I have been a sports fan for as long as I can remember. As a youth I formally played baseball, ran track and boxed until I decided I really valued my brain cells more than winning a bout; and informally we boys on the block played stickball, soccer, football (sometimes even tackling each other on concrete), basketball, and anything else that required us to run, hit, catch, or fall.
In fact, I am a writer partially because of sports. When I was a boy of no more than 8 or 9, my mother began the practice of taking me to the Jersey City Public Library, the Greenville Branch, as often as she could, usually on Saturdays as that was her day off from work. My mother would sift and read through the local newspaper while my imagination and I were allowed to run wild amongst the stacks of books. And the first ones that grabbed my attention were sports books. About the history of my beloved New York Yankees. About the golden eras of baseball and football. I memorized a plethora of facts and figures because these larger-than-life characters, with names like Red Grange and Joe DiMaggio, and Jackie Robinson and Jim Brown, were utterly heroic and magical to me. Without a doubt I was so enthralled with sports that I made it a point to watch every televised baseball or football game I could, and actually learned the rules to almost every single sport, including ones I did not play, like tennis, golf, or hockey, just because.
And outside of the World Series, the Super Bowl was the spectacle to anticipate every single year. The very first one I watched, as a child, was Super Bowl X between the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers. That game is the reason why I became a Cowboys fan for over two decades (today I root strictly for New York area sports teams), although the Steelers won because of those acrobatic catches of game MVP Lynn Swann.
I have not missed a Super Bowl since, 34 years and counting. I saw Jackie Smith drop a potential game-winning touchdown for the Cowboys in the rematch with the Steelers a couple of seasons later. I saw Jim Plunkett raise from the dead his career and create a legacy for himself as a Raider. I saw Joe Montana coolly win four Super Bowl rings of his own. I saw Doug Williams become the first and only Black quarterback to lead his team (the Washington Redskins) to a Super Bowl victory. I saw the Buffalo Bills lose four consecutive Super Bowls, undermining their great Marv Levy-coached teams. And I saw my New York Giants shock the New England Patriots, and the world, via David Tyree's supernatural "helmet catch," crushing the Pats quest for an undefeated season. Truth be told, the Super Bowl has become as integral a part of American culture as Christmas, I Love Lucy reruns, Coca-Cola, Disney movies, and the music of the Gershwins. It is an unofficial holiday for us, and, in many ways, our post-modern edition of the Last Supper.
Yet something has, admittedly, been radically different for me since those heady days of being a reckless, violent man-child. Twenty years ago this year I pushed a then-girlfriend into a bathroom door in our shared apartment. And my life was altered forever, as I have written in other spaces. Twenty years removed from that sort of behavior, thanks to therapy, healing, the forgiveness of many, including the woman I violated, and an activist's life which these days includes consistent writings, speeches, and work to end violence against women and girls, I soak up sports, especially football, not just as a fan, but as someone deeply concerned with the human condition. For sports are, and have always been, a metaphor for our lives.
And because I, you, we, would be lying to ourselves if we did not confess that football, as electrifying and audacious as it is, is also a brutally violent sport. So violent, in fact, that many former players are permanently damaged physically, and a fair share emotionally, too, due to concussions or other head traumas. (No coincidence, then, that just this past season the NFL passed out numerous fines for what it deemed excessively vicious hits.) But what has particularly given me pause, as a man with an acute awareness of sexism and gender violence, is the steady convoy of NFL players being accused or arrested, year to year, season to season, for an act of aggression against a woman. These charges and allegations have ranged from domestic violence and rape to actual murder. And these are merely the incidents that have become public.
More to the point, there is the glaring state of affairs, right in our faces during these Super Bowl sweepstakes, of the game's two-time champion quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. I certainly give Big Ben, as he is known, his props as a clutch quarterback, and fully acknowledge that if the Steelers win on Sunday it will be because of Roethlisberger's play and his unquestioned knack for staying in the pocket, even at risk to his own health. But Big Ben also happens to be the most high-profile player, in recent memory, accused of sexual assault on two different occasions, one claim occurring less than a year ago. The accuser, a then-20-year-old student at a Georgia college, was seen at several establishments with Roethlisberger leading up to the incident, including posing for a photograph with him. Roethlisberger spoke with police the night of the incident and stated that he did have contact with the woman that was not "consummated," and afterward the accuser slipped and injured her head.
The woman alleged that Roethlisberger, after inviting her and her friends to the V.I.P. area of the nightclub, encouraged them to do numerous shots of alcohol before one of his bodyguards -- an off-duty officer -- led her down a hallway to a stool and left. Roethlisberger allegedly approached and exposed himself and, despite the woman's protests, followed her into what turned out to be a bathroom when she tried to leave through the first door she saw. The woman claims Roethlisberger then had sex with her. It is further alleged that friends of the woman attempted to intervene out of worry, but the second of Roethlisberger's bodyguards, an off-duty Pennsylvania State Trooper, avoided eye contact and said he did not know what they were talking about. The policemen later claimed to "have no memory" of meeting the woman.
