Feminism and Football By Marcia W. Mount Shoop

Marcia headshot“How did race and privilege affect the NCAA investigation of the football program at University of North Carolina?”

This was the question a student posed to me recently when I gave a Skype lecture to a Sports Ethics class at the University of Washington’s Center for Leadership in Athletics

I am going to take a wild guess (and I may be wrong), and assume that most readers of the FAR blog don’t know much about the NCAA investigation of the UNC football program.   I have outed myself on this blog before—I am more than just a feminist theologian; I am also a football coach’s wife.  Lots of people wonder how I manage to pull that off and still look at myself in the mirror.  That’s a complicated question.  I am finding that the challenges presented by our experience at UNC are creating more and more space for the feminist and the coach’s wife to find a common purpose.  Which brings us back to the question at hand—race and privilege and how it played into the football investigation at UNC.

You may want to investigate the many details of this investigation, but I would like to invite this feminist community to see what you think about this question of privilege in particular.   I will provide just a few factual statements for you all.  You tell me if you can think of ways that race and privilege may have been at work to the detriment of certain groups in this situation. 

  • Every athlete who was suspected of wrongdoing (when all was said and done I believe the final number was 18 young men) was a person of color, more specifically, every single player suspected of wrongdoing was black.
  • Every college administrator who had a power wielding position in this situation was white.
  • Several of the players were punished before they had been proven guilty.  And some of them were found to have done nothing wrong only after they had already been punished.  Some of their punishments were life changing and they will not recover from them (as far as opportunity cost , financial loss, damage to their reputations, etc.).  Devon Ramsay’s story is just one example.
  • Almost all of the players went through the entire investigation without legal representation.  Some were told that it is an NCAA violation to receive pro bono law services.  And some college administrators told some of the players that they would look more guilty if they got a lawyer.   They were told that if they did not do anything wrong that they didn’t need a lawyer.  This did not prove to be the case for just about all of them.
  • One academic department at the university received punishment and that was the African American studies department, and the director was forced to resign.
  • One coach was accused by UNC of wrongdoing and he is also African-American.
  • The conversation at UNC since the investigation has focused on tightening academic standards and increased regulation of players, there has been little to no attention given to what the investigation revealed about the lack of rights that student athletes have or what it’s like to be a athlete who is a person of color at UNC  (In the 400+ page NCAA rule book there is not one page about student athlete rights.  When they sign a letter of intent to play college sports they unknowingly sign away some of their basic human rights—the right to due process, the right to privacy, etc.).
  • The University eventually fired all of the football coaches even though they were not accused of any wrongdoing or involved in any of the allegations.  UNC said it needed to clean house and move on.  Removing all the coaches who personally knew the players involved erased most of the institutional memory bank about several layers of what really happened.
  • The University has continued its practice of making an example of “errant” players with  “zero tolerance” policies (that have been things like someone—not even a player, using a player’s picture on a Facebook page to advertise a party).
  • The University has also used images of many of the players involved in the investigation to warn the remaining players on the team not to “be like them.”
  • The University has focused on firing particular people, not on possible systemic problems or issues.
  • I recently attended a panel discussion held at UNC about athletics and academics, now over a year after the house cleaning of the football program.  There were no players present as panel members or as invited speakers.  There were no coaches present as panel members or as invited speakers.  Both of these constituencies were a prominent part of the topic of conversation.  This panel and conversation was organized by the Chancellor, who oversaw the handling of the NCAA investigation.

There are more details to be sure, but the question is about privilege and race not about what NCAA rules were violated or not (and the NCAA is another place to take these critical lenses if you are interested).

