes, tenderness. When eleven men are on the field together, on offense or defense, they must operate with absolute connectedness to meet their goal and to protect themselves and their teammates from serious harm. Teamwork is real, and it works: WE win when we work together and protect each other. That connection, and the insanely hard work that teammates do together, makes football a space of intimacy and brotherhood, and THAT is beautiful. Intimacy and cooperation is subtly discouraged among men in our culture, which expects a certain level of rogue individuality to achieve an unrealistic masculine ideal: I win; you lose. Cooperation toward a common goal in football demands a level of intelligence and intellect that is often overlooked in discussions of athletics. Football players are rarely given props for their intellect, but, in order to reach their common goal, these men have to study, collaborate, and think critically about their own, their teammates’, and their opponents’ strengths, weaknesses, and strategies. Teamwork, hard work, and smarts: now, THAT is sexy. I love it. And you should love it, too.