Going into the 2011-2012 season, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault. Put more bluntly, “Big Ben” was accused of rape. For at least the second time. The evidence in the incident in Georgia was mounting against number 7 when the defendant decided to dismiss the case. The young woman didn’t want to be dragged through the media ringer. My guess is that she was already receiving threats and finding herself on the receiving end of nasty accusations. After all, she was drunk. She had it coming. Because of the violation of the NFL’s personal conduct policy, Roethlisberger, received a four game suspension. The Steelers went 3-1 in his absence. Then he came back and lead the team to the Super Bowl where they lost to the Green Bay Packers. Since then, Roethlisberger has had to rebuild his reputation. He and his wife Ashley were married in the same church as my first wife and I. The family recently welcomed their third child. My most standards, Roethlisberger is considered among the NFL’s elite as his position. Since his return from his suspension those years ago, I have cheered for him. I cheered for him, sometimes while holding my nose, but often in full throat. I sometimes rationalized that I was cheering for the players around him. As a dyed in the wool Steelers fan, I was cheering for the team, for the city. And let’s face it, who doesn’t like a good redemption story. By all accounts, Roethlisberger has genuinely turned his life around. He’s a father, husband, team leader, and good citizen. The Roethlisberger saga, redemption and all, allowed me to live with the cold comfort of knowing that, at the end of the day, the league was a meritocracy. All could be forgiven on the field.
This year, of course, has put the lie to that and so much else of what the league has stood for. It seems that the act of speaking out for racial justice is far less excusable than the act of sexual assault. Or domestic violence. Or even murder… allegedly. This week, the quarterback who beat Roethlisberger in that aforementioned Super Bowl was injured. Part of my boycott has been distancing myself the league news as much as possible, but my understanding is that Aaron Rodgers may be done for the season. I’ve waited a couple of days to write this, hoping that I would have a happy “Kaep got signed, boycott over!” post to write. I do not. The Packers, a perennial favorite to win the NFC will trust some lesser known talent to lead them to the playoffs because the NFL is not a meritocracy. It is a tool of empire.
As I watched my Facebook timeline fill with #metoo’s yesterday, I couldn’t help but ask myself how much the NFL has contributed to cycles of violence against women and the overall ethos of toxic masculinity in this country. Many have tried to link CTE to instances of domestic violence. While I’m not sure that there is sufficient evidence for that yet, I think the effect goes beyond the field. After all, the rates of domestic violence in the league essentially mirror those in the nation at large. But American football is the most macho of macho sports. Star athletes have always been seen as somewhat untouchable when it comes to the “he said, she said” cases of sexual violence that emerge in these situations. Stories of sexual assault against women at the hands of football players are familiar in most American high schools and colleges. Only the ones where the athletics program itself was involved in either the assault or the cover up, like Baylor, seem to rise to the surface. In no way am I suggesting that the NFL is the source of our nation’s toxic masculinity epidemic, but it is one of the major normalizers of it.
As I’ve taken a step back from the league I love to watch, I have had to confront the ways that I have supported a league that often gives lip service to caring about women (note all the pink apparel floating around for breast cancer awareness this month) but does little to protect women off of the field. I appreciated the campaign, lead by Steelers cornerback William Gay against domestic violence in the wake of the jaw dropping video of Ray Rice assaulting his then fiancee, now wife. Gay, whose own mother was a victim of domestic violence, and other players around the league spoke up forcefully about the need for men to do better. It was a start that quickly lost momentum once Rice’s situation was out of the headlines. Millions of women are NFL fans, but I know a good percentage who have been alienated by the Roethlisbergers and Rices in the league. Rice has been out of the league since the video emerged, but the fact that his name was floating around for several years as after as a “good option” for several teams shows that there at least the notion of sweeping yet another incident of assault under the rug.
As I think about how I can do better by the women in my life, I have to confess my complicity with a league that has often devalued the lives and worth of women. In response to the #metoo’s that began circulating, a female friend suggested that we men might want to confess something like the following “I have harassed, abused, or objectified a woman to her face at some point in my life”. While that’s a good start, it feels like just scratching the surface. I think we have to confess all of the ways that we as men make women feel vulnerable, unworthy, and less than human in this world. I personally confess that I have manipulated, gaslit, lied to, and undervalued women in my life, including both my former and current wife. That my wife has stuck with me through my unhealthiness, that we got to the altar at all, is a testament to how strong women often have to be for sake of the men that they love. My experience has been that women are often willing and able to forgive men’s indiscretions for the sake of maintaining relationship. In my case, my wife was able to see past the hurt and pain that I was projecting on to her to see the future that we could have together and she was willing to fight for me and fight for us. It is a burden that men unfairly place on women that we love.
Instead of highlighting another activist or group of activists this week, which no doubt would have been another unsung female hero, I want to call upon my male readers to be activists in our own lives. We need to speak up and advocate for women’s safety in the spaces that we occupy. We need to live with integrity so that the safest women we know are the ones who live with us. We need to call out bad male behavior where we see it. We need to own our shit when we are called out on it and do everything in our power to make things right. We need to raise our sons to see their mothers, sisters, and classmates as equals. We need to teach our sons that they have no rights to a woman’s body. We need to teach our daughters that they owe no man their body. We need to change the public image of masculinity from one of aggressor to one of protector, friend, and supporter. There is so much more that i can say about this. Men, we must do better! Derrick, you must do better!
I will end with one last word to my female friends and readers: sexism and misogyny, like racism and white supremacy, are so deeply engrained in our culture and psyche that men often overlook the ways that we are falling short. Call us out, but if and when you can, please extend grace. When you encounter those men that you deem are earnestly trying to do better, give them the room they need to grow. Don’t excuse bad behavior. Don’t sweep anything under the rug. Don’t act like you weren’t wounded. I only ask that, in those cases where it is safe to do so, stay engaged. It is a lot to ask and I understand why you would want to retreat into your safe spaces. And there are times when that it is absolutely necessary. But I deeply believe that the places where growth happens are in the spaces where we can be in relationship. That is how I endeavor to engage around issues of race, hard as that has become. I simply offer that as a request, knowing that I’m asking a lot, that you not disengage. Thank you, Sisters!