12/23/2014 03:23 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

The Discourse of Compassion Shaping Some of Our Most Important Current Controversies In Sports

All three current topics that have placed the National Football League at the center stage of social debate in the United States -- violence against women (Ray Rice incident); abuse of children (Adrian Peterson incident); and concussions -- furnish yet further manifestation of the growing presence of what I have termed the "discourse of compassion" that has altered what is morally acceptable behavior in the United States and comparable liberal democracies. Not by chance coinciding with the emergence of the so-called second women's movement, which has become perhaps this discourse's most significant advocate and social carrier, the featuring of compassion created a "culture turn" that redefined our relationship to nature, to what had been viewed as progress since the Enlightenment, to how we came to see and treat the hitherto disempowered, all of whom this large project wanted to include as equals, give them their proper voices, lend them the rights that they fully deserve, but most importantly accord them their full dignity as well as autonomy. I have come to view this as one of the most powerful democratizing processes in human history.

By inevitably challenging the prevailing narrative of the hitherto dominant male order, the discourse of compassion has represented nothing short of a frontal assault on the main tenets of all established institutions, from politics to economics, from the academy to the media, with sports being no exception. The distance travelled by women as sports producers -- i.e. athletes -- since the onset of this discourse so powerfully embodied in Title IX and its revolutionary consequences needs no elaboration beyond their established presence on the myriad stages of top-level sports, from the women's World Cup in soccer (first played in 1991 in virtual obscurity), to the Olympics (both summer and winter); from Immaculata University's Mighty Macs' three-in-a-row national basketball championship between 1972 and 1974 in the now defunct Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), totally unacknowledged by the American public, to the nationally-televised prime time showdowns between the University of Connecticut's Huskies and the Irish of Notre Dame as well as the Stanford University Cardinal; few contest women's presence as bona fide athletes in contemporary America, even though the notion that women and men compete as total equals on the same teams and thus abolish perhaps the last vestige of officially sanctioned "separate but equal" in our society -- as I advocated in a piece on the Huffington Post -- still remains a deeply unpopular concept among women as well as men. On the level of sports consumers -- i.e. of fans -- here, too, we have witnessed major shifts in women's attitude and behavior in the course of the past four to five decades as I argued in our book Sportista: Female Fandom in the United States, co-authored with Emily Albertson and published by Temple University Press in 2012.

Whereas measures implemented in congruence with the discourse of compassion will change the behavior of NFL players (as well as other male athletes) in their relation to women and children and thus have a salutary effect on our society's human interaction, the concussion issue will not only affect players, but the game itself. Here, too, women are playing a crucial role in that early studies show that it is mainly mothers that do not want their sons to play football as we currently know it. Traditionalists (mostly male, of course) will most assuredly denounce and oppose all rule changes designed to "soften" the game, which are certain to come in the next few years, as negating the very essence of the sport which is that of controlled violence. There already exists a substantial narrative that views the NFL's recent rule changes designed to protect the quarterback, the League's most marketable commodity, as the emasculation of the game's defense and thus, at least to some degree, its very character. Precisely because all sports -- particularly at the highest level -- are inherently competitive and winning is indeed "the only thing," to use Vince Lombardi's famed dictum, giving one's all in terms of physical exertion is an absolutely minimal requirement to be considered a legitimate participant, which means that the risk of injury will always exist in these physical contests. There is no gender difference on this dimension. (Indeed, among the highest incidents of concussion occur in the decidedly female-coded sport of competitive cheerleading. It is also very high in the patently non-violent world of diving, particularly from the ten meter platform.)

On a large number of relevant dimensions, most data reveal that women are much more health-conscious and caring than men. They visit doctors earlier and more frequently, they eat healthier foods, they exercise more. The large societal institutions of health and welfare are more feminized than comparably important contemporary institutions like business or engineering or sports. With health-related concerns receiving center stage in the latter (way beyond football), women's voices will increase in this still mostly male culture. Clashes will be inevitable. However, in a strange way, a powerful, predominantly male-coded ally might well link up in this new compassion-driven -- hence female -- challenge: The world of lawyers in pursuit of billions of dollars for their clients but also, of course, themselves. This might pose a formidable new opponent to the worlds of football, hockey, soccer and a number of other sports in which concussions remain par for the course.

Andrei S. Markovits is the Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies; and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. His latest book, co-authored with Katherine N. Crosby, is From Property to Family: American Dog Rescue and the Discourse of Compassion, published by the University of Michigan Press in 2014.