The NFL is so popular, and plays such a charged role in American culture, that it has become a large paradox. The league is a mirror of society, reflecting our difficulties with race, class, sexual orientation, and gender. But the league is also an escape from society, offering a fantasy of liberated violence and untrammeled, almost superhuman power. This paradox creates a problem, because it means the NFL is forever raising urgent conversations and then getting in the way of them, like a rude host. The league-as-mirror shows us, say, a player arrested for drug possession at a traffic stop — a chance to talk about any number of important things. But we have barely managed to ask what they are before the league-as-fantasy starts spinning out mysterious anger and extraneous points of debate. The NFL generates the argument and then becomes the argument’s pervading subtext. We are always really talking about what football means to us.
This is tragic, in a sense, because the NFL is one of the only American institutions that can make any issue visible to a national audience. Before Michael Sam came out and was drafted by the Rams, the problems facing gay athletes were only vaguely present to mainstream culture.1 Afterward, they were a national talking point. Before the video surfaced last February of Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an Atlantic City hotel elevator, domestic violence was notable in the news only as a blank. Afterward — well, you probably remember how this went. Rice’s alleged beating of Janay Palmer was an inescapable subject for months, a ghost narrative that followed you even if you weren’t paying attention. It was the sort of thing you heard about in doctors’ waiting rooms or half-noticed on muted TVs at the gym. Everyone knew something about it; that’s the force of the NFL’s influence.
But it’s also where the problem arises. Because far from providing a forum for a valuable conversation about domestic abuse, the Rice scandal turned into a debacle of talk, a catastrophe of failed comment. One of the horrors of the story, for almost everyone who followed it, was what it made other people say. This started with Rice himself, who, at a press conference in May that followed his indictment on third-degree aggravated assault charges,2 first apologized, bafflingly, “for the situation my wife and I were in.”3 Then he unfurled perhaps the least appropriate redemption koan in the history of organized sports: “I won’t call myself a failure. Failure is not getting knocked down. It’s not getting up.” At the same press conference, Janay Rice apologized for her role in the incident — apologized, essentially, for embarrassing her husband by getting beaten up by him. The Ravens’ official Twitter account live-tweeted this, with every appearance of approval. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh declared that Rice was “a heck of a guy” who had simply made “a mistake.” The NFL suspended Rice for two games, less than the CBA-mandated minimum for a minor drug offense, while Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner, brushed off criticism of the ban. Goodell declared that he was “very impressed with Ray.”
There was a sense in all this that a tone had been inverted somewhere, that the people talking about the scandal were operating from assumptions that differed utterly from their listeners’, that no one understood quite what was going wrong. This continued in sports media, where commentary tended to veer from the vaguely offensive to the weirdly irrelevant. Stephen A. Smith was suspended by ESPN for suggesting on First Take that women can “provoke” abuse.4 According to the New York Daily News, ESPN also suspended radio host Max Kellerman after he described the time he slapped his own fiancée, now his wife. Internet comment sections filled up with a sludge of, at worst, gruesome misogyny, and, at best, a kind of huffy proceduralism that excused the NFL’s response to the scandal by tediously rehearsing its basis in league policy. (As though, if the insanity were based on rules you could cite, it must not really be insane.) Female sports journalists were called horrible things on Twitter, which admittedly only meant that it was Tuesday. When you took everything together, what you saw was not simply an athlete being excused too quickly, or a controversial topic eliciting controversial responses, or the Internet being the Internet. You saw a strange blur of meaning. You saw forgiveness and blame not quite lining up. Confession that felt like obfuscation. Rage that seemed not to stem from its stated causes.
What caused this? It has to do, I think, with the NFL’s curious, quasi-self-appointed role as the safe zone of troubled American masculinity — or, more broadly, as a kind of wildlife refuge for endangered privilege. You could glimpse the character of this role throughout the Michael Sam story, in which a background of frank homophobia was barely kept hidden by the curtain of celebration. You could see still more of it in the controversy over the Redskins name, in which the real question, for the term’s indignant defenders, has never been “Is this word acceptable?” The real question has been “Why wouldn’t this word be acceptable in football, where we’re supposed to be able to do things like this?”
The NFL markets itself as a spectacle of acrobatic violence, an endless war between shiny cartoon armies. All that speed, that aggression, the loudness of the hits — I remember once, in 1994, watching with my father as Emmitt Smith rushed for 168 yards against the Giants through the agony of a separated shoulder. “That right there is a man,” my dad said, his voice heated with admiration, and I understood that this game was not like other games, that this was not simply a third iteration of whatever baseball and basketball were. The stakes were different. This was something else.
The league offers, in other words, a particular vision of manhood, at a moment when what manhood means is a vexed question in American culture. The NFL’s version of manhood can be something noble, like the playing through pain that moved my father so much. But I think that for many football fans, the main feature of the NFL’s image of masculinity is — troublingly — that it is so unchecked. It is not constrained by ambiguity or by the limitations that men have, relatively recently, had to learn to accept in their everyday lives. You roar in the NFL, you rage, you hit as hard as you can. This is an atavistic image, one of power based on violence, and it’s swollen here to ludicrous proportions. But it contains its own sort of catharsis, something like the dynamic in the movie Slap Shot, wherein the closing of the local mill fuels the popularity of Paul Newman’s goonishly violent hockey team. The fantasy of overcoming an adversary is a reprieve from the fear of powerlessness. The fantasy of lashing out is a reprieve from the stress of the walls closing in.
The NFL sells this fantasy without really admitting that it sells it. Which is a problem, because when the league encounters circumstances that compel it to stand against, say, rampant, horrifying abuse, what results is often something like the confusion of the Rice scandal. There is the familiar theater of inadequate contrition, the risible effort to explain real tragedy through the medium of sports clichés (“a heck of a guy,” “failure is not getting up”). There is the reaction-driven media shouting.5 There is the total disconnect between fans who want the league to do more and fans who resent the league for doing anything at all, because to do anything is to interrupt the smooth operation of the illusion of male power that the NFL is supposed to represent.
And it’s this illusion that, unacknowledged, breaks the machinery of conversation. Internet comments defending Rice and the NFL are — well, many of them are genuinely and chillingly misogynistic, but I think more of them are primarily concerned with protecting football from mainstream cultural norms: Don’t take this away too. Men who post smug explanations of league suspension policy may be secret domestic-violence enthusiasts, but more likely they’re simply trying to keep any trace of sensitivity from softening their cartoon war game. What they’re talking about isn’t precisely what they’re talking about. They don’t support the problem; they just don’t want to think about it. They refuse to be collaterally enlightened.
I think guys like this are wrong. I think guys like this live on the tectonic fault between insufferable and ridiculous. But it’s also true that when I criticize the NFL for the absurdity of its suspension policy, I, too, am not saying exactly what I mean. My real, unspoken target is that fantasy of middle-class male superpower. What I really want is not merely to decrease drug-suspension minimums while increasing minimums for domestic abuse, as reasonable a goal as that is.6 What I really want is to save football, a game that I love, from the men who think it should work like this. I want to dispel the illusion; I want that hypertrophied caricature of male prerogative to have no place in American life.
And so we can’t talk to each other. We — league, media, fans — can’t talk about what we ought to be talking about, or even what we say we are talking about. We can’t have a conversation about domestic assault, or about racism, or about bullying, or about homophobia — not about how to judge those things, not about what to do about them, not about how to exclude them from the game. The game means too much, and what it means keeps getting in the way. We can’t shout through it. We’re left talking past each other, not reaching each other. We’re left staring at each other across a 100-yard abyss.