Activism Sports Violence Against Women

If The NFL Isn’t Afraid of Losing Women, They Should Be

I’ve had a lot of troubling conversations over the last several days. They’re always about Ray Rice.

via Keith Allison
via Keith Allison

Sometimes these conversations are about the sanctity of football as a masculine space. They’re about why such hallowed grounds ought not be sullied by the woes of women being KO’ed in elevators. (At which point, I roll my eyes.)

On occasion, these conversations have presented mind-numbing and essentialist “facts,” like the “fact” that non-black women are inherently submissive, and the “fact” that black women – perhaps, even, black women like Janay Palmer – invite punching, spitting, and dragging because we ceaselessly “mouth off” at black men. (At which points, I’m amazed to say, I have not proceeded to literally jump off of a cliff.)

Sometimes, these diatribes have taken brief detours to engage in some extended victim-blaming at Janay Palmer’s expense. (At which points, I transform into She-Hulk.)

But too many of these conversations have returned to one central theme: black men’s impending doom at the hands of black women. Because, after all, black women’s sole aim in life must be to collude with the state to bring black men down.

I regret that Janay Palmer ever had to go through this. I also regret the fact that Ray Rice believed spitting and punching his then-fiancée were appropriate forms of communication. But as revealing and personally torturous as this experience has been, especially for this couple, I’m really glad the NFL screwed this up. Make no mistake: Listening to the cacophony of wails coming from the formerly closeted and proud misogynists I call friends and family is equivalent to nails on a chalkboard or, better, ammonia in my eyes. But the National Football League’s gross failure to properly respond to this situation has forced a necessary and important debate – one that would not have happened if they’d made the right call.

That’s why the NFL is scrambling to kiss and make up. The impact of this moment really could change that intangible, unwieldy beast called “culture” for the better. After all, roughly 44 percent of all professional football fans are female. (And the NFL just ticked many of them off.) More than 55 percent of all American women are faithful NFL viewers. (And the NFL just ticked many of them off.) In 2013, the NFL reported a 76 percent increase in spending on women’s apparel over the previous three years. (But the NFL just ticked them off.) And female NFL fans are 10 percent more likely to socialize during a game than their male counterparts. This is behavior advertisers love. (But I’m not sure if you’ve heard, the NFL probably just ticked a lot of them off.)

That’s why Erin Gloria Ryan says boycott. Now. The aggregate total of women’s dollar impact on the NFL makes the idea of any organized campaign against the League much more than an idle threat in feminist-only circles. The sports gods have ears.

In 2011, reported that the NFL took great pains to grow a larger female fan base. Marketing data suggest the economic weight of the female fan is enormous. “A female consumer is a consumer for life,” according to IMRE marketing manager Meghann Malone. “They’re the ones more likely to become brand loyalists.” Malone told ESPN that there is advertising gold in connecting with the female demographic – a demographic that makes 70 percent of all “important family decisions.”

“When we talk about women being the decision-makers, I think a lot of people don’t realize that’s cars, stocks, electronics – things people might not associate women making the decisions about,” Malone said.

FOX Sports’ Katie Nolan, host of “No Filter,” may have called a boycott of the NFL impractical, but even Nolan’s proclamation that a boycott wouldn’t erase the issue of domestic violence in the NFL is evidence enough that there may be some hand-wringing.

“A boycott would just remove the critical thinkers from the NFL conversation, and leave the League to continue making billions of dollars with even less accountability,” Nolan argued. The web commentator said she regretted not asking Roger Goodell why he would risk isolating women when the League is working so hard to “penetrate new markets.” Fearing backlash from FOX, the reporter said she reasoned it wasn’t her “role.” So, instead of supporting calls for a boycott, Nolan proposes more women, like herself, at the “big boy table.”

“Women in sports television are allowed to read headlines, patrol sidelines, and generally facilitate conversation for their male colleagues. Sometimes, they even let us monitor the Internet from a couch,” she said while playing up a graphic of her own reduction to smiling, sidebar Web tosser.

Aware of the apparent complicity her position could serve, Nolan asked the necessary rhetorical questions many female fans are likely asking themselves: “How do I reconcile my values and beliefs with my love for a sport that has an ongoing issue with domestic violence? How do I support a commissioner who needed to see a video of a man punching a woman in the face in order to realize it’s unacceptable–a leader whose governing decisions appear to be based on a bro-tastic Internet meme?”

But even though she won’t go as far as female divestment, the fact that Nolan is asking the questions at all, challenging the sidelining of women in the League and in sports reporting at all – and doing all this from the inside of FOX Sportslandia – is even kind of a big deal in it’s own right. It signals that a broader cultural uprising is already taking root within this monumental sports regime.

There are other serious propositions on the table, too: The National Organization for Women has called for Roger Goodell to resign, and CREDO Action is demanding the NFL implement a zero-tolerance policy (since they’ve already failed to enforce the newest one). On Tuesday, the Black Women’s Roundtable requested an emergency meeting with Roger Goodell to discuss the League’s hollow move to establish an all-female “advisory group” to address the issue of domestic violence. The League failed to add a single woman of color to the board, whose sole raison d’etre is to advise an overwhelmingly African American NFL about an issue that overwhelmingly impacts African American women.

In a matter of days, brands have come out of the proverbial woodwork to criticize the NFL for its response to domestic violence and allegations of child abuse. According to the New York Daily News, Anheuser-Busch, Pepsico, McDonald’s, Campbell’s Soup, and Visa are all chiming in about the NFL’s abhorrent behavior. In the last 48 hours, CoverGirl has come under attack because they have yet to sever ties or hurl stern words at the League. The lesson is clear: women, the demo most likely to be impacted by domestic violence, are too big of an economic force for this issue to go unaddressed.

Under no circumstances does the NFL have a monopoly on domestic violence. But American football is akin to a popular religion in the United States. Sundays are a sacred time of week – not because of blue laws, but because of the holy gridiron. NFL games are, often, the most-watched television in a ratings year. If this is where the sacrifice must be made, so be it. If this is what it takes for us to change the culture of domestic violence in the US, let it be.

The NFL should feel the weight of this moment – along with every sport, every sports network, every collegiate league, and every Little League. They should all have to confront the humanity of an entire sex and face consequences for not taking gender-based violence and relationship violence seriously – not just because they fear female inclusion, or state-sanctioned consequences, but because they’re forced to learn more fluent and fluid masculinities.

I hope every league is as afraid of women as they should be.

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