There was a time in my life when nothing was as exciting as the start of the NFL season, the Bears season, here in Chicagoland.
I can’t remember a time before the Bears, sitting on my dad’s lap, watching the greatest all-around player ever, Walter Payton (don’t @ me), drag entire piles of colossal men with him as he strove toward the goal line.
Later, as I got older, there were the 1985 Bears, the Sunday afternoon watch parties and long car rides home from far-flung gymnastics meets and soccer matches, hanging on radio play-by-play announcer Wayne Larrivee’s every word, trying to glean a mental picture of what was happening on the field. In my small Northern Illinois town, Sundays were for the Bears.
These days, I look forward to the NFL season with equal parts excitement and dread. We all long to recapture those magic weeks when our team is streaking toward the playoffs, there’s nothing like it anywhere else in sports. But it’s also the time when I’m reminded, most aggressively, of what a huge portion of the American public thinks of women, and what our lives and well-being are worth, which is to say, not much.
It started early on this year, in the first 15 minutes of the first Thursday Night Football broadcast, when Al Michaels summarized Antonio’ Brown’s history, which includes sexual assault and sexual misconduct allegations, a video in which he encourages the police to “Slam her ass! Slam her!” regarding the mother of his children, while the police and his children watched, and the time he threw furniture off his 14th-floor balcony, narrowly missing a small child, as “past issues.” That gaff was immediately followed by a glowing report by Michelle Tafoya, lauding Tom Brady for being, as Gretchen Weiners would say, such a good friend to Antonio Brown. The fact that Brown had settled a lawsuit accusing him of a violent sexual assault earlier that Spring, was never mentioned.
That Brown was still playing in the NFL as of Sunday had long felt like a hard slap in the face to female fans, as much as we understand that anyone can stay in the NFL if they’re good enough. But it was an affront on a much deeper level to see NFL fans, en masse, come to the conclusion that Brown was a problem because he stripped off his shirt and ran around the end zone, as if that was finally, finally, the last straw. Not the video of him verbally assaulting the mother of his children and throwing a bag of gummy dicks at her, not the allegations that he threw a longtime friend down on the bed and forcibly raped her. It was the fact that he “quit on his team” that finally caused fans to turn on him.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the consensus that Brown must have CTE and has been violent toward women because of the hit Vontaze Burfict put on him in 2016. Of course, it would be stupid to assume any NFL player isn’t suffering from head trauma, but for Twitter to decide Brown is not responsible for the women he has harmed and completely absolved of any responsibility for his actions is ludicrous. I’ve heard many men cavalierly claim CTE is also the reason O.J. Simpson (allegedly) killed Nicole Brown Simpson, completely ignoring evidence of decades of Simpson’s aggressive and abusive behavior. Now, Simpson has nearly 900,000 followers on Twitter. Tell me some more about how men’s lives are ruined by mere allegations of violence against women.
What’s more, the narrative immediately after Brown left the stadium was that “he needs help,” which he surely does. But never once did I hear any of the talking heads, or Tom Brady for that matter, express compassion for any of Brown’s victims. Because when it comes to the NFL, the women that violent players leave in their wake are an afterthought. It’s also hard for me to believe that Brady, et al have the same level of compassion and concern for mental health when they see someone’s mugshot on TV, because, you see, your average run-of-the-mill rapist or abuser can’t help you win a Super Bowl.
I spent the lead up to the last Super Bowl hoping someone in the media would ask Tom Brady or Bruce Arians if they had anything to say to Brown’s victims. For someone to ask Brady why he felt comfortable bringing a man accused of harming multiple women into his home, where his wife and young daughter live. For someone to ask Arians how he could claim to be an advocate for the women on his staff while still employing Brown. Those questions never came. They never do.
Here’s a fun exercise to illustrate my point: Try pointing out the NFL’s lip service to combatting domestic violence and sexual assault on social media. Those of us who speak out often about athletes who are violent to women wind up with all manner of threats and insults in our Twitter replies and messages, because how dare we criticize a guy who is really good at football, when it was probably some gold-digging whore trying to steal his money? And it’s not just a few men who like to jump into our mentions with misogynist abuse. It’s many men.
Hell, we don’t even have to say anything controversial to get dragged by men. Here’s a message ESPN’s Mina Kimes shared on Sunday:
It’s easy to laugh at how ridiculous Charles Brown is, and he was rightfully dragged on Twitter for being a basement-dwelling troll. But the fact is that women in sports media get a lot of messages like this (and many that are much, much worse) on a regular basis. And I never get more of them than during the NFL season. There’s something hyper-masculine about the way the game is presented by the league and it’s partners that gives horrible men permission to let loose on women. And they do.
She’s right. It never stops.
And then there was Ben Roethlisberger’s Monday Night game last night, during which the MNF broadcast crew twisted themselves into pretzels to avoid mentioning that Roethlisberger has been accused of rape by multiple women and was suspended by the league because of the sheer number of stories of his disgusting behavior toward women. Unless you Google it, you’d never find out about Roethlisberger’s history, because God knows the NFL and ESPN aren’t going to bring it up.
While a certain segment of men love to bring up the fact that Brown and Roethlisberger were “accused, not found guilty!” of harming women, they fail to realize that it’s likely because of their status as pro athletes they weren’t charged. It’s not evidence that the allegations were false. Rather, it’s an affirmation of the power differential between a star athlete and his team (lawyers, agents, publicists, league, teammates) and the lone woman standing against them. It’s an affirmation of the patriarchy and the status of women as second-class citizens in our society.
I didn’t intend for this column to come out as such a primal scream against the NFL, but as much as I love football, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the NFL itself has become a place that is exceedingly toxic to women. Does it increase the aggression with which die-hard fans treat women they encounter online (and probably in real life)? It’s hard to know, but the anecdotal evidence is hard to ignore.
As I’ve said many times before, by the NFL’s own numbers, women make up something like 47 percent of the fanbase. If that were any other demographic, the league would be falling over backwards courting and kowtowing to them, like they’ve done with casual sports bettors. I’m not sure why Roger Goodell and the league haven’t made any effort at all with women, other than they don’t have to. Let’s not forget the women outside M&T Bank Stadium wearing Ray Rice jerseys just days after we all saw the video of him knocking out his then-fiancée now wife in an elevator. Maybe we’ve just come to accept that things will never get better. Maybe we’ve all internalized societal misogyny to the point where we just don’t notice it any more. Maybe we’re as bad as the men who “just want to watch football without all the politics.”
But imagine the effect we could have if 47 percent of the fan base demanded the NFL do better.