Masculinity, the NFL, and Concussions

Masculinity, the NFL, and Concussions

May 12, 2012


The defenders of the National Football League (NFL) have been busy.  In the wake of the suicide of Junior Seau, on the heels of several other untimely deaths, “bountygate,” several former lawsuits regarding concussions, and growing scientific literature highlighting the dangers of football, its protectors have gone on the offensive.  From citing other potential factors that have led to ridiculous rates of suicide, traumatic brain injuries, and a life-after-football defined by depression, memory loss, neurological difficulties and a quality of life no one would associate with America’s heroes, to celebrating the NFL for its efforts to protect the players, the NFL hype machine has gone to great lengths to push back against the growing outcry against football.

Yet probably the most common response has been to place blame on the players, emphasizing their choices and responsibility. “I can’t blame the NFL for every issue that every former player in the NFL has,” noted former player and current ESPN football analyst Cris Carter.  “I signed up to be in the NFL. It wasn’t like someone had to force me. I kinda knew what I was signing up for.”  Responsibility resides with the men who play football and few else. In other words, while terrible, concussions and the long-term impact of those concussions is an unfortunate reality brought about by choices. Players understand the risks, and are rewarded because of the violence and danger, and thus the NFL and any of its partners bear little burden. Illustrating the ways that hegemony works and the illusion of choice, Carter’s comments reflect the erasure of power and ideology.

Greg Doyel, at CBS Sports, further encapsulates the “logic” and framing that turns the violence of football into a choice, one that may have consequences:

For me, it comes down to choice — and football players have a choice whether to play or not. It’s not a blind choice, either. This isn’t the 1960s, when Colts tight end John Mackey had no idea what the violent collisions were doing to his brain. The greatest tight end of his generation was showing signs of dementia in his 50s, in an assisted-living center at age 65, dead at 69. Mackey never knew the risks, but today’s players know. Playing football is like smoking a cigarette: This isn’t the 1960s; everyone knows the risks. . . . Football isn’t dog fighting, where mistreated animals take it out on each other in a cage. Those dogs have no choice. NFL players do. And let’s be honest: The lifestyle of an NFL player is incredible. Even if it ultimately shaves years off their lifespan — and lessens the quality of those remaining years — there’s an argument to be made that it’s worth it. The fortune, the fame. The thrill of the crowd. That’s a lifestyle they can’t get anywhere else. Live like a king at 30, hobbled at 50, dead at 65? Not sure I’d take it, but many would. And do.

Similarly, Karla Milner, who commented on The Washington Times website, offered the following:

… two words people: PERSONAL ACCOUNTABILITY. We all make choices – not all of them are good. But they are our choices and we should own them. If you choose to smoke all your life you should NOT be able to sue the tobacco companies as in my lifetime there’s never been one second that we didn’t know it was bad for our health (and I’m over 50). And if you choose to play football (professionally or otherwise) you should not be able to sue over issues from concussions or other injuries because there’s no way in hell you could NOT know that the risk of injury and issues down the road was a possibility…

She wasn’t alone, with dozens of commenters reiterating the mantra of choice and accountability. One such person, Blair, agreed: “Like you were all forced into playing the game…. Look at boxers? Heck, who warned me that everytime (sic) I got on my bike after school I could get a concussion jumping ramps in the alley?” Patrick Hruby describes the fan and media reaction as follows:

1. Getting hit in the head is bad for you;

1a. Duh;

2. Former football players understood this risk when they signed on the NFL’s dotted line;

3. Ergo, the league is not responsible for helping players deal with subsequent memory loss, lack of emotional control, cognitive decline or early-onset dementia;

4. Also ergo, any former football player with the sheer gall to file a lawsuit is a greedy moocher trying to work the system, akin to the lady who sued McDonald’s over spilled hot coffee.

The ubiquitous links to McDonalds and tobacco are interesting in that in both those cases, the logics of capitalism and the instruments that protect the bottom line sought to minimize or, better said, quash any threats. The tobacco industry, in fact, sought to deny the consequences of tobacco, so why are we to think that such denials or reframes are little more than a tobacco-like distraction?

The constant references to players reportedly hiding symptoms or players refusing to listen to medical advice regarding concussions represent a narrative emphasizing choice. It is the players who bear responsibility for their choices; and more importantly, those who choose to remain in the league, who continue to live the American Dream playing America’s current pastime, do so knowing the risks.

