An American soldier marches slowly down the runway. His precision is impeccable. His white gloves gleam in the fluorescent lights. He holds his sword upright, without shaking, without physical weariness or any expression on his face at all. He looks exactly like the masculine ideal of the unemotional, perfectly disciplined soldier.
The scene is from Paris is Burning, the critically acclaimed 1990 documentary about New York City ball culture. The gay Black man dressed up as a soldier is attempting to achieve what’s known in the drag world as “realness.” Drag queen Dorian Corey explains the term in a voiceover: “The realer you look, it means you look like a ‘real’ woman. Or a ‘real’ man. [Meaning] a straight man. It’s not a takeoff or a satire. No, it’s actually being able to be this.” This kind of drag, where men dress up as an extreme, straight-passing form of masculinity, is less well known in the contemporary drag scene, which mostly features drag queens and (more rarely) drag kings. But there is a place in American culture where you still find men dressing up to perform a hyper-stylized, deadly serious masculinity: American football.
There is one very critical difference between football and drag, which is that drag is self-aware. In drag, gender exists only so far as it’s a performance: sometimes as realness, sometimes as satire, often gloriously as both. But in American football, the players put on padding and uniforms that exaggerate the breadth of their shoulders and narrow their hips. They stride out onto the field under the glare of fluorescent lights, cheered on by beautiful women in skimpy outfits, saluting a flag (usually held up by soldiers in white gloves), in order to play a game that features such phrases as “penetration,” “pound the ball,” and “hit the hole.” It’s basically just one big advertisement screaming, “See we’re men! We’re straight! Buy into this product, and become a man just like us!” And yet the vast majority of people—players, fans, and sportswriters alike—remain blissfully or deliberately unaware that this is a performance. This is straight male realness, hyped up past it into the surreal. Imagine a John Waters movie that doesn’t even know it’s a John Waters movie.
There is something that feels very “American” about American football, and Colorado State University historian Robert Gudmestad suggests the cartoonish masculinity of the game can be linked to our unique national anxieties:
Postwar affluence and the increase in white-collar jobs, when combined with concerns about the power of the Soviet Union, led many Americans to fear that men were too effeminate and weak. These anxieties created fertile soil for the growth of football, which became a way to affirm masculinity and fight the supposed “muscle gap.” If you didn’t embrace football—which seemed to embody Cold War ideas of containment—you might be suspected of deviant behavior like homosexuality or communism.
This is not the only way in which the broader issues of the country at large are reflected in the game. In football, we see so many of the trends that characterize the United States: not just gender performance but anti-worker corporatism, healthcare woes, and, of course, racism. For some time, these issues have been hidden from view, undiscussed in a sports world that prefers to celebrate idealized male warriors who owe their loyalty (and silence) to the fans, the team owners, and bountiful America itself. But of course, football players aren’t warriors or symbols. They’re people, with bodies that can be damaged, and minds that are aware of their rights as workers, their precarious status as celebrities, and the violence and inequality directed at Black men in this country.
The left has a tendency to disdain sports. Sports are considered irrational, a distraction from the Very Serious Business of politics, a “bread and circuses” corporate spectacle, an entertainment for the mindless masses (who are, for some leftists, curiously not imagined as workers). That’s unfortunate, not just because football can actually be really fun to watch and follow—have you ever seen an entire game turn on a sudden pick six?—but also because it’s a major national institution where important questions about gender, race, and labor play out. Yes, football is a corporate festival for the masses, an unconsciously campy celebration of masculinity and America and whiteness and Our Troops and sacrificing yourself for the greater good (i.e., your employer). That’s precisely why it deserves our attention.
The days when one could envy the lives of football players are past. With increasing awareness of the prevalence of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), we know that football players not only put their bodies at risk, but also their brains. In 2015, the New York Times reported on the devastating story of Ryan Hoffman, a former star lineman at the University of North Carolina who developed severe symptoms of mental illness and ended up homeless. Soon after being profiled, Hoffman rode his bicycle into oncoming traffic and was killed. His autopsy revealed the presence of CTE. There have been other prominent cases, from Junior Seau (who committed suicide), to Aaron Hernandez (who murdered at least one person and then committed suicide in prison). The autopsied brains of dead football players carry the scars of their terrible, unhealable injuries. In one study, 110 out of 111 deceased football players (who had donated their bodies to scientific research into the mental conditions they had suffered during life) showed signs of CTE.
