(The following excerpt from NFL’s Masculinity Problem And How It Affects Us All by Elizabeth Meyer, Ph.D., recently appeared on psychology today.com. To view it in its entirety click on the link below.)
The media have been obsessed with peeling back the layers of scandal in the NFL since the public release of the Ray Rice video by TMZ. What is at the root of these problems and why should we all pay attention?
First of all, the NFL represents our culture’s masculine ‘ideal’: it seeks out, develops and highly pays big, strong, tough, aggressive and muscular men. The problem is that it ignores the flip side of the coin of such extreme ‘masculinity’. When these qualities are nurtured, coached, selected, and rewarded it isn’t hard to understand why these players have problems with physical violence, aggression, and intimate relationships off the field.
Secondly, There was video that captured this display of aggression. This undeniable video graphically shows what happens when someone bigger and stronger uses that strength to win a domestic argument. This video breaks the silence around domestic violence and forces the public to acknowledge the reality that exists in many homes and relationships. It also removes the ‘he-said, she-said’ and victim-blaming that has cut short so many conversations around domestic violence in our culture.
Third, these scandals are coinciding with students return to school. I have been reading these stories at the same time as I have been following the protest on Columbia University’s campus. This protest was started by a young woman who is carrying her dorm mattress with her everywhere for as long as her rapist is enrolled at Columbia. Other students have joined her in solidarity to illustrate how our society’s misogyny and valuing of masculinity leads to rape culture and victim-blaming that force so many victims of sexual assault to recover from the trauma alone and in silence while their aggressor goes on as if nothing ever happened.
How does domestic violence in the NFL and sexual assault on college campuses affect us all? They are all outgrowths of the American masculine ideal gone to the extreme. We can not hope to raise children who will value gender equity, who will not resort to violence, and who will seek affirmative consent as long as the messages they get from popular culture, professional sports, and the news media continue to celebrate and valorize a very narrow and harmful form of masculinity. As a teacher, a parent, and author Gender, bullying and sexual harassment: Strategies to end sexism and homophobia in schools, I want very much for our next generation to live in a world with less violence and more equitable opportunities.
The way the NFL responds to this scandal, and the way the mainstream media cover such stories create a public curriculum that we are all exposed to. If we, as parents, educators, and concerned citizens want to live in a world that encourages children to express their emotions in healthy ways, to avoid physical violence when they are upset, and to seek equitable and consensual intimate relationships, we need to pay attention and care about what happens here. Our kids are paying attention, so we need to be sure to talk with them about what they are learning so they can internalize more healthy and appropriate messages about masculinity, relationships, and intimacy for a more healthy future.
Some tips for talking to your kids about the NFL scandal:
1) Start with a question: “Have you heard about this NFL thing? What have your friends had to say about it?” or “Did you see the video everyone is talking about? How did it make you feel?” Open-ended questions allow your child to start with what they know and how they feel. Let them lead the way from there to show you what they understand and how the media coverage may be influencing how they and their peers are making sense of this story.
2) Use it as an opening to talk about our culture’s notions of masculinity and romantic relationships: “The media has been nonstop on these NFL scandals. What message does the NFL send if these ‘heroes’ are allowed to keep playing until public pressure forces a different response? Do you think this affects how boys see their dating relationships? How do you think it makes girls feel?”
3) Watch a football game with them and discuss the coverage and commentary around the players and the league over the next few weeks. Use it as an opportunity to get your message in along with the mass media’s perspectives. “Do you agree with what they just said?” “Why do you think they show ads like that during football games? What message does that send about the NFL audience?” “Do you think professional athletes are role models? What happens when they behave badly?”