Football as a Ritual Re-enacting Male Domination Through Force and Violence By Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement.  She teaches in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS and through Ariadne Institute offers Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.

The other day when Paula McGee asked on this blog how Penn State students could rally in support of Sandusky, I was also reading a student paper quoting Rianne Eisler’s opinion that peace and environmental justice cannot be achieved in dominator cultures. Xochitl Alvizo commented that we should not be surprised by the reactions of the students as we live in a “rape” culture.  I would add that we must examine the culture of male domination through force that is “football,” one of the “sacred cows” of American patriarchy, just as we need to examine the culture of hierarchical male domination of the Vatican in the context of child-rape by priests. 

Sorry to offend our national “culture,” but football is a celebration and ritual re-enactment of power as male domination through physical force and of competition based on physical force. In our homes and schools people who don’t even play (almost all girls/women and many boys/men) or like football (a smaller group because socialization works) learn that the “victory” of “our” team is somehow an integral part of personal and collective identity. Remember “pep” rallies? Remember sock hops? Remember that if you didn’t enjoy and participate in the collective mania that was being created, you were a nerd, a loser, a social failure? My mother was devastated when I told her I had sold all my football tickets during my freshman year of college, because it confirmed her fears that I was not dating.  Currently football has invaded Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year’s holidays. When I suggested that we talk with each other or play card games on holidays instead of watching football, it was yet another mark of my not “fitting in” with my family, and my mother told me never to mention the subject again.  The fact that my mother and I did not enjoy football did not matter as the family catered to the desires of its male members.

Let us not forget that easy access to sex with women is one of the “perks” of being a sports star in our culture. Football is a culture of “male” domination through force. Women cannot play football, but women can have “contact” with the sport by having what we might as well call “ritual sex” with its stars.  When alcohol and drugs or force are involved, we are told to look the other way because after all, “she must have wanted it.” Dare I suggest that football culture re-enacts male sexual domination through physical force, including rape? And that it validates the idea that powerful men are allowed to use and discard women at their whims?

Let us not forget the money involved in sports. Football actually has nothing to do with education, unless we want to talk about education into the culture of power as domination which may be the most important thing to “learn” in our culture, and it is the greatest money-maker at Penn State and many other colleges.

Add to this that the victims in this case were poor children, many of them not white, and it is easy to see who will be heard:  we have a culture of domination coming up against children at the bottom of class and race hierarchies. It is sad testimony that the culture of domination that is football did not “care” about the violent sexual domination of children.

Taking all of this into consideration, there is very little doubt in my mind that the rape of children occurred, that it was known, and that those who knew looked the other way, as cultures of domination generally do when those at the top of its hierarchies commit acts of domination, including those that require the use of force.  All the students who rallied in support of a rapist were doing was “following the leader.”

We do need to talk about football as a ritual culture of male domination through force and violence, but I am afraid it is highly unlikely that our culture will take a good hard look at what is being re-enacted in football mania and reject football.  It is far more likely that those who try to open this dialogue will be told to shut up.

Categories: Foremothers, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion, Power relations, Rape Culture, Sexual Violence, Violence Against Women

Tags: , , ,

10 replies

  1. I find this article very offensive. Not only from it’s content, but from a journalistic point of view.

    The first mistake is that the rallies being held are in support of Jerry Sandusky. They are NOT. One school of thought is supporting Joe Paterno, the former headcoach of Penn State that had planned to resign at the end of the season. This group of people believe that after 47 years as head coach, Paterno had earned the right to resign, rather than be fired. A second group of rallies however, wanted the University to do more and felt that simply firing Paterno was not enough and that everyone in an administrative role inside the football program should be punished. This includes all coaches, coordinators and administrative officials. I noticed how these rallies demanding that those who let this happen be fired were ignored.

    Second of all why are you using this tragedy to talk about how football is merely an excuse for men to dominate women? Never once in this article is it mentioned that Jerry Sandusky assaulted young boys, FOOTBALL players who he has control over. This situation is about a pedophile who used a position of power to abuse those under his influence. The fact you are using what happened to these boys to blame the sport they play and their gender of being evil is terrible and you should be ashamed.


  2. When I called those whom Sandusky raped children, I assumed the reader would know they were boys. If I were rewriting now, I would have no objection to adding the word male before children. That said, my belief is that patriarchy is a system of male domination that allows men to dominate women, girls, children, male and female, and many others. It is the system and symbol system that legitimates male domination of all kinds that I was objecting to.

    The situation is similar with respect to the Roman Catholic church. The church wanted to claim that abuse of the power of domination was an aberration, but some of us wanted to assert that in systems based on power as domination, abuse is not an aberration, it should be seen as an expected result of a system that mystifies domination and power-over as a value, possibly the highest value.

    I feared that criticizing football would upset many people, as football may be even more of an “American” religion than any church, and the vehemence of your response confirms that.

    I never said that the male gender is evil, and I certainly do not believe that. Again, my issue is with a symbol system complete with rituals that legitimates male domination. In a world where there were no symbol systems that encouraged all of us to view domination as the emblem of masculinity, I have no doubt that the behavior of both women and men would change.

    My dream is of a world where care, nurturing, and respect for the self and others would be seen as the ideal of human behavior–for all.


  3. Carol, I greatly appreciate this post and can identify so much with you have said here. Football was and is a major part of my family’s culture. I have so much to comment here, but it would be impossible for me to get all my thoughts down. There are several important articles in “Transforming a Rape Culture” that address this very topic. I think you are correct in pointing these issues out and obviously correct that people will be offended given Shaun’s response. I wish we could all examine the culture rather than being focused protecting the “sacred cow.”