This conservative reactionary response is of little surprise given the links between the U.S. political establishment, the military, commercial culture, and football. The constant emphasis on choice, individual actions, on pulling oneself up by one’s cleat laces, on risks and rewards, is emblematic of the hegemony of a protestant work ethic trope and meritocracy. Never mind the lack of transparency and education that allows one to make “informed choices,” the efforts to defend the NFL and deny culpability erases the ways in which masculinity and dominant notions of good versus bad manhood constrain the choices that players and fans alike make regarding football.

Continue reading @ Masculinity, the NFL, and Concussions | The Feminist Wire.

Black Girls Run! Friendship, Community, and Sisterhood


On the website “Stuff White People Like,” marathons are listed as #27.  It describes running a marathon in the following way:

To a white person, the absolute pinnacle of fitness is to run a marathon.  Not to win, just to run. White people will train for months, telling everyone who will listen about how they get up early in the morning, they run when it rains, how it makes them feels so great and gives them energy. When they finish the marathon, they will generally take a photo themselves in a pair of New Balance sneakers, running shorts, and their marathon number with both hands over their head in triumph (seriously, look it up, this is universal). They will then set goals like running in the Boston Marathon or the New York Marathon. If you find yourself in a situation where a white person is talking about a marathon, you must be impressed or you will lose favor with them immediately.  Running for a certain length of time on a specific day is a very important thing to a white person and should not be demeaned.

Playing upon widespread stereotypes about whiteness and African runners, Daniel Tosh celebrated the existence of marathons in racial terms: “The only reason marathons are still around is so 20,000 white people can chase three black guys through the streets of Boston like the good old days.”

This is the world I imagined when I first started running a few years back.  As a white male, nobody ever questioned my “fitness” to run marathons, assuming, despite never being a runner, that it was a natural outgrowth of my past athletic endeavors.  Since then I have done several races, increasingly witnessing the level of racial, class, and age diversity evident within the running world.  Whereas both the Seattle Marathon (Rock n Roll) and San Francisco Marathon were overwhelmingly white, my recent race in Los Angeles challenged the widespread association between running and middle-class white identities.  My experience highlighted the diversity of runners (and Los Angeles).  I was surrounded by black and Latino youth, many who were running as part of the Students Run Los Angeles program. This challenging fact disrupts the celebrated whiteness associated with marathons.  Running is not limited to 5K or 10ks, half or full marathons, but is a daily practice that brings people together in myriad contexts.

The existence of Black Girls Run! (BGR) is yet another challenge to a narrative that sees running as a white activity and its erasure of people of color, offering a symbolic intervention all while creating a community of betterment with its investment in running, walking, and collective exercise.  Founded in 2009, BGR works “to encourage African-American women to make fitness and healthy living a priority,” yet in talking to its participants, it does so much more.


Throughout the media coverage of BGR it is celebrated as a movement that works to address black obesity and cultural shortcomings that purportedly discourages exercise and encourages poor eating habits.  Erasing the power of the organization, the media focus on pathologies obscures the power and focus of a group committed to supporting black women runners.  Contrary to this popular assumption, most of the respondents I spoke with noted a history of running and exercise, citing BGR as a nurturing community of support, and not one that taught or brought them into running.  While pop cultural representations and various surveys (Running USA Survey found that only 1.6. percent of runners identified as African American) of African American people  paint the running world as white territory, African Americans have always engaged in recreational running.  Adrienne White told Runner’s World how BGR challenged dominant media representations: “You flip through the magazine, and you just don’t see yourself.”  Similarly, Brenda Stallings lamented the erasure of black women from the public running imagination. “If we don’t see us, we don’t think that’s really for us. I read the magazine because it’s insightful, but I’m not going to look down there and see me.”  BGR thus represents a symbolic and material challenge to the white imagination as it relates to running.  It is the announcement of “we are black and we are runners” to a world and culture that so often sees runners as akin to whiteness.  This representational distortion not only erases the experiences of black women runners, but also contributes to a larger discourse that often paints health disparities as the result of individual failures–as opposed to structural inequalities and persistent racism.  Reflecting on the persistence of segregation where spaces of running lack diversity, and the elevation of white runners within media culture, BGR offers a powerful intervention.


