Monday, August 18, 2014

Does The NFL Hate Women?

It was a slow walk up the apartment steps. I appreciated the quiet of my old apartment building, only four stories high and too short for an elevator. After a long workout, however, even four floors felt like a lot of work. As I opened the door to my hallway – top floor, of course – one of my neighbours was running from door to door, frantic.

            She was a stout girl who I’d bumped into once or twice in the laundry room, usually with one of her children. Now, however, she wore a nightshirt and underwear and nothing else. She still hadn’t seen me as she pounded on my door.

            “Please help!”

            I sprinted towards her. “Stephanie,” I said, thankful I’d remembered her name. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

            She turned. Two marks – one purple, one red – marked the left side of her face. She was breathing hard. “It’s my boyfriend. He won’t leave! The kids!”

            Adrenaline and rage washed over me, and for a moment I felt blind. Not again. Four weeks earlier I’d been woken up by the smashing of pots and pans in the apartment above me, accompanied by a few screams. I’d rushed upstairs and ended up throwing out a Nigerian man who’d just finished beating his girlfriend. She’d begged me not to call the police, and as I wasn’t sure what their status was regarding immigration, I did as she'd asked.

            I followed Stephanie down the hallway. Her door hung open. I stepped inside the dimly lit apartment. Her three kids – all under the age of five – gaped at me. All three were either naked or wearing only a diaper, and they were sitting on a bare mattress in the middle of the living room. The girl – the oldest one -- appeared to have been crying.
            Empty beer cans and overturned bottles covered every counter in the tiny kitchen. Water dripped from the faucet. And behind the kitchen table stood her boyfriend.

His beard was thick and black, and he dangled a gold and black tallboy from his hands. With the beard, it was impossible to tell how old he was – early thirties, maybe older – and he was small and lean. One of the children started crying.

“Shut up!” he yelled.

“Get out,” I said.

The other children started crying. This time he ignored them and looked at me. He wore a half-smirk that dangled around his lips like expensive jewelry. He noted the size difference – I probably outweighed him by fifty pounds – and put his beer can on the table. He shook his head a little, glanced over at Stephanie and back at me. “Women,” he said with his eyes. “Drama queens.”

Stephanie had gone to her children, content to leave this part to me. I ignored the attempt at misogynal bonding and jerked my head towards the door. He swaggered past me. I escorted him out of the building. He tried one last time when we reached the bottom stair.

“It’s her fault, you know.”

I gave him a blank stare. He shrugged and walked outside. I went back upstairs. Stephanie still hadn’t closed her door.

“Call the police, Stephanie,” I said. “You need to report it. If he comes back or you need anything, I’m just down the hall.”

She nodded. “I will. Thank you.” She turned back to her kids, distracted, and I closed the door behind me.

When I was young, I used to think that helping people in distress made you feel better. Well, this was about the fourth time around this particular rodeo, and all I felt was dirty.Sick. Like I’d just waded through a sewer of human shit. It’s always the same, I thought. Even if you’re trying to make it better. Even if you’re trying to help. You’re the one gets covered in it, and you’re the one who stinks.


It had been a while since I'd felt that dirty, but when the news about Ray Rice broke a few weeks ago, I felt that way again, especially after watching the above video. Yes, that’s the Baltimore Ravens’ star running back Ray Rice dragging his unconscious wife out of the elevator. According to the police, it was a result of a “minor altercation,” during which Rice beat her until she lost consciousness. It's about as disgusting a thing as you'll see.  

The NFL commissioner thought this was such a grievous incident that he suspended Rice for two games. To put that in context, if you fail an NFL drug test for marijuana, which they test at military-like levels, you get an automatic four game suspension. If you, say, stomp on the head of another player during the game, like Albert Haynesworth did, you get five games. If you beat your wife or girlfriend unconscious, you get a two games and the people around you, like Ravens’ coach John Harbaugh, will say things like “he’s a heckuva guy.”


It goes without saying that the NFL has always had its own set of patriarchal tendencies. But within the changing societal landscape and under the weight of its own enormous influence within the culture, it has become a seemingly last-gasp playground for misogyny, white-knuckled fists clenched hard against the “progressive" agenda of equality.

And for many of the people who work around the NFL (most of whom are men) it’s clear they haven’t got a clue what to do with the changes to what was once a simple code. Classy old coaches like Tony Dungy, who works as a studio analyst on the most popular show on television, (NBC’s Sunday Night Football) said he wouldn’t have drafted Michael Sam, the first openly gay linebacker who was taken by the Rams with the last pick in the draft, because he wouldn’t have wanted the ‘distraction’ on his team. This from the guy who pushed for a team to take another chance on Michael Vick, the quarterback convicted of running dog fights. (Uh, what?)

Of course, if you’d have told the "establishment" around the NFL ten years ago that a three hundred pound lineman would take a nine game leave of absence because he’d been bullied (?!) by his fellow lineman, they would probably suggest that you’d lost your mind. And yet, that’s exactly what happened last year with whole Jonathan Martin – Richie Incognito incident.