The NFL instituted some minor rule changes this year intended to reduce the number of head injuries. But each time a rule change is proposed, there is protest from some quarters, with fans and commentators suggesting that it’s ruining the integrity and masculinity and red-blooded raw steak-iness of the game. During a Monday Night Football broadcast, former Dallas Cowboy-turned-sportscaster Jason Witten called the new roughing-the-passer rule—designed to prevent head injuries—too soy-boy lefty. Witten commented: “…they’ve just gone too far with that rule. I knew they wanted to make it about the health and safety, and protecting these quarterbacks, but it just seems like we went a little bit to the left wing on that, you know?” Leigh Steinberg of Forbes comments that “every protective rule change is initially greeted with controversy” and “football purists always claim that these changes ‘sissify’ football, or say ‘What’s next, putting a dress on the quarterback and letting him play in a rocking chair?’” But as Steinberg observes, “these critics are not around later when a player is suffering from dementia or CTE.”
The health risks of professional football are contested; some research has suggested a reduced life expectancy for career NFL players compared with those who quit earlier in life. Football players are probably healthier than average due to their athletic lifestyles, but also prone to unique risks. The NFL, for its part, has vigorously contested findings suggesting that professional football hurts its players in the long run, and has been criticized for attempting to downplay the significance of CTE despite investing in medical research on concussions. SB Nation has written that the league “has a history of supporting concussion research…but only when that research supports what it’d like to believe.” Convenient!
There are plenty of injuries besides head injuries, and some players have clearly been worried. Heisman Trophy winner and former Raiders running back Bo Jackson commented last year that if he had been aware of CTE’s risks, he wouldn’t have taken up the game to begin with, and he didn’t want his children playing the sport. This year, cornerback Vontae Davis quit abruptly in the middle of a game. A 10-year veteran of the NFL, he had suffered multiple injuries, surgeries, and rehabs throughout the course of his career. In a written statement, Davis said:
…today on the field, reality hit me fast and hard; I shouldn’t be out there anymore. I meant no disrespect to my teammates and coaches. But I hold myself to a standard. Mentally, I always expect myself to play at a high level. But physically, I know today that isn’t possible, and I had an honest moment with myself. While I was on the field, I just didn’t feel right, and I told the coaches, “I’m not feeling like myself.” I also wondered: Do I want to keep sacrificing? And truthfully I do not because the season is long, and it’s more important for me and my family to walk away healthy than to willfully embrace the warrior mentality and limp away too late.
Lots of sportswriters and fans were angry and upset at this refusal of the warrior mantle, Davis’ perceived dereliction of duty in the face of the enemy (in this case the enemy was the Chargers, who recently left their adoring fans in San Diego for indifferent L.A. which, to be fair, is a rather evil move). Davis’ supporters included Arian Foster, former star running back, who also quit abruptly, in the middle of the 2016 season, after a career littered with soft-tissue injuries and surgeries. Foster tweeted: “this football culture has somehow brainwashed people and players that your health as a human, being prioritized over a sport is somehow disloyal. This isn’t a desk job. When your heart isn’t in it fully you can hurt yourself or others, for good. Walk away when you know it’s time.” SB Nation’s Ryan Van Bibber called Davis’ actions “kind of awesome,” fulfilling a lot of people’s “American Dream,” the “working class fantasy” of “walk[ing] off your steady job that makes you miserable” and burning your bridges. Van Bibber portrayed it as a kind of “take this job and shove it” moment, but it wasn’t quite that: Davis was gracious and rueful; he just realized he had to quit before the job destroyed him.
