Why sports isn’t about ‘respecting’ you

Last week I wrote for The Cauldron, a new sports vertical on the Medium platform, about Hope Solo, gender and domestic violence and the excuse-making that has surrounded the discussion of a female athlete being charged with physical aggression. Here’s what I wrote about the counterreaction that is as disappointing as it was predictable:

“The real burr under the saddle for those who indulge in tales of endless male perfidy against women is that the media’s NFL-bashing has been disrupted, at least temporarily. The Solo case, and any consideration of it, dashes the media’s shame game against the male sports culture. So the narrative has to be reset, with all the requisite buzzwords and phrases.”

At the time I didn’t expand much on that link. It comes from Grantland writer Louisa Thomas, who was lauded far and wide in the sports media for that piece, “Together We Make Football.”

While she reminds readers of the ugly recent history of alleged domestic violence involving NFL figures, Thomas goes down the tragic rabbit hole of assessing that “what’s really wrong with football” isn’t Roger Goodell and the rash of charges against players involving women and children.

No, it’s that dastardly “culture” of football, with its inherent violence and “pseudo-military tactics” exemplified by — wait for it — “the biggest and strongest exponent of American masculinity” on display every Sunday on the professional gridiron. Here we go again.

Thomas, an otherwise intelligent and talented writer, goes so sadly astray in ways that are gaining dubious traction in the sports media. She places herself in the love-hate, push-pull conflict of so many football fans:

“I have come to love a good road-grading offensive line. I see it and I respond to football instinctively. I feel it. It taps into some dark and thrilling part of me, the sight of those magnificent athletes trying to make contact or elude it. I wish I could say that feeling is harmless, that it allows for a release of my most dangerous instincts without putting me in contact with actual danger, that it allows me to desire dominance without turning me into some kind of would-be dictator. Watching football connects me to friends and to strangers. It helps me lose myself in something bigger, something almost transcendent. It reminds me of my father, and of afternoons spent outside in the backyard learning to throw a spiral. The acrobatics of the best make me catch my breath in awe. It is just so much fun to watch.

“I wish I could say that it is a substitute for violence, that it releases and diffuses that domineering, competitive instinct latent in human nature, and leaves us with some measure of self-respect — some awareness of courage and strength. But I think I’m lying to myself. Because when I’m honest, I can see that within the culture of football, as a woman, I’m not respected. The women I see are cheerleaders, sideline reporters, WAGs. I hear men talk, and I know that when they use the word ‘girl,’ it’s shorthand for something weak.”

What’s really weak here is Thomas succumbing to the soppy egalitarianism of far too much contemporary American media on social and cultural issues, including the way they relate to sports:

“I can see that within the culture of football, as a woman, I’m not respected.”

Oh, please. This isn’t about you, Louisa, or about respecting you. But this rhetorical attempt to presume that all women ought to feel this way because they’re women is deeply offensive. The problems with the NFL and domestic violence are behavorial among a handful of individuals, rather than cultural, as is the case in every segment of society.

Yet Thomas, while acknowledging this truth in passing, goes right back to culture-blaming by dredging up the Javon Belcher case and lambasting the league and its supposed hostility to women and children. “If it’s a family,” she concludes, “then it’s a fucked-up family.”

I realized a long time ago there were things about the world of football I would never understand because, as a woman, I never played the sport. But I’ve never felt “disrespected” by the “culture of football,” even as I was covering the sport as a journalist and knew I was stepping into somewhat unwelcome terrain.

Frankly, it’s not something I worry about, because the “culture of football” doesn’t directly affect my life, and those who clumsily try to personalize the current crisis come across as just a little more than self-absorbed.

Some hold up Thomas’ work, and that of others on the current NFL crisis, as examples of why we’re in the “Golden Age of Sportswriting.” But Thomas doesn’t do any original reporting, and her thesis is hardly new. The feminist grievance against football is as old as feminism itself, and was renewed with scurrilous effect 20 years ago in the name of elevating women’s sports. At the very least, Thomas ought to be flagged for piling on.

While I believe there is some sensational work being done across the sports media, the current diatribes against football have more to do with cultural pontificating and a general queasiness about the sport. If I wanted to borrow the reasoning of these individuals, I could blame the “culture” of the generally liberal media for this proliferation of nonsense, just like conservative polemicists do.

But that’s no more accurate than chalking up the problems of the NFL to its supposed “culture’s projection of masculinity.” Dissecting this media propensity is worth another post for another place.

Website Pin Facebook Twitter Myspace Friendfeed Technorati del.icio.us Digg Google StumbleUpon Premium Responsive