  4. Carol,
    Thank you for such a provocative piece. I was hesitant to comment because sports have been a huge part of my life and have helped me get to where I am in life. I was one of privileged few in my community who excelled in sports. Football was (and still is) my favorite sport, however my 6′ tall 130 body was not conducive to playing without getting hurt, so I played basketball throughout high school. I was recruited by colleges, I got to travel all over the United States to play in tournaments, I knew I had a “way” to get out of my small home town in Michigan. Most importantly, football and basketball taught me how to be a leader, how to communicate with different types of people, and how to work as a part of a team. I would not be the person I am today without sports.

    This is not to say that there are not issues with the way things are done. As you pointed out in your article aggression is lifted up as a virtue that should be applied to every aspect of your life. As a star athlete I was not held to the same behavioral standards as everyone else. There are clear racial implications in the structure of football, especially on the college level where there are less than 10 non-white coaches and even fewer non-white Athletic directors of Major programs. Lastly, and most importantly, my high school administration did not show an interest in my academic capabilities. I knew I was intelligent, I knew I could do a better job on assignments, but I didn’t because I did not want to stand out from the rest of my friends. My senior year my English teacher asked me to read Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” and I loved it! I wrote an 8 page report that only needed to be 5 pages long. She helped me realize that in addition to my athletic gifts I had intellectual gift too.

    I went to college, played basketball and took school seriously…which was not common! I have been able to sort through my athletic career and apply parts of what I have learned to the rest of my life, and I have discarded others. I am not sure I would be the same person without sports. So, I guess my question is, is football (and other competitive sports) redeemable? Do you see any need to redeem them, especially when you consider how many students have access to education they may not otherwise have?


  5. Christopher thanks for your thoughtful comments. Most issues are complex and this one is too. I read Katha Pollitt’s essay in preparation for this one. One of the things she says is:

    College sports distorts academic life in many ways, beginning with admissions. Recruited athletes’ scholarships soak up almost a fifth of places at most elite colleges, and athletic scholarships raise costs for everyone else. People defend these programs as offering hope to black and low-income students, especially boys, who otherwise couldn’t go to college at all. But what about their high school classmates who do better in school and can’t afford higher education either? Where are our priorities?

    My dream is a society where there is genuine equal opportunity for students of color. I also dream of re-visioning physical activity as part of life, not only for “stars,” not celebrating violence or domination, and not celebrating competition to the degree that sports do now.

    My model is the traditional Greek circle dances where young and old participate together and where boys and men get to show off their athletic prowess or the Minoan bull games where both girls and boys raised the bull and played acrobatic games with it. I do believe that athletics originated as part of the spring rites of the celebration of the life and vitality of nature. Maybe there is a clue there too.


  6. What a wonderful article, Carol! Thank you so much for pointing out the excessive “elephant in the room” that football has become. I’d love to see the same critical examination done of all professional sports, worldwide. Do we really need such rampant consumerist extravaganzas in worship of stylized androcentric violence?

    Regarding redeeming sports in college, I think UCSC handles sports well. It does not have “official” teams, so those who play in sports are doing so for the love of it. This also means a wider variety of sports are available through the clubs: Frisbee, rugby, cycling, baseball, men’s soccer, equestrian, and so on.


  7. Hi Carol,

    I enjoyed this article for a variety of reasons. My parents recently became Packers shareholders and I have to bite my tongue not to criticize them for supporting an institution of, as you say, “ritual re-enacting male domination through force and violence”. It’s absurd because my parents raised me with a strong sense of empowerment as a woman yet fall victim to the glorification of men who basically tackle each other with the possibility of giving or receiving broken bones, concussions, and bruises in order to make a goal (with some men earning millions of dollars in the process). My extended family on both sides are equally enthralled with football. In my experience, the “game” of football is a force that cannot be reckoned with. On a basic level, I know with certainty that if I ever addressed the problems the glorification of football poses to our culture to my extended family I would be met with eye rolls. There would be no dialogue. No one wants to hear it because it threatens their identity. They are staunch Packer fans. They are staunch USC fans. I think there is a huge problem if I cannot be met with a speck of respect when giving some criticism to the sport. How do we even begin to challenge the institution of football on a national level if we do not even feel comfortable talking about it with relatives? I think it appropriate of you to include the Paterno/Sandusky situation in the article because it reflects the complexities of having a powerful system of male-domination where it becomes taboo to speak out against it in fear of tarnishing the name. It is also no surprise that a violent rally ensued following Paterno’s termination because football fans’ identities were being challenged.


    • The fact that football is a “sacred cow” and cannot be criticized is proof that it is a “national religion.” How we deal with that in a consumerist and not female freindly society at large is a huge question and I am afraid I do not have the answers to it. I was told my mother never to bring up the issue of football on holidays if i wanted to come home–in other words don’t upset your father and brothers. I cannot reason with them. However, I could bring it up here, which is a small start and you could respond here too.


  8. Not only football but sports in general are a form of tribal worship. You can hear the tribal chant and often violence breaks out between tribes.
    This tribal nature of mankind has been with us since we occupied caves and first used fire. A brief look at history shows the clash of tribes and the battle for supremacy. This is natural selection in action ; survival of the fittest and now it is global and with deadly weaponry.
    It is a mistake to interpret this as an attack on women ; the weak go to the wall whether they are men or women. The world is a pyramid of wealth and at the top we have the elite who are small in number , while at the bottom we have the starving and destitute .
    Interestingly those who play sports are the healthy fit ones and the majority who watch are overweight and unhealthy.



  1. Football Is a Bad Religion by Barbara Ardinger « Feminism and Religion

Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: