Guestpost by Kate Harveston, Political Journalist & Blogger. Kate writes at onlyslightlybiased.com and tweets @kateharveston.

Does football encourage dangerous masculinity stereotypes?

Fall is here, and football season is back — along with the aggressive masculinity that comes with it. Though baseball is considered America’s pastime, the NFL reigns supreme. Kids are encouraged to play when they see their favorite players crushing it on TV. Hard hits are cheered and are seen as a display of how tough players are.

However, all this “toughness” can be toxic. The NFL is a man’s world, where the harder you hit, the bigger your muscles are, and how well you can take hits from others determines your status. This toxic masculinity seems to carry over behind the scenes in football players’ lives as well.

With all of the controversy surrounding the NFL right now, I feel the desire to note that I fully support the players who are kneeling in protest of racial injustices. The following argument is not related in any way to what’s been going on in the news in recent weeks. It is, instead, an analysis of a longstanding issue that the start of football season opens the door for us to talk about.

The NFL and domestic violence

While the domestic violence arrest rate for the NFL is below the national average, compared to the overall offenses committed by NFL players, as well as being relative to the income and poverty levels those players are at, it’s extreme. While their arrest rate is 13% of the national average, domestic violence is at a whopping 55.4%.

feminism - masculinityThe NFL is extremely inconsistent with their punishment, too. While it’s been said that it’s a six-game suspension without pay for the first offense, that punishment has rarely been followed. When a suspension that actually lasts three or more games takes place, it’s been for players making under $50,000 per game on average.

Having a star player is when it gets tricky. No one wants to suspend a player who’s winning games for them. Millions of dollars are invested in getting these players on the team. The people forking over that money don’t want it wasted. Teams don’t want stakeholders to be unhappy when a team is losing games. Naturally, suspensions for big-name players are shorter, so they don’t have to miss as much playing time.

This teaches them that they’re untouchable and that there aren’t consequences for their actions. Even the six-game suspension is kind of weak when it’s actually enforced. They still get to play the bulk of the season, and they’ll still be making way more money than most people. What stops the big-name players from doing it again when they know they won’t be punished because of their status on the team?

Brain damage

Football’s masculinity problem is hurting its own players, too. It’s come to a point where it’s almost impossible to ignore the connection between brain damage and football, though people still try to deny it. Recently, it was found that out of 111 brains of former NFL players that were examined, all but one had CTE — a degenerative disease that’s caused by repeated blows to the head.

Brain injuries are almost always caused by trauma. In a sport like football, there’s repeated trauma happening to the head due to tackles — either by hitting another player or getting slammed into the ground. Unfortunately, CTE can only be diagnosed after death, so it’s impossible to see if a former or current player is suffering from the effects while they’re alive.

What researchers do know, however, is that CTE is linked with becoming more aggressive and impulsive. Behavioral changes are common, as well as people becoming more likely to abuse drugs and other substances — another factor that can lead to more aggression.

With the research that’s out there, it’s almost a guarantee that many NFL players are developing this disease. Former NFL player Aaron Hernandez was found to have had an extremely severe case for only being 27. It was at a level that researchers would expect to see in someone at age 60.

Football is fueling this disease in hundreds of players, year after year, hit after hit. The longer they’re playing football for, the more likely they are to have a more progressive case of this —which means they could be more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors.

Keeping the image

NFL players also seem to be concerned with making sure everyone sees them as masculine. They celebrate after a particularly good hit, even if the other player is slow to get up. If they can take another player out of the game with one hit, it just means they’re even more masculine, right?

It was a problem, too, when the first openly gay player, Michael Sam, was drafted back in 2014. While it’s customary to give your wife or girlfriend a kiss when you get the call that you’ve been drafted, there was a ton of outrage at Michael kissing his boyfriend when it happened to him. Players can be okay with homosexuality apparently as long as they don’t have to actually see it.

It seems that to be an NFL player, you must be as masculine as possible, and anything other than that is unacceptable. Football fuels masculine stereotypes and encourages the players — and young boys wanting to be the players — to buy into them.

People are outraged when the NFL adds new rules to the game, but it’s time for a serious discussion on how the sport could be made safer. We can’t ignore the consequences of the violence in the sport. There has to be a way that the sport is still fun to watch and play, without permanently damaging the players and players’ loved ones due to the ferocity of the sport.