In that sense, professional football really is a lot like many working-class jobs, in which you’re selling your body’s best years to your employer (and told, implicitly or explicitly, that you ought to be grateful for the opportunity). Of course, NFL players are paid a lot more money, but in some ways that’s deceptive—the typical career length is 3.3 years. The average salary may be $2.1 million, but that’s not much for a potential lifetime of physical injuries including possible brain damage. Many aspiring football players graduate college without ever really taking classes (college football players are supposed to keep up their grades, but many universities find ways of letting their star athletes glide by without ever having to find out which building is the library). After leaving the NFL, players often find themselves adrift, with knee injuries and memory problems, the money quickly gone. Sports Illustrated estimated that “78 percent of NFL players end up broke or under financial stress after they retire.” If you’re not a star player, and you haven’t trained for another job, and you’ve damaged your body or mind, how are you supposed to spend the next 40+ years of your life?
Then, of course, there’s the exploitation of college athletes. They’re not paid at all, even though they make enormous amounts of money for their university through TV contracts, ticket sales, and merchandising. They’re not even allowed to sign endorsements, or license their own images. The popular NCAA Football video game series takes the players’ stats and assigns them to randomized names and unsmiling, characterless, computer-generated portraits. It’s an absurd situation, justified on the grounds that the students are effectively unpaid interns, playing for “exposure” and for sheer patriotic love of their university, all while head coaches and athletic directors regularly pocket million-dollar salaries.
Consider the situation of Nick Bosa, a star defensive end for Ohio State. Early this season, Bosa suffered a core muscle injury and went through surgery, then rehab. He would have been back to play in December in time for the playoffs, but instead decided to withdraw from college, finish his rehabilitation without rushing back, and wait for the NFL draft. If Bosa had decided to return in December and then, God forbid, re-injure himself, his draft stock would drop precipitously, along with his possible post-college paycheck. But some view this kind of decision as a betrayal. Here’s commentator Mike Farrell at Rivals.com:
What about your teammates? What about winning a national title, the goal of every high school football player out there? What about loyalty? Yes, I understand that Bosa is working for free and has millions at stake at the NFL level, but quitting when you could likely play for a team that is undefeated and could make the playoffs reeks of selfishness to me.*
Ah yes, what about Bosa’s loyalty to his life-consuming, dangerous, unpaid job, every additional day of which increases his risk of hurting himself so badly that he never gets paid for his talents? Bosa is not supposed to view himself as a person, or even as a worker who earns a salary. Instead, he’s supposed to be a fighter, a true man, someone who is loyal and rugged and will sacrifice even his own body for a higher cause. But what is that cause? Who is it all for—the hometown, the college, and then later in the NFL, the city? Who does football actually serve?
In the case of the NFL itself, the answer to that is: chiefly, a lot of extremely rich white people. All but one of the NFL team owners are white. (Also, the Green Bay Packers are actually owned by the Green Bay community in an unusual, near-socialist arrangement, but it’s a very white town, so we’ll count it.) Some teams have been owned by the same family for multiple generations. (In the case of the Detroit Lions and the Ford family, the ownership has been both constant and hilariously incompetent.) This means that while players may be well-compensated, they’re still laboring on behalf of capitalists. The “means of producing” football, the franchise, are controlled by the owners, while the labor is sold by the players. If the laborers dissatisfy the owners, they can be terminated (contract depending). The NFL might appear different from the typical American workplace, but structurally it’s basically the same, just with more pom-poms.
This makes the racial aspects of pro football even more troublesome. 70 percent of NFL players are Black, while the majority of the fans are white. Most of the top 20 highest-paid players are white, and until recently, Black players had dominated the positions that suffered the most injuries and the least prestige. The hugely important, celebrated, and so-called “intellectual” position of quarterback was almost exclusively white for decades. This has shifted in recent years, and since the early 2010s there has been a wave of talented young Black quarterbacks entering the NFL.
One of these was Colin Kaepernick. When Kaepernick began taking a knee during the national anthem in 2016 in support of Black Lives Matter, he was met with outrage from fans, who saw it as a kind of insubordination. Kaepernick had transgressed an important unspoken rule—he had not maintained dutiful obedient silence, like a good (Black) soldier, but had questioned authority. He had demonstrated “uppityness” and needed to be disciplined. Sure enough, while Kaepernick was a highly skilled player who would have ordinarily have been signed, at least as a backup quarterback if not as a starter,** he became a “risky investment” and was permanently exiled from professional football. His collusion case against the NFL is pending.
