Love the football game, hate the toxic sports culture

During Sunday’s Super Bowl, the NFL aired a PSA in partnership with No More, an organization dedicated to raising awareness for issues of domestic violence and sexual assault. Recent major sporting events like the Super Bowl and World Cup have brought protests and campaigns around these subjects.

While these issues are significant and deserve recognition, there is a danger in vilifying the sport itself instead of the abusers. Football is a violent sport, but there needs to be a distinction between the game and manufactured football culture.

Survivors of sexual assault deserve support, and backing from major organizations like the NFL can go a long way in spreading awareness that assault is an addressable legal issue. However, the NFL and organizations like it contribute to a toxic image of masculinity, in which a man should compete with and dominate those around him. This behavior plays a role in the power and control that can lead to domestic violence and abusive relationships. Men perpetrate domestic violence at much higher rates than women, and unrealistic views of men in society certainly contribute to the ethos of proving one’s strength. Celebrity athletes and raucous fan culture can also perpetuate an unhealthy image of male dominance.

The problem with blaming the sport alone, as some of the protests have, is that it excuses perpetrators and discredits male survivors. Male survivors face additional stigma associated with their masculinity, so blaming a hyper-masculine culture for sexual assault can be harmful for men who have been assaulted by women or by other men.

Blaming a hyper-masculine culture also excuses instances of violence as angry outbursts. Alcohol is commonly associated with instances of domestic violence, and sporting events are often attached to drinking culture. When intoxicated fans become passionate or angry, violence may result. At the game, this leads to stadium fights. At home, family members may be in danger. Anger, however, is not an appropriate excuse for domestic violence. Alcohol is not to blame here — abusers should be held accountable.

The NFL has a unique place in America as an icon of masculinity. Cases of domestic abuse among its players have received recent media attention, including criticism that the League does not go far enough to punish perpetrators. Domestic violence is not solely the result of the sport or the organization behind it, but such a prominent organization should take measures to prevent violence and educate men about harmful relationships. The PSA was an important step toward recognizing the issue (especially during an event when people are watching commercials) but did not address violence prevention or support following an incident of violence.