Today marks America’s secular Christmas: Superbowl Sunday. In honor of the occasion I will be making 7-layer dip and insanely hot chili. I have not yet decided whom to root for, although I tend to gravitate to the NFC, as both my hometown team and my adopted hometown team are in the NFC East. Now, all this week I’ve been getting invitations to “football widow” parties and “alternative Superbowl” shindigs, held by girlfriends who could care less about halftime spectaculars and total rushing yards. These invites have led me to out myself as a football fan and my coming-out has been a bit rocky, with a lot of “You? Really?” and “I didn’t think you’d like something so…macho” and my favorite: “Holy shit, did you grow a dick?” Ladies, the answer is yes, yes, and I sure hope not, because I have a date after the game.
Why do I love football, you ask? Well, I blame the patriarchy, specifically my own personal household patriarchy. Allow me to explain….
My love of football can be traced directly back to my love of my stepdad, who raised me from the time I was 7 years old. Tall, strong and as blondely All-American as Terry Bradshaw crossed with Robert Redford, he led his high school team to a state championship and was recruited for a college IA team by the legendary coach Lou Holtz. But if you think I grew up in a macho, dick-centric home, think again. Despite his sizeable build and devotion to smashmouth plays, Dad is that rarest of creatures: the gentleman athlete, unfailingly polite, gentle and thoughtful. And although he would never describe himself thusly, he is a bonafide feminist. There was nothing my sisters and I could not do, no pursuit he did not encourage. If I was a little aggressive on the playground or quick with a sharp remark, he was just fine with that (unlike my natural father, who has never been comfortable with my harpy-ness).
I knew, though, that Dad would never sit in the bleachers and cheer me on. That rankled. It appears I am not the only one to feel that way; in her memoir, Fifth Quarter, Jennifer Allen, daughter of revered NFL coach George Allen (and sister of former Virginia governor George “Macaca” Allen), fantasizes about throwing off her girly-ness in favor of the game that dominated every aspect of her family’s life: “I envisioned my frilly ballet tutu transforming into sleek football pants, my tight leotard into a loose jersey, my satin slippers into stiff cleated shoes. My long brown hair streamed down my back of my helmet as I ran onto my field of dreams and I thought I could hear the announcer scream, “The former Miss America, now the first pro-football girl in the NFL. Jennifer! Jennifer! Jennifer!” Sigh. Yeah. Me too.
The more I learned about football, the clearer it became that the gridiron is the last bastion of complete male dominance in sports. It is the clubhouse with the “no girls allowed” sign slapped on the door. Even Title IX—that great leveler of the playing field—has failed to open the door to women who want to play. There are no high school or college football teams for women as there are for soccer, basketball, tennis, lacrosse, etc., although that has not stopped the bitching and moaning that Title IX forces them to cut other sports for men in order to sponsor their football programs. The very few girls who play on boy’s in high school almost always have to play in low-contact positions like placekicker. If those very few girls make it to NCAA-level football, the misogyny is so pervasive and toxic that the few trailblazers who have played for college teams have quit or changed schools in disgust. Colorado placekicker Katie Hnida’s experience–which included near-constant sexual harassment as well as rape by a teammate–led to a massive civil and criminal investigation of the University of Colorado’s football program in 2004. At the time, bestselling sportswriter Rick Reilly blasted Colorado and the NCAA in a Sports Illustrated editorial, saying: “You show me a coach who maintains he’s unaware of recruiting parties featuring paid strippers, of four alleged rapes, of sexual harassment claims by one of his players against other players, and I’ll show you a coach who is hell-bent on not knowing.” I had breakfast with Katie Hnida several years ago when she published a book about her experience at Colorado, and our conversation pretty much killed my appetite for both my scrambled eggs and for college football. (She was, by the way, a poised, articulate, and gracious woman with far more strength of character than the entire UC team and coaching staff put together).
So do I have to turn in my feminist card for loving football? Feel free to weigh in, because I go back and forth. Some days I feel like a traitor to womanity for loving a sport that so obviously excludes women, or relegates them to booty-shaking sideline buffoonery (and yes, I realize some of you were cheerleaders–you may flame me in the comments.) I can only fall back on why I love the sport in the first place: because I was raised in a family where feminism and football were not at all incompatible. And my Dad was not alone–there are millions of men and women like us who love the game for the good things it exemplifies: teamwork, sportsmanship, respect for rules, physical strength and agility, and a really, really fun way to spend time with friends and family on a Friday—or Sunday, or Monday—night.