Photo: Courtesy of ESPN.
There was something different about football this Sunday. No one came out and said it, but it was impossible to ignore the way the games were seasoned with comments and coverage of the ongoing Ray Rice scandal. Perhaps it was the women in the room who felt it most fervently, worrying they were a touch hypocritical in their NFL gear. In the aftermath of Ray Rice’s suspension for knocking out his wife — and now, the child-abuse charges against Adrian Peterson, female football fans are analyzing their support of the National Football League and its 32 teams. Or, at least I was.
My problem isn't singular. Many women now find themselves in the middle of a tug of war. At one end is the love of participating in an American pastime and the feeling that the game shouldn’t be tarnished just for one bad egg. At the other end, there’s an obligation to womanhood — a sense that the NFL doesn’t respect women, that it teaches young men to be violent, that this isn’t an isolated incident. These reminders come in ESPN anchor Hannah Storm’s emotional broadcast about what the NFL is teaching her children. It comes in the UltraViolet protest over the Jets game on Sunday, where a plane pulled the banner #GoodellMustGo. It lives in the #GameFace ad-campaign image someone manipulated to show a woman with a black eye, which spread like wildfire. As a result, fervent NFL fandom can quickly be perceived as anti-feminist.
So, as a female fan, how do you reconcile watching (and enjoying) these games, when the NFL’s handling of the Rice situation was botched at best? It's a question we ask ourselves when we watch a Woody Allen film, or listen to 2 Chainz. But, it's the most pressing question today.
Alyssa, a 28-year-old product manager is a lifelong fan of the New York Giants. Her family holds season tickets. Yet, she’s sometimes faced with a confused look from other women when they learn of her obsession with the sport.
“It’s always difficult to explain to many other women why you like to watch the sport (or sports in general),” she told us. “That being said, I think the love of the game is something people understand — even in the wake of multiple infractions players have made in the last few weeks.”
This conversation hasn’t come up with all female fans, though. Melissa, a 27-year-old speech therapist who roots for the New England Patriots says she hasn’t felt the need to defend her game-day rituals.
“Most of the women I’ve spoken with enjoy football as well and believe that the League has definitely fallen all over itself regarding this incident,” she says.
Tiffany, a 29-year-old patent prosecution specialist is a Green Bay Packers fan. She, too, finds women haven’t been critical of her support, though she does acknowledge her team in particular isn’t exactly in hot water.
“I do believe it would be different if I claimed to be a Ravens fan, but I don’t think [the criticism] is necessary,” she says. “My response would be that I’m not going to swear off my love of football just because of the reprehensible actions of one player. One person is not the representation of the entire NFL.”
Yet, for Meghan, a 27-year-old nanny who spends Sundays watching the Giants, she doesn’t see why any woman would have to explain herself on game day.
“I don’t feel the need to defend liking football anymore than men do. Domestic violence is not a gendered issue. And, I think that’s the bigger issue. It’s not a women’s issue. It’s a people issue. Men should be just as outraged that a man saw it fit to hit a woman,” she says.
Photo: J. Meric/Getty Images.
Still, some claim the NFL has little regard for women at all. They argue that the Rice incident — and its pitiful initial punishment of a two-game suspension — as proof. Several fans we spoke to were disappointed in the way the Rice situation was handled. Kimberly, a 28-year-old administrative assistant who loves the Patriots, thinks the NFL responded only because the footage went public.
“They only did something about it because the general public finally found out about it, and there would be a huge backlash if they didn’t react.”
Melissa was happier with Rice’s indefinite suspension, but felt it was too little too late.
“It was more of a way for the NFL to show it took the issue of domestic violence seriously, but it’s coming across as more of a ‘cover your ass’ attempt as the League attempted to deflect the huge media backlash once the inside-the-elevator tape was leaked,” she says. “If the League was going to suspend him indefinitely, it should have done so from the start.”
For Tiffany, Rice’s punishment sent a bigger message — not just to other NFL players, but to athletes and celebrities.
“The NFL set the example that just because someone is a celebrity doesn’t mean they’re exempt from the rules. Under too many instances are people given a free pass just because of their perceived status,” she says, noting that even high school and college athletes often receive special treatment.
In Tiffany’s opinion, this incident could set in motion a trickle-down effect for all sports. “The NFL can’t afford to project an image that physical assault is excusable.”
Not all female fans agree that the Rice situation should be considered an example of how the League views women.
“It doesn’t prove how the NFL views women,” says Alyssa. “Most men are just as disgusted as women are over the abuse that happened.” But, she does acknowledge that this incident, as well as the public outcry from the NFL's ever-growing lady fanbase, shows how much of an impact women can have on the League. “I wouldn’t expect to see a tampon commercial during Monday Night Football anytime soon, but we’re getting there.”
Tiffany, too, has seen an evolution of the way the NFL sees women over the years. “Initially, I believe they saw women as an accessory to football — hence the cheerleaders,” she says. “Now, there are female newscasters, and lines of clothing for women. Also, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month the players have breast cancer insignia and pink on their uniforms.”
The League could do better, though, according to Meghan. “There isn’t much room for women to exist in the sport, given they can’t participate. But, delegating women to be solely cheerleaders and sideline reporters isn’t helping the gender difference.”
And, who’s to say the NFL is interested bridging a gender gap? All five women referred to football as having the reputation as a “man’s game” — both male players and male viewers. Kimberly says it’s simply not something she expects to see.
“I want to say the NFL sees women as equal to men, but I know they don’t. They have clothing and things geared toward women, but overall the NFL is a man’s world.”
Photo: Elsa/Getty Images.
So, the question remains: Should Rice be allowed back in the League? Under the NFL’s new rules, he can apply for reinstatement after one year. Many women believe his crimes are inexcusable — that to let him play again would be unforgivable. “It should be nonnegotiable that he’s not allowed back — ever,” says Kimberly. “The video is painful to watch. There is no excuse.”
Meghan sees the argument that Rice should be allowed to apply for reinstatement — “people make mistakes,” she says. But, she also says the NFL would undo all the positive work they’ve done if they allowed him back.
“It’d be beyond foolish to let him back in. Granted, they’ve made allowances for criminals like Michael Vick to return. But, the NFL needs to realize the gravitas of its social role and influence. Young boys and girls look to athletes as role models, whether the athletes understand this or not. Punching a woman unconscious then being allowed to return to the game is sending the wrong message entirely,” says Meghan.
Some women believe Rice should be allowed a second chance. “Under normal circumstances, if a person is found guilty of a crime, they’re well within their rights to apply for reinstatement, so I don’t see why he shouldn’t be allowed to do so as well,” says Tiffany.
Melissa, too, thinks he should be allowed to apply for his return, though she admits his reinstatement would make her consider more seriously the kinds of programs and educational resources the NFL makes available to its players.
Given the League’s track record, it’s not impossible to believe Rice will once again play professional football. Since 2000, the NFL has recorded 713 instances in which its players had a legal run-in greater than a traffic ticket. The question is, which team would be willing to take on Rice and his baggage? For Alyssa, his return to the NFL is equal parts unwelcome and inevitable.
“I hope Rice is never reinstated, but in actuality I think he will be. If that happens, I’ll just pray to the football gods he never gets signed by the Giants.”