On the eve of the holy Super Bowl, consider this:
The culture around football is, and always has been, the least progressive of all of our American sporting cultures. That’s not to say baseball, basketball, hockey or soccer are all wonderfully progressive arenas of culture, but it is to say that the majority of football coaches, football game commentators, in-studio-football-analysts (full of former players), and the majority of football fans are implicit in the anti-progressive, emotionally-stunted and machismo-fueled nature of the sport. While football can be fun to watch and I admit I still have some love for my childhood team, the Patriots, it is close to impossible for me to fully digest the sport without stomach trouble these days.
I concede that machismo and out-dated versions of normative masculinity are still aspects of the American sporting culture in general, but I see a distinct difference between football and the other major American sports in the culture that runs through it. If you don’t believe the cultural atmosphere around football is any different than basketball or hockey, then compare their commercials. Most people have the assumption that baseball is in it’s own category when it comes to the culture it perpetuates, though a friend of mine has experienced that overgrown-boy, hazing, meat-head side of college baseball team dynamics. Listen to most (not all) NFL coaches give interviews, then listen to most (not all) NBA coaches. Listen to the tone of the men who announce their games, the way in which the game is analyzed. Marv Albert and Steve Kerr sound nothing like Jim Nantz and Phil Simms (and that is a particularly polished duo when it comes to football commentary.
Watch a few commercials that take place during a typical football game. Super Bowl commercials, created for an event that is designed to appeal to all viewers, instead of the typical football audience, have become less original, less artistic, less varied, and more lowest-common-denominator, in relation to gender dynamics, racial dynamics and the proliferation of things breaking, people fighting and generally chaos over conceptual 30-second creations. Super Bowl commercials used to be intriguing. Today, they are more often revolting, disturbing, or aimed at purely primal reactions. This isn’t due to entirely to football culture, but our cultural attitudes at large–toward overly-sexualized behavior and toward an acceptance of general stereotypes. While watching these commercials, it’s difficult to find any man who don’t appear as a sex-focused, beer-obsessed overgrown boy. Nearly all the male-female dynamics involve annoyance or paternalism. Ask yourself why these kinds of commercials are “football” commercials.
For the last fifty years, football commentators have responded with boyish excitement to a crushing collision of a free safety on a vulnerable wide receiver. Words like “bone-jarring” describe brutal tackles. Only when a player stays down on the field for five minutes does the excitable tone turn sober. Only in the last few years, as concussion-awareness has grown, are the people around football starting to take responsibility for the negative impact their way of calling a game, discussing a game, etc. have had on the culture around their sport.
When you push microphones in the faces of these often minimally-educated, easily-manipulated players, who are surrounded by this negative culture, and some of whom are threatened more by homophobia than by physical violence, you are bound to run into situations like Chris Culliver’s, where homophobic comments become headlines.
What surprises me is the fact that anyone is surprised when homophobic comments come from the world of football. The examples of sexist jocularity are more rampant in football than any other sport. Bill Parcells’ infamous description of injured Patriots wide receiver Terry Glenn as “She,” is a prime example. Football is the one arena where old and often backward ways of thinking (8 of the 8 head coaches hired since the end of the regular season were white) are still acceptable. The Saints scandal in which coaches promoted, encouraged and rewarded the kind of intentional violence that should have no place in the game but does, is another example.
We can hope that football will change it’s culture, will adapt to modern life and the widespread attempts at equality and humanity in our modern world, but it is still an inherently archaic and violent game. Yes, it can be fun to watch, but we don’t have to watch brainlessly and heartlessly anymore.
Imagine how concerned the NFL front office folks, the marketers, the image-consultants are, as they sit terrified with the fear that one of the Ravens or 49ers players, on the game’s biggest stage, might be brutally injured, lay still on the field, while the producers cut to commercial and ignore the silence on the turf on Super Bowl Sunday.
Let’s hope everyone makes it through the game healthy, or at least free of spine, neck, and head injuries. But let’s not ignore the reality of this game and the culture that still surrounds it.
Watch Bob Costas’ State of the NFL for more on these issues: http://nbcsportsgrouppressbox.com/2013/01/30/costas-tonight-state-of-the-nfl-tomorrow-night-at-9-p-m-et-on-nbc-sports-network/