A Feminist Defense Of High School Football

Lead image: Pexels

When my daughter first approached me and told me that she wanted to play high school football, I was dubious. I was concerned about her safety, of course, but also worried about how a solitary girl would fare in a traditionally male-dominated sport.

My worries were hardly unfounded; 14 high school football players died nationwide this year, a number that’s in line with the yearly data reported by the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research. Moreover, high school football leads the rankings when it comes to one crucial, and high-profile, injury: concussions.

My daughter played high school football for only a few months before suffering her first concussion. It didn’t come from game play per se (she managed to give it to herself by practicing too hard on the equipment alone during practice), but it was enough for her to join the ranks of the estimated 300,000 sports-related concussions that occur each year in the United States.

I got over my safety concerns in part by acknowledging that these harrowing stats don’t tell the whole story. Despite all of the hoopla surrounding the dangers of football, it actually ranks fifth on the list of the most dangerous high school sports. This places it four slots behind the number one most-dangerous sport of . . . boys gymnastics.

Football is also by no means the only way to get a concussion. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists sports in general last as a cause of concussions, after falls, motor vehicle accidents, being struck or hit by an object, and assaults. A month after receiving her football-practice concussion, my daughter suffered her second concussion — this time, while moving furniture in our basement.

It’s also important to note that banning participation in football outright isn’t the only answer to safety concerns. Yes, there is a real risk of getting a concussion while playing football — and concussion rates among high school football players have remained fairly static over time, despite annual decreases in the NFL (down 25% this year alone). But much of this stall is due to a lack of compliance with industry best practices.

Concussion rates among high school football players reduced nearly by half in the 1970s, when new procedures for detecting and monitoring concussions were implemented in schools across the country. Since then, the majority of severe concussion-related outcomes have occurred at high schools that lack a specialized athletic trainer to ensure that these procedures are followed. My daughter’s school, thankfully, has an athletic trainer affiliated with a local children’s hospital who monitors athletes using a standard six-step concussion protocol before they can return to the game. Yet, while 70% of high schools have some access to an athletic trainer, only 37% have a full-time trainer.

If we want to reduce injuries and deaths in high school sports, in other words, we need to mandate full-time athletic trainers for all high schools with team sports, not eliminate football entirely.

All that said, risk of injury wasn’t the only thing that concerned me about my daughter’s decision to join her football team. As a feminist, I also feared that my daughter was joining a sport rooted in damning — and at times dangerous — misogyny.

Football isn’t exactly known for its feminist aspects, to the extent that it was big news in September when the NFL made it an entire month without a player being arrested (and, as it turns out, they didn’t even make it through the whole month). Like it or not, the NFL has become synonymous with wife-beaters and child abusers, while high school football has become part and parcel of a culture that protects rapists while persecuting their victims (see: Steubenville).

In the wake of Steubenville, comedian Amy Schumer joined the chorus of voices speaking out against the Friday Night Lights culture with her viral “Football Town Nights” sketch. In it, Schumer tackles the rape culture that persists in high school football towns — zeroing in on the shared entitlement of football players and rapists, while noting that the behavior players are expected to engage in on the field fosters a sense of entitlement to overtaking women off of it.

When Salon took it one step further and boldly proclaimed last year that “Feminism and the NFL Are Not Compatible,” it seemed as if the issue was settled — football is inherently anti-feminist.

Yet football’s problems aren’t, as Salon claimed, rooted in “brutal misogyny.” There is nothing about the game itself that requires the objectification, degradation, or rape of women. The game has become linked to these evils through our cultural constructs and willingness to allow boys and men to get away with rape for just about any reason — but it is society as a whole that bears that burden. It’s easy to blame football for what ails us, and to backpedal away from it when it gets too ugly, but ultimately, football is merely a reflection of who we are. Our culture is anti-feminist, and that bleeds over into how we play our games, what games we watch, and even how well we compensate our athletes.

None of football’s feminist issues, then, are set in stone. There is a path toward better football, and it’s reflected in the addition this year of the first female referee and assistant coach in the NFL, the small but growing number of female college football players, and the 1,600 high school football players this year who happen to be girls. Girls are coming to play, coach, and referee football, and they are bringing change along with them.

