I have the bad luck to live in a city whose football team won the Super Bowl last February. In the run-up to that event, I learned (without wanting to) that the Seattle fans are famous for being the noisiest and most disruptive in the country and thus the best at rattling opposing teams during home games. The fans are famous for it, and all of us are expected to take pride in it. Really?! It seems the opposite of sporting to me, and I find it disgusting rather than a source of pride. But I’m an outlier; the fans started calling themselves “the 12th man,” and during the play-offs the city became a plague-zone of the number twelve—on shirts, in the windows of cars and houses, on giant banners on the sides of buildings, on flags flown over houses and office towers. I was hoping “we” would lose the Super Bowl so that the wretched twelves would go away, but no, we’ve been stuck with them ever since. When the new season started a couple of weeks ago, there was an absolute orgy of football patriotism, with a downtown celebration that clogged traffic for hours, more twelves sprouting everywhere, banner headlines in the newspaper, and local television news leading with football and then more football.
What’s so annoying about it is the crackpot assumption that everyone is wildly excited about football when after all sport is only one branch of human activity, and football is only one branch of sport. I, for one, like the other football, a.k.a. soccer, and then there is lacrosse, jai alai, bowls, darts, bocce. . . . There are many sports, and I dislike the assumption that in America we’re all supposed to share the enthusiasm for American football. I dislike the social bullying aspect of it, just as I dislike the social bullying of public religiosity or nationalism or mass mourning when a movie star dies suddenly.
If that were all, though, it would just be one among my rich assortment of peeves. But it’s not all. Football is not treated as just an enthusiasm or an entertainment. It’s taken very seriously, as a shaper of character and a source of values: not just workplace skills like discipline and teamwork, but Character. This is assumed more than argued for, in much the same way it’s assumed that religion is a key source of values and character. But what reason is there to think that football fosters good character?
There is in fact a lot of history that seems to hint that football encourages aggressive, entitled bullying, which might fit an aristocratic notion of the best sort of character, but no one else’s. There is former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, for instance, who was arrested in February 2014 for assaulting his then-girlfriend Janay Palmer. A celebrity news website posted a video of him dragging her unconscious body out of an elevator; Rice was indicted by a grand jury on third-degree aggravated assault, and as a result he was suspended for the first two games of the 2014 season.
Pause to gasp: Two whole games! That’s how football builds character, is it? But then in September, a video surfaced that showed him punching Palmer in the head and knocking her unconscious. At that point, the National Football League suspended him indefinitely. Apparently they decided they don’t actually want us to think they almost sort of kind of approve of domestic violence as long as the woman can eventually walk and talk again.
Rice held a press conference on May 23—after the assault, before the appearance of the incriminating video—ostensibly to apologize to the world. The trouble is, he never actually apologized for punching Palmer in the head; he never actually mentioned it. He spoke in generalities and the passive voice and the second person plural, but he never said, “I punched Janay in the head and that was a horrifying thing to do and I say to her right now: I am so sorry I did such a terrible thing.” Instead he talked about himself and his personal growth. It’s staggeringly narcissistic and oblivious and callous.
Did football make him like that? I don’t know, of course, and it would be absurd to conclude that it did. But it does seem fair to say that football failed to make him not like that. Given that football is so touted as a source of Character, I think it’s worth paying attention to failures of this kind.
And they’re not rare. There’s a long book that covers one example: Our Guys, by Bernard Lefkowitz, about a group of popular high-school football players and wrestlers who lured a girl with mental retardation, a former classmate of theirs, into a basement rec room and raped her with a broom handle and a baseball bat. Many of the people in their upscale suburban town were sympathetic to the rapists and angry at their victim—they were stars, they were talented athletes, they had futures.
There is the notorious Steubenville, Ohio, rape case, in which a high-school girl who was passed-out drunk was stripped and sexually assaulted by other high-school students who recorded their actions and shared the videos on Twitter. Two of the students were convicted of the rape of a minor; they were both football players. One of them is now back on the team, after serving a year in a juvenile detention facility.
There is Jerry Sandusky, assistant football coach at Pennsylvania State University, who was found guilty in 2012 of forty-five counts of sexual abuse of children. An investigation conducted by former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Louis Freeh and his law firm reported that university officials had known about allegations of child abuse by Sandusky as early as 1998 and had failed to do anything about them.
Football isn’t alone in showing this pattern. Many institutions have chronic long-running problems of sexual abuse that is concealed or dismissed—the Catholic Church, the military, universities. They all deal with it in-house instead of via law enforcement, and they are all now dealing with exposure of the festering results. Institutions have power and status, and important people within institutions have power and status. Both institutions, and the people within them, use that power and status to protect themselves at the expense of underlings and outsiders.
I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked by any of this. It’s all obvious and predictable enough: of course high status tends to confer immunity from the social pressure and sanctions that keep the rest of us in line. Of course people who have high status exploit that fact. Of course humans have always thought that important people should have extra freedom of action, so that they can exercise their importance. Homer starts The Iliad with aristocrats behaving badly, and not much has changed. We set up institutions to try to organize and channel some of these forces, but then the institutions themselves develop some of the arrogance and refusal to be accountable that the top people have always had. Football and the cult that surrounds it are an unpleasantly strong example of the process.
Given all that, and more—such as the concussion issue and the NFL’s attempts to minimize and deny it—I refuse to treat football as any kind of sacred cow. I hope the Seattle Seahawks lose every game and all the “12″ flags disappear.
I look forward to your letters.
Ophelia Benson is the editor of the website Butterflies and Wheels. Her books include Does God Hate Women? (with Jeremy Stangroom, Continuum, 2009).