The Kaepernick story shows us some of the ugly racial dynamics in contemporary football, which are rooted in American history itself. Black men in America have long been stereotyped as monstrous physical specimens who are dangerous, cannot be injured, and should use their physical talents to entertain white people. They are supposed to be uniquely physically strong, but need to be controlled by white authorities. While they are considered to embody hypermasculinity, they are also deemed disposable, replaceable, like those randomized faces in the NCAA Football video game. There is something ugly indeed about the spectacle of mostly Black men risking their bodies, season after season and year after year, to create profits and entertainment for white people, and being punished if they choose to publicly speak up for racial justice. As commentator Dave Roth wrote:
Last year, when NFL players insisted on the recognition of that fact—when they pressed the point that they were in fact still people that lived and suffered in the same world as everyone else, and demanded to be seen and heard as such—the force of the backlash was intensified by a certain ruffled shock. The NFL, like the broader culture in which it exists, is sentimental about all the wrong things and lazy in a way that approaches actual malice. The negative responses, from Trump on down, mostly resolved to huffy complaints at being rudely awakened from pleasant dreams of kind policemen. But there was, beyond the bursting of that bubble, also an authentic surprise at hearing this protest from these people. It was as if everyone had forgotten that NFL players could say anything with more substance than “Omaha, set.”
Kaepernick and the other NFL players who supported him have dared to use their profile to help people who are in danger, who are hurt, who are dying, and to draw awareness to civilians being killed by police. But just as disobedience can be punished with death by the police—resisting arrest, like Eric Garner—refusing to be a silent servant of white owners can be punished with exile.
Football is ultimately a performance, a grand spectacle, but not a spectacle that understands itself or will tolerate athletes who violate the unwritten codes of hero-soldier behavior. The fans are supposed to have fun—and football is fun!—but no one is supposed to question anything, or consider the players as anything more than costumed gladiators hurting each other for public consumption. The violence then becomes an end in itself. Nothing must interrupt the sacred rituals of masculine realness.
And that’s ultimately what makes football so funny, and so sad: its un-self-consciousness, its inability to reckon with what it actually is: a big silly show of masculinity, a campy send-up of the American military, complete with flags and fireworks and big hugs after the battle. But instead of playing around and slyly exposing the imaginary lines of gender and race, football runs full tilt into the construct. It’s a mad performance of mutually assured destruction where the stakes of masculinity are constantly raised. Where you have to want to hit harder, receive less medical attention, and destroy your body even more to keep up with the frenzied pace of the game and the ever-longer season. Actor and ex-football player Terry Crews—after he came forward with a #MeToo accusation against a white producer and was lambasted for not defending himself, like a man— put the problem plainly, saying:
I love being a man. I’m a dad. I’m a husband. I love what being a man is. But when you’ve twisted up the definition, when all of a sudden I have to do everything you say in order to be a man—that’s a cult. ’Cause cults are about control. If you step out of line, you’re drinking Kool-Aid and we’ll kill you. That’s the whole point of a cult. Anybody who steps outside of what they deem as this definition of manhood you’re gonna find yourself in the cross-hairs.
“Realness” is always, ultimately, a joke. Masculine realness is not an achievable state, just a play, a show, for awards and points. The feminist project can help make men more comfortable with themselves, so they can stop chasing after this impossible, poisonous vision of Being A Real Man. What is happening now in football—whether the NFL likes it or not—is that its players are slowly moving in the direction of redefining masculinity as something that can radically demand not to be hurt. Something that may no longer celebrate the endurance of pain, and will continue to question performing violence for white masters while real violence happens constantly to Black people in public spaces. And ultimately, the NFL needs to change with it, or die.
* At the time Bosa withdrew, Ohio State was undefeated and poised to make the playoffs, but their future is much less certain after an unexpected and humiliating loss to Purdue. It is possible that one of the writers of this piece is a Michigan fan and finds this situation absolutely hilarious. This is a small example of how football and its concurrent regional rivalries can be so, so much fun.
** Nathan Peterman had a starting quarterback job, and he can only throw a football as long as it’s to the other team.