Now I know it is not the normal activity of feminists to go around speaking up for Division I football players.  But it is the feminist in me that has the eyes to see injustice and abuse of power.  It is the feminist in me who knows the interdependence of my well-being with the well-being of all others.  And it is the feminist in me that knows all too well how quiet, masked violence against particular classes of people feeds a dangerous and brutal human habit of domination and oppression that is detrimental for women and for all people.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In Maggie Potapchuk’s work on defining white privilege she has generated five characteristics of white culture that are instructive here.  In my read and interpretation of Potapchuk’s work the traits are as follows:

  • First, white culture sets the norms; white culture creates the standards for judging values.  This culturally derived normativity leaves little room for the realities of cross-cultural difference.
  • Second, white culture focuses on individuals, not groups.  Individuals are responsible for their own behavior.  There is little room for critical awareness of how systems put certain groups at a disadvantage and compromise individual agency and opportunity.
  • Third, white culture creates hierarchies around certain behaviors and labels others as deviant or dangerous.  For instance, what it looks like to be polite and respectful with behaviors like the avoidance of conflict in order to create comfortable situations.
  • Fourth, those less affected by decisions and rules are the ones who define problems and solutions.  That is, those who stand to benefit and not to be disadvantaged by the system are the ones deciding on and enforcing the rules. This often feeds either/or thinking.
  • And finally, white culture privileges certain kinds of knowledge and not others.   This privileging of rational, quantifiable, provable modes of knowledge is a familiar mark of Western habits of mind that feminist theories have long worked to disrupt.

White male privilege has set the tone here.  Individuals participate in maintaining that tone, but a system supports and rewards that tone.  While there are individuals who have failed to do the right thing at UNC, the more troubling element at work is the often invisible and always tenacious ethos of white privilege and the space it continues to have to thrive.

This experience has made it more clear to me how a feminist could possibly find her voice in the world of football.

Marcia Mount Shoop is a theologian and Presbyterian Minister who lives in Chapel Hill, NC.  Her book Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ frames much of her work in churches and beyond.  She has a PhD in Religious Studies from Emory University and a MDiv from Vanderbilt Divinity School.  At www.marciamountshoop.com  Marcia blogs on everything from feminism to family to football.  Her blog series “Calling Audibles”   is a feminist theological exploration of big-time football.  

14 thoughts on “Feminism and Football By Marcia W. Mount Shoop”

  1. I read yesterday’s post after a busy day traveling, buying some very large conifers for a community park project, traveling again, and then unloading the conifers. I traveled with a man, picked out the conifers with the help of a man, watched men maneuver the conifers into our truck with a skid steer, and worked with men hastily called who came late at night to help unload the conifers. The several groups of men were also of different races. I could not have done this job without the aid of all of those men. I respect them and I am assuming that they respect me and the fact that I was in charge.

    I have been disturbed by some of the attitudes on this blog. ALL men are not evil. The worlds wrongs are not all due to men – of any color whatever. ALL ancient feminist religions were not good as all male led religions were not. I would like to point out that unless women unilaterally figure out how to clone themselves, they are going to need some male contact to be able to reproduce more women and daughters. I think that since that is the case, a greater attempt needs to be made to work toward a position of mutual respect between males and females instead of expressions of disdain for all of masculinity, whatever color it is.


    1. Dear Jennifer,
      Thanks so much for reading and for commenting. I can’t tell from your comment if you are commenting on my post or yesterday’s, but either way I appreciate your sharing your thoughts. I am married to a man who coaches football, which is a hyper-masculine activity. I am the mother of a son. I, in no way, think all men are evil. As a feminist I think it is important to explore the contours of power in any place where it is concentrated. I am sure you can agree that abuse of power is a problem. That’s one of the gifts of feminist discourse–it creates space for a critical gaze at systems, spaces, and cultural patterns where abuse of power is authorized and doing harm. In the case of the concentrations of white male privilege and its effects in the case I speak of in this post, it is men of color (and some white men, too) who were harmed. I would like to hear your thoughts on that dynamic in particular.
      Thanks again for commenting, Jennifer. Good luck with your new trees and the park. May they grow and flourish.


      1. Marcia, I wasn’t criticizing your post. It’s just that it and yesterday’s post caused me to think about males and what might happen to them too. Unjust power use and comments need to be addressed as you have no matter what direction they come from. We need to be careful to not make blanket statements about “all” males or “all” black males, or “all” white males, etc. I commend you for your comments.


      2. Thanks for clarifying, Jennifer. And it would be fine if you were criticizing my post! I just couldn’t tell from your comments if it was about mine or yesterdays. I agree with you about the danger of blanket statements. I think there is also a distinction to be made between systems and individuals within systems. White privilege is a system of privilege. It is not the fault of particular individuals, but the result of a layers and layers of cultural constructions, power dynamics, and collective assent. The systems, while supported by the actions of individuals, are also much bigger than particular individuals. Critical work around privilege accounts for that distinction while still honoring the different kinds of agency and capacities for change and transformation that we each possess.
        Thanks again for your all of your comments.