Continue reading part 1 at Feminist Wire



Part 2


Whereas gyms often feel like places of tremendous judgment, with its pictures of hard, slender bodies on their walls, mirrors strategically located throughout, and an overall culture that privileges the “beautiful,” BGR works to create a space free of criticism.  While enhancing the exercise experience, the efforts to resist the socially constructed markers of beauty and athleticism, fitness and desirability, represents an important intervention individually and culturally.  “BGR provides a safe, no-judgment zone for beginners and those getting back into a consistent routine of walking/running,” notes Tiffany Cullens of Columbus, Ohio.

Describing the organization as a “nation,” “family,” a “movement,” and sisterhood by its members, BGR offers a community that transcends age, class, geography, and most importantly level of expertise.  It offers not only a supportive space but also one that values all its members.  Whereas exercise is so often framed around achieving a Hollywood body in an effort to fulfill dominant standards of femininity and masculinity, BGR values exercise and the power of a community with a shared goal of running or walking.  “I’m always amazed by all the different body types that come out every weekend. Big hips, big thighs, round bellies, as well as slim, lean, what you imagine is the “typical” runner’s body,” notes Leigh Raiford, a Bay Area BGR member.  “There are women who perhaps you’d never think could run more than a mile, have done half-marathons or even full marathons. For me this has translated from a desire for a more perfect body to pleasure in feeling strong and healthy. I may not have a bikini ready figure but I’m taking care of myself in ways that truly matter.”  Raiford brilliantly compared BGR to both the black church and hair salons given the shared emphasis on community, betterment, and sisterhood: “For someone like me who doesn’t go to church, who has a short fro and doesn’t go to the hairdresser, and who is a transplant to the Bay Area, I don’t have a lot of opportunities to hang out just with black women. So BGR has provided community for me in ways beyond running.”  Similarly, Darlene Baltimore emphasizes the safety and support offered by BGR:

I think why so many women are drawn to BGR! is because we are so much more than a running group. We are a sisterhood, support group, and safe haven for all women who want to get fit and live a healthier lifestyle. BGR! welcomes all levels of fitness from walkers to marathoners. We don’t compete against each other, but inspire and motivate each other to reach our individual goals—whether it’s walking a mile or running a marathon. The name itself is appealing because immediately a black woman can identify.

Yolanda Jones, the Ambassador for the Colorado BGR group, concurs, “I believe it gives the ladies a sense of belonging. I have now found a group of other black women who like myself like to run, jog or even walk. It gives them a community to go to something that now says ‘I am now connected to others who look like me and have common goals.’” To say that this is a community of runners, a community that supports and nurtures a love of running, would be understatement.  Operating at both a local and national level, the BGR community is one of support in the face of public erasure of black women and the ubiquitous demonization of black women’s women bodies, whether Serena Williams or Michelle Obama.  Beyond challenging these stereotypes and larger forces of systemic racism/sexism, BGR provides its members with an environment apart from the daily rhetorical (and real) violence experienced by African American women.

While often dismissed as a running group, BGR is much more.  Regina James, who highlighted the interventions and resistance offered from her participation in the organization, focused on the power of the group given the realities of racism and sexism in America:

I feel it’s important for us to train together. Most of us live and work in environments where we are ALWAYS the minority. It’s nice to have a place where we are a majority. We can just be ‘us’ (whatever that is) and be totally accepted. That is powerful.

We challenge the narrative just by being ‘there’. Most white runners I’ve talked to mention that there aren’t many Black runners at races (except Africans, who win the majority of distance races). Thanks to BGR and the NABM (National Association of Black Marathoners) I know I never have to be the only Black face in a sea of 30,000 people lining up to run a race. If I post online that I’m doing a race or visiting a city, I can find others who will run with me.


While the dominant media narrative of black women’s health often focuses on pathology, dysfunction, and personal shortcomings, the stories told by the women involved with BGR challenges a culture of disparagement and demonization.  Yet challenging the accepted stereotypes isn’t of concern for the women of BGR whose focus remains on the next mile and nurturing a community of support during those long runs and after.  With each step, with each high five, and with each statement of support, the members of BGR demonstrate the power of community and the power to move forward even when others stand in the way.

Continue reading part 2 at Feminist Wire