THE BLOG

American Football Culture and Sexual Violence

02/12/2013 03:30 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2013

Co-authored by Imran Siddiquee, Social Media and Communications Director at MissRepresentation.org

Steubenville. Notre Dame. Penn State.

One cannot talk about American football in 2013 without talking about sexual violence.

The past few years have inextricably, and horrifyingly, linked male aggression on the field with male aggression off it.

And as we look back on the event for glorifying this most "manly" of sports in America -- the Super Bowl -- it's time to step back and take a look at what our national football obsession could be doing to our collective psyche.

We can no longer be naïve enough to think that worshiping at the altar of a sport that thrives on male aggression, physical domination over others, winning regardless of cost, and the complete absence of the feminine, has no impact on how we actually treat men and women day-to-day.

If you don't believe that football culture has some influence on larger culture, just look at the types of ads which have come to define the Super Bowl. More than any other major sporting event in America -- from the Olympics to baseball's World Series -- the Super Bowl is filled with images of gender extremes.

Here, it's not just gyrating cheerleaders on the sidelines, but commercials like Carl's Jr.'s or Go Daddy's -- both of which treated women as if they were the products being sold and heterosexual men as if they were the only customers on Super Bowl Sunday. Advertising which presents women's bodies as commodities to be bought -- thus owned -- is far too commonplace during football games (as is actual sex trafficking at the Super Bowl). Why?

Beyond recent findings that prolonged exposure to football's hits and tackles has inevitable harmful physical and mental effects on these athletes, a sport dependent on the idea of dominating other human beings' bodies is bound to have a psychological effect on its fans, not to mention the larger culture.

In hypermasculine culture, physical aggression is directly linked to sexual aggression and the two combined confer "manliness" on an individual male. So it makes sense to see women as objects for the male gaze in the Super Bowl ads. And, by virtue of it being America's most popular game -- in combination with the media's overall lack of respect for women -- it makes sense that this influences how we see and treat women in our culture at-large.

But the logic of the impact doesn't make it any less damning.

Two years before Notre Dame football player Manti Te'o became a national story and the center of an elaborate hoax - falling in love with a terminally ill long-distance girlfriend who he recently found out was, in fact, never real -- another college student, Lizzy Seeberg, reported to Notre Dame police that a football player there had sexually assaulted her. Her story generated a small fraction of the media firestorm that Te'o's has.

In fact, after this troubling and embarrassing sexual assault incident in 2010, involving a member of the esteemed Notre Dame football program, the coach and the University failed to hold a press conference of any kind to assuage the communities concerns. They did pretty much nothing.

The young woman who brought that case to their attention was ostensibly ignored by the University, was intimidated by other Notre Dame football players for even reporting the crime, and ended up taking her own life before the police ever interviewed the accused.

Yet Notre Dame's coach did hold a tearful press conference recently after the nationally known and largely beloved Te'o found out he had the aforementioned fake online girlfriend. And the school did spring into action -- hiring a private investigator to get to the bottom of the hoax. This, apparently, was deemed worthy of immediate attention -- and of tears from the coach -- but Seeberg's experience was not.

What kind of message does that send to our young women, especially those entering football-obsessed college campuses like Notre Dame? Are they -- and their sense of physical safety -- less valuable than a male football star's public image?

In fact, the connection between football culture and the mistreatment of women and our most vulnerable is perhaps nowhere more clear than on college campuses across America.

While the overall rate of rape in America has decreased significantly over the past 20 years, it has stayed the same on college campuses. Soraya Chemaly recently reflected on this fact:

Women who go to college are far more likely than others in the same age group to be assaulted. They just aren't reporting crimes because they are scared to and have no faith that they will be believed. And, when they do, there seems to be a fairly evident pattern of schools not being interested.

It's not just young women who suffer, but as we saw at Penn State, boys and young men are abused as well. Ultimately the pressures of adhering to a hypermasculine ideal -- perpetuated by college football fanaticism -- are too much for anyone, and invariably lead some to act out in violent ways on the most vulnerable around them.

A film Regina Kulik Scully and I executive produced, The Invisible War, sheds light on the epidemic of rape in the U.S. military and how the culture of machismo embedded in the military plays a role in allowing rape to flourish at military bases and in our larger culture. If football remains a hypermasculine, gender exclusive environment that young men are widely encouraged to excel in, often at the expense of their education, then we should expect to see an increase in these kinds of stories, not a decrease.

Just look at the teenage football players involved in the horrific Steubenville rape case. In a town where the high school football team is lauded as if it were a college or professional team, these boys displayed an ignominious understanding of sex, boundaries, and their own power in the world. They not only raped and dragged around a passed-out young woman, but some were recorded boasting about it -- the assault seemingly proving their manhood. Extremely disturbing, yes, but are we surprised?

Cut to: After the AFC championship game a few weeks ago, the Baltimore Ravens coach describing a massive hit -- which left an opposing player momentarily sprawled and motionless on the field -- as "football at its finest." If that is perfection within the game -- an expression of extreme ability and skill -- then how are young boys dreaming of NFL "perfection" supposed to act in the real world? Won't some of them mistake the rules of the sport for the rules of life?

We need to do a much better job of educating our players and setting boundaries both on and off the field. Safety matters for the athletes, but so does teaching our players that human values -- how we treat each other (and especially how we treat women) -- are different from football skills. Coaches, NFL officials, University officials and parents of young football players must all step up. Media and advertising executives must give us better representations of gender during these extremely popular games and stop celebrating a hyper-violent culture that is bringing us all down.

Some broadcasters, like Bob Costas, have recognized football's connection with violence and its connection to America's larger "gun culture." After last year's Jovan Belcher case, wherein the Kansas City Chief's linebacker shot and killed his girlfriend before taking his own life, USA Today estimated that a shocking three out of four NFL players owned guns.

After Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary Chorus sang "America the Beautiful" to open the Super Bowl -- a truly beautiful moment -- it was hard not to be reminded again of the links between violence in sports culture, violence in the media and the terrible violence in our communities. We must start connecting the dots, while further directing our star athletes down a path that can heal us all.

We all have something at stake here, whether we are football fans or not. We must challenge football culture because it impacts our larger culture. We must challenge the media which perpetuates hypermasculinity. And, we must teach our children -- especially our boys -- to see beyond the edges of the TV screen and the limits of the football field. They must learn to see people as complete human beings regardless of their gender. Not to mention, they must see themselves as valuable whether or not they are big, strong men able to dominate women or those who appear weak.

During the Super Bowl we watched in amazement as thousands of people around the world used #NotBuyingIt on Twitter to call out the brands which used extreme representations of gender in their Super Bowl advertising. It was an inspiring display of unity - particularly amongst women - and a definitive rebuke of sexism of all kinds in the media. It's the kind of collective action that we must continue to do until the media hears our message.

Perhaps we can all agree, it's time we started respecting all women as much as we worship the few athletic men who play this sport.

At the end of the day, it's up to us to reexamine our relationship with football in this country, and think more carefully about what we truly want to glorify about football culture -- and what we might want to change.