In case you’ve been on the moon recently and missed it, football is a gendered space. While girls and boys, women and men continue to play sports on different teams, at different times, on different courts and fields, and often with subtly different equipment or rules, it’s also true that by and large, they’re playing many of the same sports. There are only a few sports that have remained the province of men. Olympic ski jumping is probably my favorite example. In a classically awful way, it turns out that a woman (Lindsey Van) holds the world record in ski jumping but cannot compete in the Olympic event because it is sex segregated and there is no women’s event. Football is one such space as well. Women don’t play. They don’t play as girls and they can’t play professionally as women.
[SIDE NOTE: It is true that there is a Lingerie Football League that started in 2009 (and yes… it’s exactly as awful as it sounds). Women play full contact indoor football in the same arenas where men’s professional sports are played. The game is unsafe and there are a great deal of injuries as a result. The women wear less padding, but are extreme athletes and go “all out” in front of screaming audiences of men.]
The most recent issue in the NFL is the suspension of the New Orleans Saints’ coach, Sean Payton for what’s being considered unsportsmanlike conduct off the field. The details are still coming out, but basically, Payton was providing monetary incentives to players who hit someone on the opposing team so hard, they were kept out of the game. This is the same coach that we celebrated so much when the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009 (XLIV), which was cast as a much-needed victory for Louisiana in the wake of Katrina.
It’s an interesting issue and a media nightmare for the NFL. Roger Goodell (NFL commissioner) framed the incident this way: “We are all accountable and responsible for player health and safety and the integrity of the game. We will not tolerate conduct or a culture that undermines those priorities.”
Football is a game and a gendered space that we use as a culture to celebrate gender differences. As the long-term effects of participation in football have been becoming more public (shorter life spans, the effects of repeated hard hits to the head, lack of support for overweight ex-players), the NFL has had to frame football as a sort of gentleman’s game – even if it’s anything but. People come to games and continue to watch because of the big hits. This is why people thought that the XFL might have been a good idea (*this was a league in which they put fewer players on the field and did away with some of the key rules that made injuries less likely in the NFL.)
Brenda Bredemeir and David Shields (1986) came up with a useful concept to discuss athletic aggression. Deciding what counts as an aggressive, too aggressive, and inappropriately aggressive act is a value judgment. On courts and fields, Bredemeir and Shields argue that a different system of moral guidelines come into play–guidelines that are not intended for use off the field (though we can all think of examples of when this has happened). They call it “contextual morality.” Payton understood it well. In fact, he paid players to endanger the lives and livelihoods of other players in the league because of contextual morality.
Payton did something wrong in an absolute sense (in my mind), but as with many problems like this, painting it as an individual issue is problematic. I’m not arguing that he shouldn’t be punished, but I guess I am arguing that he was probably hired in the first place for some of these same reasons. More attention should be paid to the reasons for his behavior in the first place. Why was it in his interest to authorize this kind of violence? And what did the League have to gain by providing such a harsh and public punishment for his behavior? What does it allow them to hide? What’s not being addressed?