The incident brought a great deal of embarrassment to the NFL and to the proud Pittsburgh Steelers franchise. Although Roethlisberger was never charged with a crime, the NFL still suspended him for the first six games of the 2010 season (it was later reduced to four games). Steelers president Art Rooney II was said to be "furious" about Roethlisberger's situation, and Big Ben lost a number of endorsements and supporters. The accuser did not go forth with the case because she did not want to be subjected to the huge media and public spotlight, but she has also stood by her account of what happened.
At his Super Bowl media conference this week, Big Ben never directly addressed this or another instance where he was alleged to have committed sexual assault against a woman. What he did say is "You make mistakes in life and you learn from them. And I think that's what I'm doing now."
While I, given my own history, would be the first to say we should offer every single human being who makes a mistake a shot at redemption, the hope, perhaps naively on my part, is that Big Ben, and the NFL in general, would, once and for all, condemn violence against women, mainly because one too many pro football players have been getting into trouble with the law because of how they mistreat women. I am not trying to single out Commissioner Roger Goodell and the National Football League, but the hard fact is, according to CNN, more than 100 million people will watch the Super Bowl on any given Sunday in early February. That presents a really unique and grand opportunity for our athletes, huge influencers on the behavior of younger and older folks who idolize and worship them, to take a position. The NFL and other major sports leagues already do it on the issue of breast cancer, and this matter is just as significant. Indeed, it is one of the most important civil and human rights issues of the 21st century.
Especially given the multiple reports and news clips saying that "pimps" will traffic thousands of under-age prostitutes to Texas for Sunday's Super Bowl, hoping to do business with men arriving for the big game with money to burn. Although it is difficult to pinpoint an exact number, it is believed that thousands of underage girls have been brought to recent Super Bowls to engage male customers in sex. What we do know for sure is that up to 300,000 girls between 11 and 17 years of age are lured into the American sex industry annually, according to a 2007 report sponsored by the Department of Justice and written by the nonprofit group Shared Hope International. At the end of the day, this human trafficking of these young girls is simply another version of violence against females.
The other equally critical issue is how we American males define manhood. Far too many of us think it is about violent behavior, warfare, gunplay, mindless and ego-driven competition, and the conquering of each other, or women and girls, by any available means. And this has nothing to do with the debates that have raged for years about there being a spike in domestic violence cases on Super Bowl Sundays because of the drinking and abusive behavior of male sports fans. Hard to pin down that kind of data. But it unquestionably is a day when so many different types of people come together, pause, and watch perhaps America's bloodiest and most violent sport as if it were a video game. How incredible would it be to use the saga of Ben Roethlisberger as a teachable moment? For boys and young men: violence in any form against women and girls is completely unacceptable, including forcing yourself sexually upon a female. For girls and young women: under no circumstances whatsoever should a man or boy strike, hit, beat, or otherwise seek to bring you bodily harm. For males and females alike: How can we condemn the treatment of women and girls in foreign countries yet say little to nothing as female minors are being trafficked during Super Bowl Week for the pleasure of sexually despicable American males who could easily be these girls' fathers or grandfathers?
Beyond what we say or do as citizens who care, star athletes and professional leagues like the NFL have got to muster the courage of a Joe Torre, the former long-time New York Yankees manager and guaranteed Hall of Famer: he has spoken eloquently, as an adult, about the domestic violence his mother suffered at the hands of his father when he was growing up. This has become a mission for Mr. Torre, and we really need a generation of athletes to combat this scourge that happens in American communities daily. That is why it is so great that Dallas Cowboy Pro Bowler Jay Ratliff, in the past few days, made a public service announcement entitled "Real men don't buy children. They don't buy sex."
And real men don't hit beat berate sexually assault rape or seek to humiliate women either. Conceivably this is why, with regards to Big Ben, I have gotten a number of tweets and emails from women saying there is no way they will root for the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, because they feel Roethlisberger was given a slap on the wrist and is once again enjoying the fruits of being a man with privilege in our still very sexist society. They are right, of course, and this will not change unless a superstar athlete with the shine and stage of a Big Ben takes a very public stand in the movement to end violence and sexual assault against women and girls with the same sort of guts that, say, Muhammad Ali displayed in his stand against the Vietnam War. In other words, we need to be able to cheer for our star athletes outside the arena as much as we do inside. And cheer for them in a way that is about so much more than the sport they play or the championships they win.
Kevin Powell is a public speaker, activist, and author or editor of 10 books, including Open Letters to America (Soft Skull). He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.