Although I watch a fair amount of American football—bonding with my husband, remembering my father, thinking of my brother—I do find that there are some oddities on the football field (always, but perhaps a bit more so this year). The football players—icons of American masculinity—are wearing pink (the color that, for Americans, symbolizes femininity). The color pink clashes with at least one of most normal ‘team colors’—typically saturated and vibrant reds, blues, maroons, golds, greens, an occasional purple (Never pink!). The players are wearing pink to support efforts to conquer breast cancer. I approve. It’s just a little incongruous to see a 350 pound gargantuan with pink stickers on his helmet tackling an opponent sporting one pink knee sock, a wide receiver flying by with a pink armband fluttering in the wind, a quarterback lifting his knee—and his pink running shoe—as he signals his readiness to receive the ball.
Among the more routine oddities of American football, especially the professional variety, is the combination of hugely powerful (and heavy!) men with quite noticeable pot bellies (those who tackle) playing alongside speedy, lithe receivers (those who catch passes) with shapely bums and nicely turned muscles. The games are truly spectacles in the full sense of the word—-with uniformed players running out as a team onto the field accompanied by fireworks, rousing band music, scantily clad (and beautiful) cheerleaders, and crowds (as many as 80 or 100,000) often all bedecked in the home team’s colors. The team’s mascot—often a ferocious critter, a tiger or a wolf, but sometimes something harmless like a duck (!)—will be paraded before the assembled multitudes.
The game is an interesting reflection of American culture, with our continual concern with the rules. We are quite fond of ‘playing by the rules’—I heard that reaffirmed last night in the final 2012 US Presidential debate—and football wonderfully mirrors that obsession. The game stops, over and over again, as referees decide on questionable team actions. Is the ball on or off the playing field? Did one player interfere with another’s attempt to catch the ball? Was the football beyond the goal line or not when the player went out of bounds? Was a player using excessive force? And on and on. Many of the referees’ calls are subject to ‘instant replays’ that can in some cases confirm or overturn their calls.
Football also has its own arcane jargon. I jotted down a few phrases the other day in a few short moments, phrases that would surely confuse a foreigner (and some of which confuse me): ‘sacked for a safety’, ‘two point conversion’, ‘he’s almost picked’, ‘run the clock down’, ‘send the Niners to a four and two start’, ‘in the pocket’, ‘second down and nine’. These phrases are not normal English!
Our love of quantification is also reflected in football: the most amazing statistics on players, plays, and games are available, and discussed (ad nauseum) before, during and after the games by commentators. We hear how heavy each player is, how many passes he’s thrown or caught, how many times he’s tackled the quarterback (or been ‘sacked’ if he is the quarterback). We learn his ranking in the periodic selection processes, how many months he’s been out due to injury, how many times he’s started the game, and much much more.
The quality of the photography is really quite astounding. Somehow the photographers obtain pictures of the players’ grimacing faces as they pile on top of each other trying to gain possession of the ball. We can see the disgust of the coaches when a play is botched, the disappointment on the face of a player who’s missed a pass, the elation when a team gets a touchdown. Some even have special ‘touchdown dances’ that they do in the end zone. We can even hear loud ‘thunks’ as they run into each other on the field.
I’ve recently been repeatedly exposed, in my professional reading, to the notion of ‘hegemonic masculinity’—a kind of summary phrase for expectations that men will be strong, powerful, dominant, and in control. A football game is a perfect opportunity to demonstrate such idealized masculine traits. Strength, courage, speed, and complex tactics are all on full display. Players show their delight in successful plays by testosterone-laden, prideful gestures (a fist forcefully punched into the air) and joyful sensuous ‘dances’ of glee. It’s a pleasure, even for me, to see their delight.
The advertisements, abundant as teams take time outs and referees stop play to discuss calls, are also directed at men. Car and beer ads are particularly common. Some explicitly emphasize women’s exclusion from consideration: the beer is for ‘real men’; the cars or trucks are ‘tough’, manly, characterized in one instance by ‘blood, guts, and glory’ (spoken in a particularly deep, masculine voice). Another ad shows a man supposedly pulling the steel parts of his vehicle into a bigger, more powerful shape, by hand. In yet another, the ‘hero’ turns his small car into a bigger one with his bare hands.
I wonder, is the pink paraphernalia a harbinger of changes to come, or is it just an interesting aberration? I enjoy watching football, I really do. But I also recognize it’s oddity….and its oh, so iconic masculinity!