“Do sports depend on gender stereotypes that prop up particular expressions of masculinity?”
This question is just one of the defining quandaries of my new book, Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports, just released from Cascade Books (an imprint of Wipf & Stock) a few days ago. The quote above comes from my chapter on gender entitled “Man Up.”
My proximity to the world of football as the wife of a coach, who has coached for well over twenty years in both the National Football League (NFL) and Division I College, has long been a curiosity, and sometimes a demerit against me, among my feminist friends and colleagues. In fact, as I share in the introduction of the book, one of my professors in Divinity school (a prominent feminist theologian who shall remain nameless) expressed her disappointment in no uncertain terms when I shared the news that John and I were engaged while I was one of her students. She said, to my great consternation, that she was “very disappointed.” Her next sentence was something to the effect of what a waste this was—she had thought I was headed toward great things, and now, instead, my life was going to be consumed by football.
At the time her comment cut deep. I was determined to prove her wrong. My life would not be consumed by football, I vowed. And I could and would achieve the unthinkable: I would be a responsible and productive feminist theologian married to a football coach. Now, twenty years later, I have written my second book and it is about football (and other big-time sports as well). Was my professor right? Has my professional identity been highjacked by football? Has my feminist street cred been diminished beyond repair?
In no small part this book is my answer to those haunting questions. I seek to engage the world of big-time sports as a feminist theologian who occupies this dissonant identity as the wife of a football coach. In my exploration of big-time sports I bring to bear the questions that feminism helps me to ask constructively. I bring questions of power and privilege, I bring questions of race and elitism, I bring wisdom from being a survivor of sexual violence, I bring questions of context, embodiment, equity, and justice. I do these things, however, not from the outside looking in, but through the perspective that decades of life inside this strange world and spectacle of big-time sports has given me.
My book is not a call for the destruction of big-time sports. My book is an invitation to let these objects of American obsession hold a mirror up to us about who we truly are—demons and all. And, in so many ways, that capacity of sports to reflect and refract is what occupying this conflicted space, this strange and liminal space, for my adult life has given me.
I believe that I am a better feminist because of what life in big-time sports has taught me so far. And by “better” I mean less prone to the same line drawing that created the need for feminism in the first place. While feminists emerged from the margins of society in an effort to give voice to experiences that had long been silenced and ignored, we feminists can slip into a silencing and ignoring stance ourselves. Even this guild of justice-minded women can take on a gate-keeping mentality when it comes to what counts as feminist. I have already encountered that tendency around this book in how some feminists have opted not to substantively engage it or even acknowledge it.
I can understand the football-hating mentality. It is not without merit. I do, however, think there is more to explore and learn from this icon of American culture than rejecting it out of hand allows. And for me football has provided a space of learning and growth around issues of race, gender, and other core issues of human existence.
As life would have it, years ago, I fell in love with a great person who happens to be a football coach. And, years ago, my feminist sensitivities found a home in the frameworks of feminist theories and theologies. Somehow these unlikely cohabitants have proved to be life-giving partners. I am grateful for the unconventional perspective that I have and for the provocative questions I live and breathe.
My context keeps me from resting easy with generalizations that don’t get us very far. And this context continues to generate life-giving questions. It is from this unlikely space I call home that I could shift the question I ask in my book about sports to engage in another interesting conversation with my feminist colleagues: does feminism depend on gender stereotypes that prop up particular expressions of femininity/being a feminist? Either way we ask the question, the more the character of the conversation itself disrupts the stereotypes, the better.
Marcia Mount Shoop is a theologian and Presbyterian minister who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. She is the author of Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports (Cascade Books, 2014) and Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ (WJKP, 2010). At www.marciamountshoop.com Marcia blogs on everything from feminism to family to football.
18 thoughts on “Feminist Questions by Marcia W. Mount Shoop”
I hope your book will open a dialogue, looks to me like it will be difficult to speak truth to power in this case.
David Zirin wrote this in The Nation.
If we can confront how players deal with violence and with the women in their lives, then we can prevent tragedies before they take place. Unfortunately, the NFL has shown absolutely zero interest in taking this issue seriously. The league didn’t do anything after Kansas City Chiefs player Jovon Belcher killed the mother of his child, Kasandra Perkins, before taking his own life in front of his coach and general manager.If they did not do anything then, they are not about to take it seriously now. It is very difficult to not be cynical about why it is so casually indifferent to this issue. To discuss violence against women means by necessity to talk about everything endemic in the NFL that creates this culture. The NFL has been aggressively marketing its sport to parents, telling them that, despite what they may have heard, football is as healthy for their children as a Flintstones vitamin. To discuss the causes of violence against women means to put its golden goose under the harshest possible light. It means producing negative publicity, and it means blowing wind on the brushfire movement of young parents who do not want their children playing this sport. To not discuss it, however, means not only ignoring a problem that won’t go away. It means sending a message to every general manager, coach, player and fan that the worth and humanity of women is at best negligible.
