October 17th at Real Art Ways, “Masculinity and Its Discontents” featured a panel discussing the topic of violence and aggression in the NFL and the military and how that figured into culture in the U.S. Mike Pesca of Slate moderated the panel. Steve Almond, the writer of Against Football, William Giraldi, writer of Hold the Dark, ESPN’s D’Arcy Maine, and Iraq veteran medic Ryan Henowitz brought their perspectives.
While military issues were discussed the NFL really turned out to the be the focus of the night. Giraldi had theorized that the NFL was reflecting society but society also reflected the NFL due to a circular relationship. The themes of the night certainly bore that out by showing the efforts people were going to justify football, while the NFL tries to minimize the PR hit, and the media struggles with how far to go in their criticism. Almond outlined his struggles with a game. He was a major fan of but couldn’t justify liking anymore. The struggles the participants felt could be seen within Pesca and Maine as well. Pesca, critical as he was of the NFL, received an update on his fantasy football team on his phone during the event, and Maine works for ESPN and remains a fan though was very critical of what has gone on in the NFL.
Almond read from Against Football and spoke to how his book explored the numerous “moral hazards” of the game including detrimental results regarding physical health, race, gender identities, race, sexual orientation, militarism, and the outcome of suppressing empathy and normalizing violence. Almond wondered if football has become popular because it has become a “refuge” where people can safely indulge in all the things they haven’t figured out yet, whether it be patriarchal domination, racial issues, or violence. Almond pointed to a direct negative effect that football can have where the majority of stadium costs will come from the public, but only pennies on the dollar in economic benefit will come with it. He also made it a point to note that the NFL is a huge distraction, pointing out media members like Pesca could be covering any number of topics but so many cover sports. He noted that Finland has the best education but the lowest level of organized sports participation. Even with this scathing critique of football Almond admitted he “still missed it.”
Regarding sexism and domestic violence in the NFL, Maine, who identified as a feminist, noted the past few months have been trying as a fan as Ray Rice was given a punishment she thought was not enough and that the NFL seems to have turned a blind eye to domestic violence issues even during the rise of the female fan. Though she also observed there seemed to be slow change occurring. Pesca pointed out that the NFL doesn’t have a good hiring history with regard to gender and counted only 3 female decision makers in the league.
Later on Maine brought up that men seem to use a defense mechanism when discussing some of these issues saying “well because I have a daughter so I see it this way…” as if the hint if they didn’t have a daughter or a wife they’d still see the issue the way other men do. She wonders why we can’t just see something as being right because it is right. Maine’s opinion is that football can reinforce racism and sexism, also noting the slow pace gays have had in gaining acceptance. In defending being a female fan of football given all that is going on, Maine felt that in her mind if women and other people seen as rational left the proverbial table, then who would be left to change things. She stated the need for people to be the voice of reason and to offer concerns.
Almond looked at the issue asking if his daughter was watching the game what would she see? Though he notes the media looks to be scapegoating to insulate the problem far from fan roles as sponsor of the sport. He went on to look at the larger issue of gender roles and was critical of the paradigm being put across that men use force to accomplish a goal, while “women are social ornaments who bounce on sidelines.” A situation he describes as 1550’s values observing that the NFL’s female equivalent is the Lingerie Football League. He expects this trend to continue whether the NFL hires someone like Condoleeza Rice to run the league or not describing the league as the “U.S.S. Misogyny.” The discussion also turned to the idea that football is the only way men can learn grit raising the questions of whether it truly is or not, and also why can’t women learn grit too?
In response to a question about how the media can condemn Rice and Goodell now but did not give scrutiny to many past domestic violence offenders or offenders who are still playing now, Maine said she saw the Ray Rice situation as a “finally” moment where the issue reached prominence. It was being talked about and the attention and movement was a positive step. Almond noted that many use the unfortunate tactic of acknowledging there is a problem as if acknowledgment is enough to resolve it and gain absolution for it. He also reminded the audience that the lines not be crossed are set by society.
Regarding the military, Giraldi read some meticulously graphic passages involving combat violence from Hold the Dark. The story is a gritty tale that contrasts life in Alaska and apparent ferocious wolf attacks, with the experience of a soldier in an unnamed desert conflict. Henowitz spoke of his expectations when he joined the military arguing that the problem is not masculinity itself, it’s that “barbaric characteristics” are being assigned to masculinity. Also coming with that is the idea that one should join up and “be a man.” He observed in the service after attending the last all male boot camp, how upon arriving at medic training where there was a 50/50 split among men and women, a lot of people had trouble interacting.
Pesca compared the NFL to the military by noting how people are removed from the costs of war, while football lays out the cost of violence right in front of everyone on TV. Henowitz noted in his opinion the worst thing George W. Bush did was prevent pictures of the caskets from being shown during the 2nd Iraq war which took away the ability to see the costs of war in a visual way. This connected with how the Rice case really took off only after the video was seen. Pesca connected this to desensitization suggesting there are times the public is shielded from content over fear they may be horrified, though he suggests we would likely be more horrified over how we are not horrified.
Pesca had also opened the night quoting from Dave Zirin of the Nation, as he read from “The NFL: Where Dr. King’s dream goes to die.” noting the commonalities between the military and the NFL including traumatic brain injury. Later in the discussion, Almond would point out that the NFL and government worked together to rally in support of the troops during the Iraq War, and that military units often appear at games flying overhead and such. Furthering the connection, in response to a question he noted that Nixon was a huge football fan who named military operations after football and was in awe of Washington QB Frank Gifford. Almond tied this connection to the theme that is promoted that violence is the way to settle disputes and assert your way in the world.
Pesca had also introduced George Carlin’s football vs. baseball routine to exemplify the military terminology that football is filled with. Maine agreed that there are ton of words with military undertone. words you don’t even think about and hear so much that reinforce violence. She supports doing away with them but is worried that they are so ingrained it will be difficult.
Almond noted how complicated issues like international military action can become confusing and abstract, but football creates a context where extreme violence is heroic and sanctioned. Beyond that, he noted that for soldiers and players who participate in this violence when they are done with their duty and return disfigured “we put them out of view.” This was again a reminder of the efforts being taken to hide the cost of something from those who follow it.
Bringing about change was seen as being obstructed by the insular nature of both soldiers and the NFL. The idea that civilians would never understand the life came up. Henowitz phrased it as a shelter where no one else can join in. Almond also blamed the business angle of the NFL for why the game goes on even though it is no longer safe, not because of evil, but because the size of the players prevents it from being played safely anymore.
Pesca asked the panel about the the idea often stated that fans process injuries with the excuse that if people are inherently violent, doesn’t football offer a release valve, a deathless way to get the juices out, without experiencing war? Almond disagreed noting how popular football is in the U.S. and presenting that the high gun ownership and incarceration rates that are closer to third world countries than developed countries. He also noted that when we describe trauma in the NFL it’s “he got his bell rung” or other such phrases. He added that Ray Rice’s wife experienced the same trauma. Maine had earlier lamented that we are desensitized to injuries and how a radio host celebrated when an opposing player was injured.
An idea discussed was how society has lost the ability to be outraged. Pesca mentioned to the audience that practically no media outlets are covering the trial of Blackwater agents who were accused of killing Iraqi civilians. Henowitz outlined how we glorify a small amount of violence, sportsmanlike fighting and no one is saying no. He suggests that it can create the idea that if all that is good then a lot of a violence would seem even better in peoples minds. He also mentioned the growth of MMA as a sign of the trends being looked at with concern in the NFL.
A lot of ground was covered by the panel, though unfortunately not many solutions emerged.