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Dear NFL: Women are people, too

By November 17, 2010One Comment

I’m a woman with a Ph.D. in sociology and I love the NFL. I realize that makes me a fairly small demographic and so the commissioner, the networks, ESPN and NFL Network are not really that concerned with my own personal perspective. But there are other women out there who like the NFL for more than just the opportunity to wear tight-fitting jerseys, and so surely I’m not the only one who is wondering about the odd message the NFL and the media who cover it seem to be sending us about the value of dogs versus women.

With the Eagle’s in the national spotlight again with this week’s Monday night game, I find myself subject to yet another round of what I’ve come to call, “the parade of the penitent negro.” Is Michael Vick a different person after having been in prison? What did Michael Vick think about while he was in prison? Doesn’t Michael Vick’s skin seem a little bit lighter since he got out of prison and professed the horrors of his sins?

Let me say at the outset that I think dog fighting is a fairly sad method of entertainment and something that I would in no way endorse. I also think that Michael Vick’s participation in dog fighting was probably part of a larger spectrum of potentially destructive behaviors which he was engaged in at the time, something he himself has admitted in one of his come-to-Jesus, post-prison interviews. I’m very happy for Michael Vick in what seems to be his much healthier current lifestyle, but also very sad that he seemed to need to go to prison to get there. At least that’s the implication of the narrative the sports media seem to be selling us.

But here’s my real question: Why is it that Michael Vick has to spend 21 months in federal prison for dog fighting while Ben Roethlisberger gets a 4 game NFL suspension for being accused of sexually assaulting two women? And why is it that the sports media treat Vick’s dog fighting so very seriously while they completely ignore Roethlisberger’s sexual assaults? The answer is both complicated and infuriatingly simple. We live in a society where it’s easier to prove dog fighting than it is sexual assault, and where I imagine the rates of conviction for dog fighting are, in fact, much higher than those for sexual assault. Roethlisberger was never charged with sexual assault in either case which made it into the press, and some might argue that this tells us something about the strength of the case these two women had against the quarterback. But there’s another reality for women which tells us that reporting a rape to the police might not actually be the best way to go. Estimates tell us that of all sexual assaults that happen, only about 60% are reported to the police. Once a rape is reported, there’s about a 50% chance that the assailant will be arrested. If you get to trial, there’s a 58% chance of a conviction and with a felony conviction, a 69% chance that the assailant will spend time in prison. To sum up, among the small percentage of assaults that are ever reported to the police, there’s about a 16% chance that the assailant will end up in jail ( This might explain why at least one of the women who accused Roethlisberger went to a civil court rather than a criminal court with her charges. And none of these statistics take into account the very real trauma of going through a criminal trial as a victim of sexual assault, let alone what that might be like when the assailant is the Ben Roethlisberger. So it’s harder to send people to prison for sexual assault, period.

It’s also harder to send a white man to prison for pretty much anything than it is to send a young, black man. I don’t know if Ben Roethlisberger has any dogs on the side, but if he did, he probably wouldn’t be going to jail for it. When a young black man, and especially a black athlete, gets in trouble in the United States, you can almost feel a collective sigh of relief from white America as all our deep suspicions about the way “they” really are get confirmed in the most public of ways. Michael Vick ended up in jail because no one in our society can completely escape the ways in which race has become so indelibly woven into how we see the world, and that includes law enforcement officers, lawyers, judges, NFL commissioners and sports commentators. Almost 10% of all young black men are in prison in the United States, and while African-Americans make up 12% of the total population, they’re 44% of the prison population. Numbers like those weigh the scales pretty heavily in favor of Michael Vick finding himself in prison for a crime that as disturbing as it might be to many people, didn’t actually involve causing any physical harm to a human being.

Those are the complicated answers, and you could go on teasing out all the intricacies of these two men and their particular situations, because life is complex. But the answer to the second question is sadly simpler. Why is there no interview when the Steelers play in which Ben Roethlisberger admits to the error of his ways, and professes to be so sorry for what he’s done? Why do we not get to see James Brown or Mike Tirico or Chris Berman looking so very serious as they discuss Roethlisberger’s sins and transgressions? Why does no one say about Ben Roethlisberger, as Rich Eisen did about Michael Vick, that some people will just never cheer for him again? Because to the extent that you believe sports and the coverage of sports represent our cultural beliefs, our culture doesn’t really give a shit about women and what happens to them. If you watch coverage of the NFL, and I do quite a bit, the cause of Ben Roethlisberger’s four game suspension would be a complete mystery to you. Or it might be colluded within a cloud of Roethlisberger’s “wild ways.” Oh, that Ben, he’s a wild one. Boys will be boys, right? No need to make atonement for that. No need to apologize. No need to say a word.

I am a woman and I really love the NFL. I’m not talking I love to drink beer on Sunday’s or have something to talk to men about. I think there are moments when this game is really a beautiful thing to behold, even when my own team is, in fact, among the very shittiest in the league. Even with the brutality that happens on the field. But I have to ask myself, what does it mean for me to love an institution that really doesn’t seem to give a shit about me?

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