On my daughter’s first day of high school football practice, I overheard the coaches talking about her. “We have a girl this year,” one of them said. “Title IX! I love it,” the other replied, straddling the line between sarcasm and sincerity. She was the first girl to play on her high school’s football team, and no one knew quite what to make of her. After a few practices, the coaches asked her hopefully whether she knew how to kick. “Nope,” she told them. “I can’t kick, I can’t throw, and I can’t catch.”

Before she took the field in August, my daughter had never actually played football outside of PE class. Many of her teammates have played in recreational leagues since they were young — her coach’s son is already on a football team and he’s only 6. My daughter came into the season ready to learn, but she was realistic about her abilities, too. She didn’t expect to set records or make big plays — she just wanted to play the game.

On the first day of practice, my daughter walked into the gym with her head down, terrified to see the boys’ reactions to her, but they greeted her with kindness. Far too much kindness, in fact. The boys might have been afraid to tackle her, but she wasn’t afraid to tackle them. As the summer wore on, and she jumped on top of them to break up plays, they stopped treating her like a girl and began to see her for who she is: a quirky and stubborn football player who happens to be a girl.

Before joining the football team, my daughter feared and sometimes hated men. She carried with her the scars of childhood sexual abuse — she worried that every man on the street was a rapist, and she saw her abuser’s reflection in the mirror when she stepped out of the shower. She was trapped in a 7-year-old’s interpretation of danger, and she pushed everyone away to protect that tiny, scared little girl deep inside of her. She hated me, the man who molested her, the prosecutor who refused to press charges, the system that failed her, and the entire fucking world. She was mad as hell, and sometimes her rage threatened to consume her.

Football didn’t change my daughter immediately, but soon enough, it impacted her life in small but profound ways. First, she walked in to practice with her head down — then she began to walk in with confidence. Where she once held back on the sidelines, she began to push forward and join the huddle. She became part of the team, and by doing so the boys on the team became human to her, too. Beating the shit out of some football equipment wasn’t a bad thing, either. As I listened to the coach huddle up with the team one day and praise my daughter’s “controlled violence,” I started to get it. Football gave my daughter an outlet for her rage and taught her how to regulate it — while in the presence of and with the unfailing support of men.

There is little room in our cultural construct for a woman’s anger. Anger is viewed as “undesirable and unfeminine,” and it is still more socially acceptable for men to express it. This doesn’t excuse the fact that “controlled violence” is still violence; science has found time and again that expressing anger through violence doesn’t work. Yet as Suzanne Moore writes in the New Statesman, “The cliché is that female anger is always turned inwards rather than outwards into despair.” Lacking the means to resolve the root of their anger, in Moore’s construct, women turn their rage inwards rather than confront their own powerlessness.

There remain few socially acceptable ways for women to express anger, and almost none of them offer the fringe benefit of a team to cheer a young woman on while she re-imagines herself and her body as powerful, strong, and even angry.

Football has been constructive in another way, too: playing the sport alongside boys, and being welcomed on the team as their equal, has allowed my daughter to envision herself as someone who has healthy and positive relationships with men. And at the same time, these boys have also re-imagined their concepts of women.

None of the boys on my daughter’s team have played football with a girl teammate until now, and including her has forced them to re-evaluate their own ideas about women in football. They’ve become aware of the importance of inclusion, and they have gone out of their way to ensure that my daughter has the same experience as any other teammate. In a high school setting, where boys and girls are often rigidly cast in gender roles, this opportunity for both my daughter and her teammates to relate to each other as equals is invaluable.

No one team or player will re-define football. Rather, as more girls begin to play, it is likely that the nature of football, from the locker room to the plays on the field, will evolve right along with them. After watching her big sister’s first football practice, my youngest daughter turned to me and said, “If she can do football, I can be on the Seahawks.”

A 4-year-old girl seeing herself as a football player — rather than only as a cheerleader or a fan — is a glimpse into how football can evolve from a guilty pleasure to a feminist triumph.

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