    1. Thank you, Barbara. I will check out your post. These young men were accused of various NCAA violations from attending a party hosted by a sports agent, to receiving help from a tutor without paying that tutor, to receiving “benefits” like a plane ticket or jewelry from an agent, etc. There were no crimes involved. Only alleged NCAA violations. If you read Taylor Branch’s article that I link to you start to see that the NCAA is there regulate the players so that they receive no financial benefit from their status as an athlete. There are layers and layers of problems here, but no crimes committed. However, the consequences for the violations (some of which were not even committed) were even worse for some of the players than they would have been if they had committed an actual crime (like use of illegal drugs, etc). Some were banned for life from NCAA athletics, others dismissed from the team, others accused of things like academic fraud by the NCAA (even though the UNC Honor Court found no violations in some cases). Hope you will look into it more. You’ll see the complexity of the way power is used and abused in college sports in ways that may surprise you.
      Thanks for reading and for commenting.


    2. I think men would be better off having more sex and less football. Apparently, testosterone levels in men have been falling globally, and this may be partly due to pesticides and other pollution. This interesting article includes the statement, “There should be a bumper sticker: Honey, the lawn shrunk my testicles:”
      I’d like to get a bumper sticker that says, “More sex, less football.”


      1. Thanks for your comments, Katharine, and for the link. I don’t know if more sex, less football is the answer, but I agree that there is a profound interdependence between our abuse of the environment and our collective health as a society.
        It is interesting to me that the last two comments here are focused not on the abuses of power that I describe, but on the desired dismissal of football. I fear these attitudes are part of why institutions like the NCAA and some universities are able to get away with the way they commodify young men.
        Thanks again for reading and for commenting.


  2. Hi, Marcia;

    I can only speak for myself, but I speculate that the reason comments are focusing on the desired dismissal of football is because we do indeed recognize what a bastion of dangerous-to-women hyper-masculinity it is. I remember reading, for example, in Peggy Reeves Sanday’s extremely disturbing book Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus that statistically it was overwhelmingly the college athletes who (gang)raped — and, most appallingly, who actually felt entitled to do so!

    Faced with the reality of such terrible misogyny, I was startled — and then intrigued — to read in your blog, “I, myself, believe football can be a part of a healthy university community.” It made me realize that I don’t feel I know enough on this subject to do anything except call for the dismissal of violently fanatic, white-male-alumni-sponsored, androcentric, intervarsity sports. I am curious now, though, to realize there may be another way that avoids these pitfalls into misogyny, and I’d like to learn more. May I ask, please, how you see football being part of a healthy university community?


    1. Dear Friend,
      Thank you for reading and for sharing your thoughts. I do believe football can be a part of a healthy university community. But before I answer that question, I just want to highlight (as I know you know) that violence against women is a problem that is not unique to college athletes, so I would want to suggest that that very important issue (I am a rape survivor) is an issue that needs a broader context than fraternity boys and football players (who aren’t necessarily one in the same) for us to really interrogate the whence and the why of those problems. Statistics around violence against women tells us over and over again that one of the most dangerous spaces a woman can occupy in this country is among the men she knows and loves. This is a deep disease in our culture.
      As far as a healthy university community, Division I football is one of the most racially and economically diverse spaces that we have in American culture. This kind of intercultural community creates space for friendships across social boundaries and for a kind of learning that enhances and complicates the sometimes sequestered lives of many privileged college students. Football is also a point of access to an education for many young men who might not otherwise have that opportunity. The majority of Division I football players are African American and from lower to middle class homes. My husband went into coaching because his coaches had been so formative in his life. As a former athlete myself (cross country and track) I also had those kinds of life-enhancing relationships with my coaches. These kinds of relationships are an opportunity to help shape young men’s lives in the direction of community responsibility, mutual respect, self-respect, and important life skills.
      Also, universities value football for its revenue producing capacity, and also for the alumni loyalty and support that it helps to generate. While universities can sometimes hold their noses about this complicated relationship, they certainly welcome the payoffs.
      So many of the ways college athletes are characterized are based on stereotypes that often bare little resemblance to the young men we know and care about in our family through the world of football. Many of these young men are very dear to us and we love and care about them very much. While there are some bad apples here and there (just as there are in the church, in the academy, and in any corporation or institution in this country), I am not sure the problems we tend to lump with football are with us because of football.
      The more interesting question to me is about what itch it is that football scratches in so many people–men and women across race, class, and occupation, and what does that say about us.
      I am currently writing a book on sport in general, but with an emphasis on some of these difficult and complicated questions that football brings up for us collectively. So there is more to say than I can say here, but hopefully this is a start at answering your question.
      Thanks again for your question and comment.


  3. Hi Marcia. Thank you for writing this blog. This is an intriguing place to discuss football, but your point is about white privilege. I don’t know if what is happening at the University is symptomatic of the larger Republican white male privilege thing going on in North Carolina politics (I get all my news from Rachel Maddow who has been criticizing NC lately), but I will put that issue aside. We need more voices like yours to highlight white privilege for what it is. Thank you so much for the link to Maggie Potapchuk’s work. I as a white writer cannot in good consciousness fill my pages and stages with just white women’s stories. I feel that I was attuned early in my life to this problem. Perhaps it was the awareness of feeling different (okay, everyone does) because I was very smart and was a budding lesbian. My mother was very prejudiced against Germans because of the Holocaust. There was one African-American girl in my high school of 3,000 kids. I wanted to apologize to her but I didn’t know why. In my second high school, there were many African-Americans. I went to a basketball game and heard the word ‘soul’. I asked the girl in the bleachers behind me what it meant. She touched her cheek. I’ve been trying to write about the subtext of prejudice ever since. In my recent blog here on April 25 (click on my name above for the link) on The Danger of the Patriarchal Domination Mindset, I talked about the novel I am writing “The Swallow and the Nightingale”. I made my main couple an interracial couple in order to explore white privilege. I used Peggy McIntosh’s paper “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” for my reference material. In that paper, she put herself to the task of identifying 50 situations and conditions where white privilege insidiously lives and festers. While reading each one of those, I asked myself ‘how can I put this situation into my novel?’ When I was done, I asked an African-American friend to read the novel and see if anything stuck out as inauthentic. She said it all sounded normal and fine. I said to her, “White people don’t talk about avoiding getting arrested unless they are environmental activists.” She said, “It’s something I had to teach my son, and it’s still part of our conversations.” McIntosh says white people are taught racism is acts of meanness. We never learn it is an invisible system conferring dominance. Just as patriarchy is a system of unearned and conferred dominance, white privilege is as well. She says men will talk about women needing more protection but never about lessening men’s advantages. White privilege and male privilege stem from the same thing — the domination model. Men and women, whites and people of color, gays and straights — we are all caught up in this invisible model that makes for unconscious oppressiveness. We need voices to bring it out into the open. Thank you Marcia for being one of those voices.

    P.S. I see that I left out the link to my blog about my novel in my FAR blog. It is http://www.swallowandthenightingale.com


    1. Dear Thea,
      Thank you for your comments and for sharing the link to your novel. I will definitely check it out. I appreciate you hearing me when it comes to the questions I am trying to engage around privilege. In a way football is beside the point, but in others it is an important mirror to hold up for how privilege is exercised and embodied in places where it is hardest to see. I appreciate Peggy McIntosh’s work. I have also found Tim Wise’s writing on this topic to be very helpful in making white privilege more visible–especially his book “Colorblind” because it particularly engages this dynamic in some of the language, practice, and perspectives of progressive whites. And Dr. Shakti Butler’s film, “Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible” is another helpful resource for this work.
      I agree with your comparison of the anatomy of the systems of privilege and patriarchy being twins/cousins. That is why I feel like it is the feminist in me that has the eyes to see the way race and privilege is functioning in the world of football to keep white people propped up and people of color at a disadvantage.
      I am glad to know about your work and I am thankful for this conversation with you. I value the opportunity to engage feminists around these questions. I think we need to be voices that make these patterns visible. Thank you for being one of those voices, too!


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