On Sunday, the New England Patriots won Super Bowl LI with a record-setting comeback. They overcame a 25-point Falcons lead and Tom Brady threw for 466 yards to earn his fifth Super Bowl victory. Over 111 million people watched the Patriots running back, James White, rush the final two yards for a game-winning OT touchdown. To put that in perspective, Game 7 of the 2016 NBA finals drew an average of only 31 million viewers; the Chicago Cubs’ historic victory in the 2016 World Series drew an average of 40 million. There are pro sports and then there is pro American football. While baseball may be known as “America’s pastime,” it’s clear that football takes on a cultural significance as unique as the game itself. In fact, and altogether fittingly, the “savior of football” in the early 1900s was none other than President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt created the Rough Riders, a rag-tag volunteer army of athletes, hunters, and cowboys as a means to “liberate” Cuba from Spanish colonialism. Teddy Roosevelt—an embodiment of the ideal American man—once said, “In life, as in a football game, the principle to follow is: hit the line hard; don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard.” We see in football a proxy of the American Dream; with hard work, superior skill, brute strength, and almost militaristic courage, you can pull yourself up from the lowest of lows—from poverty, or, in this case, a 25-point deficit. This is a dream that is fundamentally masculine.
There is an aspect of feminism that says football is outdated. The glorification of violence, fans’ drunken aggression, locker room talk, and the image of minimally clothed cheerleaders rooting for “their guys” (yikes) all promote an understanding of gender that seems antiquated. Men are the valiant warriors and women stand there in the cold and wave pom-poms. Then there’s league commissioner Roger Goodell, whose incompetent handling of sexual assault cases makes being both a feminist and a football fan even more problematic. For a lot of us from New England, Deflategate has less to do with Brady’s innocence than his punishment. What makes me most angry is the fact that Brady recevied a suspension twice as long as Ray Rice’s initial suspension for sexual assault. What Deflategate should have emphasized more than it did—and I’ll admit New England fans are responsible for this—was the league’s embarrassingly obvious attempt to sweep aside issues of domestic violence. Amy Trask, former CEO of the Oakland Raiders, put it this way: “We may abhor certain things, but we still watch. As such, our criticism of the teams we watch and cheer on is, to some extent, intellectually dishonest—we are complicit.”
Football, as an arm of male culture, certainly has gender implications, and the NFL’s minimal response to sexual assault is inexcusable. But the idea that football has to die in a gender-equal society actually reinforces the gender roles we’re trying to dismantle. Claiming football has to die before women and men can be equal implies that women will never be equal to men in the realm of football. And I don’t mean in the “put all women on the O-line and all men on the D-line and see what happens” sense. I mean, women are equally entitled to aggression and the pursuit of victory. Women are entitled to enjoy a physical activity regardless of whether they are good at it. Women are entitled to love something that is an impressive athletic feat, regardless of whether they know what a play-action is.
Female fans abhor the Ray Rice scandal, they abhor coaches that use gender-based insults to motivate their players, but they revel in that perfect catch or blitz as much as the next person. The game’s brutality is why female fans, who comprise no less than 45 percent of the NFL’s fan base, watch and play; that’s why we all watch and play. To suggest otherwise belittles the feminine claim to the masculine, while validating the masculine claim to the feminine–which is just another form of inequality.
So, actually watching football as a feminist isn’t intellectually dishonest at all. On the contrary: it rejects the notion that power and strength are reserved for men. Symbolically, it rejects the reservation of the American Dream itself for men, which is what feminists have been fighting all along. If football is a last bastion for American men, we don’t need to make it fall. We need to invade it instead.