Last Sunday, like millions of other Americans, I donned my black and gold and walked to the bar to partake in America’s favorite pastime.
It’s what we do, on Sundays from September to January. It’s what I’ve done for most of my life – from watching at home growing up to at various Steelers bars across the entire Northeast. I have spent more hours and dollars than I would prefer to count watching grown men in tight pants run into each other for no other purpose than our entertainment. I have gone to games at Three Rivers, Heinz Field, Gilette Stadium, FedEx Field, and MetLife Stadium. I have watched the Super Bowl in the middle of the night in Europe… not once, but twice.
Why? Because I love the sport. I always have. I always will. It’s exciting and fun to watch. It tethers me to home, no matter where else I go. I can’t help it and won’t apologize for this much – I love the sport.
It’s the people I hate.
The last year or so has been rough as a female football fan. I know I’m not the only one to feel this way, nor am I the first woman to write this piece. I don’t promise to write it better or wittier than others. But I have to add my voice to the hundreds, thousands, of others who are feeling like me.
Fed up. Disenchanted. Let down.
The latest business with Greg Hardy is just the cherry on top of an already despicable track record as of late. The message I hear from the NFL is clear: we only care about you for a month, when we talk about your boobs and try to sell you pink merchandise, we only care if you’re abused if there is evidence in photos or videos, and even though we talk about holding our players to a higher standard, we don’t do a damn thing to prove it to you.
As a female football fan – a woman who, for nine seasons, has managed an all-female fantasy football group with women who (gasp!) actually know the game of football – I have had to rationalize watching one of my favorite sports to make myself feel better.
“Even if I don’t watch, everyone else will, so what’s the point in trying to stop?”
“I’m not going to let their stupidity take away something that makes me happy.”
“I have to watch. It’s all anyone will talk about at work tomorrow.”
Rationalizing my fandom is nothing new – I am a fan of the team that employs Ben Roethlisberger, of course – but for the last year, it has simply become exhausting.
I know there are more good guys than bad guys in the NFL, or any sport for that matter. I know that, privately, most of the players in the locker room with Greg Hardy or Ray Rice condemn their actions. But I also know that it doesn’t matter how much good Drew Brees does every day; it will never be broadcast as loudly as whatever asinine thing Greg Hardy just said.
I’m tired of trying to justify being a football fan, and yet I know I’m lying to myself if I say I’m going to quit. I’ve already cut back the time I devote to the NFL – I hardly ever watch other teams’ games any more, and I never watch evening games unless my team is playing – but Sundays roll around and I’m still setting my fantasy lineup, digging up the shirt I think will bring us good luck that day, and bouncing out to the Steelers bar to cheer alongside my Pittsburgh brethren. Just yesterday, I found out a new coworker is a huge Steelers fan. This made me ecstatic.
I don’t have an answer. It’s easy to command you to talk with your wallets, to stop watching, to stop supporting the sponsors whose money allow this sport to exist. I’m not going to do that, because a) I don’t believe anyone actually will, and b) if you stop spending sponsors’ money, they stop spending their money, and I don’t have a job. I like my job. I want to keep it.
I work in sports because I love it. I also work in sports because I have seen the positive impact it can have on society. Brave athletes like Jackie Robinson, Willie O’Ree, Michael Sam. Countless kids, stricken with cancer or other horrible diseases, who have found happiness and willpower through just a few minutes spent with their favorite athlete. The way a win can elevate a city after a hurricane or a terrorist attack or the collapse of a steel industry.
I know there is good in sports. We are inspired by those who fight against adversity. We are awed by those who possess skills that we can only dream of. We are lifted up when the teams that represent our hometowns do well.
I’m in such a better mood on Mondays following Steelers wins than I am following a Steelers loss.
So no, I don’t have an answer. It sometimes feels to daunting to even think about. But if the recent fiascos in the NFL and other sports have brought any good into the world, it’s the rising volume of important female voices in the sports world. Women like Katie Nolan, Michelle Beadle, and Rachel Nichols. Women who are saying, “my opinion is valid, and I deserve to be heard.” Women who stand up to their coworkers, to idiotic fans, and to the commissioner of the most powerful sports league in the country and demand answers.
We’re not necessarily getting them. We’re not really making much progress. But their voices are being heard – by me and countless other women. Hopefully by young girls who will grow up to also work in this industry and, perhaps someday, won’t be relegated to the role of sideline reporter or pre-game host.
So what do we do? We can start by listening to Katie Nolan’s excellent new podcast, in which she has serious (and some not-so-serious) discussions with her fellow female sports reporters. We can support the excellent work by a couple of Philadelphia sports personalities, who used Hardy’s disgusting behavior and the Cowboys’ support of it to do actual, tangible good. We can continue to talk about it all, to make sure that men know it’s not acceptable behavior to hit a woman and women know they all have the strength to leave. We can provide resources to the women and children who need them. We can talk and talk and talk until an NFL player stands up and finally says, “you know what? It’s not ok that Greg Hardy is my teammate. We do not condone this behavior.”
I have to believe that someday that will happen. Till then, I’ll continue to try to justify watching. I just don’t know how much longer I can.