The only thing that’s clear nowadays in the NFL is that, at least to most of the old-timers, nothing is clear. That’s true of many of its fans as well. (Question: How many ‘stop the effing sermons’ comments do you find on any article that talks about women or gays or bullying or anything outside the patriarchal domain of “bro” chatter? Answer: A lot. Or, watch the above video on YouTube and see how long you can read before you start to feel nauseous. I lasted four comments.)

In general terms, the NFL has managed to navigate these waters by staying away from them, ignoring them, or offering general platitudes while winking at its hard-core fans. It forces its players to wear hot pink for an entire month to raise money for breast cancer research, but when something real happens, when something that may affect the game on the field happens, it offers a two game suspension. And for anyone who thinks that a player beating a woman unconscious is pretty serious, the NFL flips us the collective bird.

It also doesn’t really care what happens to the women on the sidelines, the ones wearing short skirts and halter tops. I don’t have a problem with cheerleaders being on the sidelines, and for those who raise questions about objectifying women, I disagree. Vehemently. Those kinds of accusations may have some truth to them, but then you have to start extending that to look at women who choose to be models, women who choose to work as hostesses in restaurants, etc… I’m sorry, but a grown ass woman has a right to do what she wants, and leading cheers while waving pompoms is what it is. What I do have a problem with is the NFL’s inability to pay them a decent wage. Or let them form a union. And then there’s the lack of female commentators and analysts and studio hosts. (Every year, about halfway through the season, it becomes nearly impossible for me to watch the pre-game shows with all the fake ‘bro-chuckling’ going on in the studio.)

In a way, you can’t blame the league for doing it. They’ve done a better job mythologizing the game than any other sport over the past forty years, with the possible exception of baseball. (Baseball is better equipped to do it simply because it has a longer history. And the two sports are radically different in their mythological approach. Baseball has always been a father-son family game. Football is for men and building young men. Similar, but different enough in that most of the hard core NFL fans, especially the older ones, can’t fathom how the name “Redskins” might be offensive while Major League Baseball designates a Jackie Robinson day every April when every player wears his number.) The NFL doesn't need to explain anything. They don’t need to justify anything to anyone, especially a bunch of pushy liberals who never played the game.

Now What?

Varsity Blues "bro-ing it up"
Well, I’m not sure how pushy I am, but I played football for three years in high school. I loved every second of it, too. Changing in the hallway. Wearing the jersey on game day. Bro-ing it up with boys. It was like bathing in testosterone. If I’d been a peacock, my tail of feathers would have been wagging me. I remember watching Dwight Clark’s The Catch in the NFC Championship game with my dad back when I was a Cowboy fan. I remember standing on the table in a tavern as a twenty year old, screaming at Scott Norwood “Lifetime contract if he makes it!” during the Bills’ first Superbowl. (He didn’t.) So many memories. And now, well, now I’m not sure.

Living a Kind Life isn’t a religious thing or a cult thing, it’s about trying to do what we can in a pretty messed up world to be decent freaking human beings. My wife and I stopped shopping at Wal-Mart because The Evil Empire represents everything I hate about big corporations, in everything from where they buy their meat to how they treat their employees. That said, our little boycott is not a big deal. Those twenty bucks we’d spend there don’t matter, but that isn’t why we do it. We’re not interested in standing around their headquarters holding up a giant sign that says “Look at me! See how hip and countercultural we are!” No, it’s so much simpler than that. It’s about living a decent life and trying feel like you haven’t had your soul sucked down the black hole of materialism and greed and the shallow facades that permeate the three hundred billion dollar ad industry.

Hell, that’s part of the reason I love sports so much. I don’t want to watch another news story about the tragedy of humanity or Nancy Grace or Honey BooBoo. I want to dive into the mythology and story of a sport, the same way I do with fantasy. But it has become increasingly difficult to justify diving into a sport that clearly doesn’t care about some of the things that I hold dear, equality being one of them.

So what to do? How do I justify the attention I give the NFL? I’m not sure, truthfully. I don’t want to stick my head in the sand, because that goes against everything I believe. That a player can beat a woman unconscious without truly getting penalized leaves me feeling like I’ve been gut-punched. And every time I hear someone like John Harbaugh saying things like ‘he’s a heckuva guy,’ I remember Stephanie’s boyfriend looking over at me with that half-smirk, trying to appeal to my “bro-hood,” and I feel dirty and sick all over again.

I don’t think the NFL hates women, because the National Football League is a business, and businesses don’t hate their customers. Green is green. But does it cherish women, does it even consider the two genders equal? No. The league – which includes the players, coaches, media and management – condescends to women in much the way it always has, except now they have a few games where they wear pink. I'm not sure what I'm going to do just yet. Maybe wait and see how sick I feel this year. Or see if the league can redeem itself. The NFL may not hate women, but does it despise them, at least a little? Absolutely. 

And, well, that ain't no Kind Life.


UPDATE: (September 1, 2014) The commissioner issued a public apology this week, and increased the ban for domestic violence charges to six games for a first offense, and a lifetime ban for a second offense. This was brought about because of the outcry from major news sites to blogs like this one. This is why we fight for a Kind Life, why we have to fight. Equality doesn't just happen. Now then, if we can just get the NFL to lighten up on the whole 1950's weed issue...