Football is a game for men—as men constantly remind us.
A few seasons back, Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito took it upon himself to initiate teammate Jonathan Martin into the manly ways of the team by threatening to rape Martin’s sister, constantly calling the rookie a “pussy” and a “cunt,” attacking Martin’s masculinity as if his own depended on it. Martin, driven to near-suicidal despair by the bullying, sent his father a text: “I got punked again today. Like a little bitch,” and later quit the team.
The dudely sages of the National Football League shook their heads: “Playing football is a man’s job,” said former Dolphin player Lydon Murtha. Safety Antrel Rolle agreed, “You know, at this level, you’re a man.” In case there was any ambiguity, Rolle added, “You’re a grown-ass man.” As opposed to, you know, a girl.
While it was inspiring to see a bunch of Mizzou Tigers stand with anti-racism campaigners on their campus, even threatening to forfeit their game against Brigham Young, when it comes to gender politics, college football is no more enlightened than the pros. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was named to the College Football Playoff committee in 2013 and some in the Sports Industrial Complex promptly pitched hissy fits. Former Auburn Coach Pat Dye growled, “All she knows about football is what somebody told her. Or what she read in a book... To understand football, you got to play with your hand in the dirt.”
Never mind that Rice grew up not far from the kingdom of Bear Bryant in a state so pathologically devoted to football that an average Alabama fourth grader, male or female, can critique nickel packages and double tight-end sets like an ex-baller on ESPN. Never mind that several male members of the committee had also never played the game. Oh, but they (presumably) own an all-important Y chromosome. And a penis.
It’s enough to drive a feminist to drink: Look at those very large men out on the field beating the hell out of each other; and those very small women with pompoms on the sidelines encouraging it all. The players wear armor, helmets, and huge shoulder pads. The cheerleaders wear short skirts, eyeliner, and big bows on their heads. Women are the Ladies Auxiliary; their job is to inspire the men. At the University of Alabama, the sequin-clad Crimsonette baton twirlers undergo a rigorous selection process and body-fat measurements for the honor, as one said, of “wearing BAMA on my butt!” The game is a steaming platter of chargrilled masculinity with a side order of phallic metaphor. The running back penetrates, the tight end scores.
If a woman dares to crash the game, as kicker Katie Hnida did at the University of Colorado in 1998, she is punished. Hnida, who later made history by becoming the first woman to score in a Division I-A game, says she was raped by a teammate. Coach Gary Barnett responded to her allegations with an attack on her kicking skills: “Katie was not only a girl, she was terrible, OK?”
Yes, college football is about as woman-friendly as a frat house urinal. Yet the stadium at Florida State University is where you’ll find this feminist on autumn Saturdays, hollering “Go Seminoles!” at a bunch of 20-year-old boys who may or may not know that the polar ice caps are melting, who may or may not have ever read Virginia Woolf.
I’ve tried to quit college football. I lived in England for 10 years and figured I’d outgrow it. Surely all that soccer, rugby and cricket would knock the college football monkey off my back. It didn’t work. Nor did joining the Church of Feminist Literary Criticism. I could unpack the patriarchy six ways to Sunday, but I could also parse Bobby Bowden’s rooskie plays, down to the last dramatic misdirection.
The truth is, I love college football, and love, of course, is irrational. I can list the reasons I shouldn’t love it: the concussions and the sub-concussive hits that can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy; the way the NCAA and the big-time football universities exploit the players, making millions off their labor while penalizing them if they so much as sell an old jersey on eBay; the low graduation rates of players; the weird religiosity of the coaches; the obscene amounts of money spent on college stadiums, with skyboxes and triumphal statues of beloved coaches, while the library funding gets cut. Again.
Then there’s the misogyny. Even the language of the game reeks of it. Coaches displeased with their players address them as “ladies,” exhorting them to “man up!” A quarterback who can’t deliver the “long bomb” is told he “throws like a girl.” The only time the game gets in touch with its feminine side is when, say, you’re on your own 15, down by six with seven seconds to go in the fourth, then you throw the Hail Mary.
Typical: The men get themselves into trouble and expect a woman to bail them out.
Far worse, there’s the never-ending accusations of domestic violence and rape. Two Vanderbilt University players will be re-tried for rape in April 2016: They’ve been convicted once, but the judge threw out the verdict over jury misconduct. In early October, a UCLA punter was charged with three counts of rape. In 2013, a young woman named Erica Kinsman accused Jameis Winston, then Florida State’s Heisman-winning quarterback, now with the Tampa Bay Bucs, of raping her. We’ll never know if it was sexual assault or a consensual encounter: The local cops didn’t exactly exert themselves investigating the case. And the FSU athletic department seemed to have a lot of information it didn’t share with the authorities. No charges were ever filed, but Kinsman is suing both FSU and Winston.
You’d think this litany of atrocities would disgust me so much that I’d cut my ESPN cord, burn my season tickets, and declare myself done with college football. But no; the game is like a reprobate boyfriend: His table manners embarrass you, he never reads a book, he votes Republican, and you can’t bring him home to meet your mother. But damn, he’s so fine and makes you feel so good—when he isn’t making you feel so bad.
Maybe I’m a hypocrite. Or maybe I’m compartmentalizing. But that’s not really the story. I was brought up in a place where college football framed our educational, social, and emotional lives. New Yorkers or Chicagoans can approach the weekend blissfully unaware that Columbia or Northwestern are playing at home. But in college towns like Tuscaloosa, Oxford, Athens, Clemson, College Station, Eugene, and Tallahassee, where I was born, you can’t avoid football—even if you want to. People wear their college colors, blast the fight song from apartment windows, greet each other with “Hotty Toddy!” or “Go Gators!” or “How ‘bout them ‘Noles!”
Football allegiance is passed down in families. I knew that I was a Seminole before I knew that I was a girl. When my father died, I inherited his season tickets and entered the Looking Glass Land of Saturdays where east-bound one-way streets suddenly ran west, pillars of the Baptist Church took the Lord’s name in vain (frequently and vehemently), and at the tailgate, you were allowed to eat your cake before your fried chicken if you felt like it.
College football is a way of asserting that I belong to a particular place with a particular history and a particular family as well. My great-great-grandfather was a student at what became Florida State University in the 1860s. My father adored Seminole football; my mother, too–she’s the one who taught me to appreciate the beauty and athleticism of the game. I can criticize college football—anyone with a working brain can, and should—but I can also enjoy its strategic complexity—kind of like playing chess with 300-pound guys—the elegance with which a quarterback throws, the way that, for a fraction of a second, just before he releases the ball, he poses with the grace of a Greek statue, and the balletic leap of a receiver catching a perfect pass.
It’s why I can live with the contradiction of being a feminist and football fan. It’s not always comfortable. The game is frequently indefensible. Yet it is a part of me, of my culture, of my people. Human beings are contradictory. We don’t have to reconcile all our paradoxes. Just manage them.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go read a little Simone de Beauvoir then start worrying about next week’s game.
Diane Roberts is the author of Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America (HarperCollins). She teaches literature and creative writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee.