Hyper Masculinity, the NFL and Violence Against Women

Brian Phillips over at Grantland penned a rather honest piece on the National Football League’s (mis)handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence incident. For those who don’t know, last February a video emerged of Ray Rice (a professional football player) dragging his unconscious fiance (now wife) Janay Palmer out of a casino elevator. Soon after, police indicated that they had obtained additional unreleased footage showing Rice had punched Palmer and knocked her unconscious.

In court, Rice pleaded not guilty to aggravated assault and avoided trial by entering an intervention program. But what’s gotten some people truly riled up is the failure of his employer, the NFL, to take a stronger stance (Rice was suspended two games also losing pay) and the seemingly tone deaf handling of this issue by commentators and league officials.

Comments have ran the gamut from ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith arguing that women can provoke their own beatings (Smith was suspended by ESPN for his remarks), to another ESPN employee, Michelle Beadle, being harassed via social media after condemning Smith’s comments, to the coach of the Baltimore Ravens (Rice’s team) calling Rice “one heckuva guy,” post beating.

Enter Phillips, who tries to dissect why this incident has played out so poorly and comes to the conclusion that we’re not actually talking about Ray Rice anymore, but really the pervasive culture of hyper-masculinity ingrained in modern sports — football especially.

The league offers, in other words, a particular vision of manhood, at a moment when what manhood means is a vexed question in American culture… I think that for many football fans, the main feature of the NFL’s image of masculinity is — troublingly — that it is so unchecked. It is not constrained by ambiguity or by the limitations that men have, relatively recently, had to learn to accept in their everyday lives. You roar in the NFL, you rage, you hit as hard as you can. This is an atavistic image, one of power based on violence, and it’s swollen here to ludicrous proportions… The fantasy of overcoming an adversary is a reprieve from the fear of powerlessness. The fantasy of lashing out is a reprieve from the stress of the walls closing in.

I think we could have a healthy argument about how much the walls are actually ‘closing in’ on modern-day masculinity. But Phillips assessment of the issue seems spot-on. Many men do feel as if the walls are closing in. They see their privilege — and it is privilege we’re talking about here — as dwindling, while the forces of the PC police,  feminazis, the Al Sharpton race-baiters and effeminate liberals circle the wagons. Men see the NFL as their Alamo. Don’t be surprised if the open carry movement starts demanding a gun’s only section in stadiums across the country.

More troubling perhaps than the perception of sports as a refuge for dangerous hyper-masculinity is the idea that the NFL encourages this connection while at the same time asking women to help pad it’s bottom line. Keith Olbermann aired a segment on the issue blasting the NFL for this very matter.

The National Football League’s concern for Janet Palmer Rice is slightly less than the concern for her that Ray Rice showed on that tape. After he hit her, after he dragged her, after he propped her up, at least he didn’t try to sell her anything… The message to the women who the league claims constitute 50% of its fan base is simple, the NFL wants your money. It will do nothing else for you. It will tolerate those who abuse you verbally and those who abuse you physically.

But what else should we expect? The NFL has perched itself atop a powder keg of unchecked violence and misogyny. Its success as a league in part depends on the objectification and marginalization of women. Why in this day and age do we need the sight of near-naked female bodies to enjoy a football game? Where are all the female commentators? The NFLs catering to the hyper-masculine spills over and helps to spawn an entire advertising culture which reeks of the worst kind of subtle and overt sexism. All of which in order to make a dollar (or a few billion).

If your business model relies on violence and misogyny, you naturally expect and do not care when the two meet. Ray Rice gets suspended two weeks for knocking a woman unconscious because the NFL sees what Rice did as an expected inconvenience and not necessarily a terrible transgression. And few if any in the NFL see a need for true change.

Unfortunately, it’s in it’s final plea for change that Phillips’ intriguing piece falters.

…[W]hen I criticize the NFL for the absurdity of its suspension policy, I, too, am not saying exactly what I mean. My real, unspoken target is that fantasy of middle-class male superpower. What I really want is not merely to decrease drug-suspension minimums while increasing minimums for domestic abuse, as reasonable a goal as that is. What I really want is to save football, a game that I love, from the men who think it should work like this. I want to dispel the illusion; I want that hypertrophied caricature of male prerogative to have no place in American life.

I was disappointed by this ending. It seems that Phillips hopes to sever the connection of hyper-masculinity and football because he sees the former as a potentially fatal wound to the prominence of the sport he loves. Remarkably, there’s no mention whatsoever of demanding change in order to ensure greater safety and justice for women (or heck, the safety of fans or even the players). Which ultimately makes Phillips piece only partially enlightened as it attacks a real problem — an issue of life and death, in fact — but for the weird goal of preserving a game and not people. Which is a shame.

Read the full piece here.

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