A Feminist's Internal Conflict Of Watching, And Loving, Football

When Katie Barnes took a step back from football, they realized how much mental leg work they'd been doing to compartmentalize all that was going on outside of the actual game. AP Photo/Tony Avelar

I'm tired of football. The headlines about Greg Hardy, Johnny Manziel, and the seemingly endless discussion of intimate partner violence have been tiring. As a woman, I am trying to make sense of the ineptitude of Jerry Jones and the fact he actually called Hardy a leader, and why Manziel is even still playing.

So, on a recent weekend while I was traveling and didn't have immediate access to television, I did not seek out the game at a nearby bar. I turned football off.

I can hardly remember a Sunday without the NFL, or a Saturday without the Ohio State Buckeyes. In some ways, the games were simply background, soundtracks to the numerous papers I've written throughout my life -- white noise except for the captivating moments. Football has always been that filler during my afternoons and evenings, and for the longest time, I thought I zoned out while watching. A weekend without football proved me to be completely wrong. Spending that time away from my beloved teams actually allowed me to clear my head, exposing just how much mental leg work I do to be able to watch a game. More than blinders, football forces me to compartmentalize and pretend that nothing exists outside of the game I'm watching.

Football hasn't changed all that much, but I most certainly have. I'm no longer the 5-year-old sitting on my father's lap asking questions about how scoring works, or the 12-year-old ruining the furniture playing Marino vs. Favre with my brother. I've grown into a feminist, and my politics sometimes preclude me from enjoying unconditional consumption of sport. This is one of those times.

Football is seen as the paragon of masculinity, not just in the expression of masculine traits such as toughness and strength, but in the shaping and molding of young men. In films such as "Remember the Titans" and "Gridiron Gang," a coach provides the game as a means of guiding troubled young men to a more acceptable, and, dare I say, more honorable path. This notion has been internalized across our culture. Even at the highest level, the molding of men is seen as a core component to the value of football evidenced by John Harbaugh, coach of the Ravens, writing, "the value of football is the values in football."

And what are those values?

Football instills the notion of community and the cohesion of a group, and along with it, a hive mind of defining masculinity. Distilled to its essence, masculinity in football is strength, toughness, and not anything our culture typically associates with femininity, such as weakness. The culture of football leaves very little room for nuance in its molding of men, instead melding football skills and masculinity together to create the (im)perfect cast.

My brother has many accomplishments, but one of the first ways I describe his high school career is to mention that he was the varsity quarterback for four years. He also graduated with honors in dance. There is temptation to argue that his experience in football taught him to be a strong man and to dance without consequence, but that simply isn't true. He graduated with honors in dance in spite of football.

That's not the case for many others, for whom football is the only thing that matters. All identity outside of the game -- sexual orientation, other activities, even race -- undermines the culture of the huddle. That truth is what made Michael Sam coming out and the recent strike by the Missouri football team so revolutionary: They undermined the paradigmatic reality of football. If to be a man is to play football, then what does it mean to be more?

These are the questions I ask myself during every game, after every mind-numbing hit and every electrifying touchdown. They're the questions millions of women -- who are an estimated 45 percent of NFL fans -- no doubt ask themselves, as well.

The glaring shortcomings of football stare me in the face with every sweep of the camera. The only women clearly visible are those clad in short skirts, midriffs bare, primarily functioning as beautiful objects to be gawked at and coveted. I see a disproportionate number of people of color on the field, and very few in the stands. I see these things, and I'm not quite sure what to do because I love football. Where does that leave me as a black woman?

Growing up in rural Indiana, I was raised to love this game. My father, a Dolphins fan, and my mother, a Packers fan, employed a strict "game time" rule to ensure our departure from church potlucks by the kickoff. Six days out of the week, we ate dinner in the kitchen as a family, but on Sundays, we had "picnics," which meant pizza and apple juice in the living room to watch the game. Indiana may be basketball country, but football is a close second.

And yet, I struggle. I struggle to make sense of what I see, and to understand my own complicity. My love isn't blind, but it is certainly muddled. Being a football fan requires me to trudge through this sludge and attempt to reconcile my own frustration with the nostalgia that comes from thinking of those afternoons on my father's lap, standing in the bleachers under the lights for my brother's games, and screaming at the television as the Packers implode during the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship game.

Sometimes the messiness of it all gives way to contempt and maybe hatred. But I don't want to hate football. I just want football to be better.

Katie Barnes is a Digital Media Associate at ESPN. Follow them on Twitter at Katie_Barnes3.