With its arrogance and consumerism, the NFL epitomizes the worst in contemporary society.
Had season tickets to the Washington Redskins and gave them up which was an almost unheard of thing to do when I did it. Hated going out to Fed Ex Field with all the drunken louts, their obscenities and fights.
Went from “Hail to (the Redskins)” to “Hell with.”
Spend my Sundays these days, reading, biking and doing other positive things.
Thank you for commenting and for sharing the link and then the sizable excerpt from Dave Zirin’s blog. The problem you and Zirin lift up around how the NFL reacts to cases of violence against women within its ranks is a formidable one. And, as you know, this is a problem the NFL shares with many other institutions in American culture, including the over fifty universities who are under investigation by the Department of Education for the remarkably insensitive and inadequate ways they have dealt with cases of sexual assault.
Being in the NFL is not a life-giving way of life for women in many, many ways. And, I would add, it is not a life-giving atmosphere for the men who give it their heart, souls, and physical health in many ways either. My book explores these constrained spaces that complicated humans are asked to occupy in football as places that trivialize who we are as human beings. Looking closely at the performance of gender in the NFL reveals some interesting things about the culture that singularly gave birth to football–a thoroughly American creation. My book is about inviting all of us to engage in a deeper, richer conversation about these dynamics and others (including racism, fanaticism, abuses of power, and caricatures of Christianity that are so prevalent in big-time sports).
I hope you will read my book. I think it would interest you. I know you would have even more helpful questions and comments to add to the conversation than you have here today. Thank you again for commenting.
Football is a violent game in which violent people do violent things to each other. Cruelty, rather than sportsmanship, prevails at the highest levels of the game. People go to football games today for the same reason Romans watched Christians fed to the lions: to satisfy their bloodthirsty instincts.
That having been said, your professor’s remarks were those of an intolerant liberal. We hear much about “choice” in feminist circles. Too many feminists really don’t care choice;they just want others to agree with them
Thank you for reading and for commenting. I hope you will read my book. Your experience as a recovering football fan (as you indicate in your reply to Carol above) will surely make the veil lifted from big-time sports an interesting space of inquiry for you. I explore why people care about sports so much in my chapter on fanaticism and use the Roman Colosseum as a way to understand the spectacle and the repetitive creation and destruction of selves that plays out in stadiums today.
As far as your description of the “violent people who do violent things to each other” and the “cruelty, rather than sportsmanship, [that] prevails at the highest levels of the game” I would nuance your comment with the actual human beings that we know and love after over twenty years at the highest levels of the sport. While violence and cruelty are certainly prevalent, that is not all there is to the game and to the people and communities that make up the world of big-time football. It can be easy to caricature the players and coaches and I think that is part of what has contributed to the grossly inadequate ways that things like long-term health care for players and working conditions for coaches have been traditionally addressed by the League and by American culture at large. Hopefully my book enriches that conversation as well.
I do hope you will check it out. I would love to hear what you think. Thank you again for commenting.
I don’t hate football. I don’t believe it–or any other professional sport, especially basketball–deserves that much of my energy. You love your husband and believe that there’s more than cruelty to professional sports. Good for you. Sorry, but I will not read your book. But I’m glad you wrote this thoughtful blog.
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and share your feelings. While I am not surprised to hear you’ve decided not to read my book, I still wish you would take a look.
I wrote it not because I love my husband (although I do, very much). I wrote it because I love life and I am committed to the redemption of those things in human life that bring healing,zest, and life-giving connections. I am sure those are things that you believe in giving your energy to from what I can gather about you in your writing and your previous comments on my posts.
I feel like you are dismissing what I have done in my book based on some assumptions that may not reflect what it is really about. That is a reaction I get sometimes from a variety of different communities that I am connected to–both the feminists and the football fans. Maybe I am wrong–I certainly have been before. But, if I am on to something in my feelings here, I do hope you will at least take a look at my website http://www.marciamountshoop.com and read a little more about the work that I do. Thanks, again, Barbara. I appreciate the chance to be in conversation with you.
“…God loves that perspective of creation that can only be seen from the point where I am.” –Simone Weil
It takes courage to report from a battlefield…and what skills you bring to the task! Your book sounds like it will be an interesting analysis of a complex cultural phenomenon. I look forward to reading it.
P.S. Great title!
Thank you for your comment and your affirmation. I hope you will let me hear from you when you have read the book. I would love to hear your thoughts. And thank you for sharing the Simone Weil quote. I love her writing and am glad to have her words instructing me in this conversation in particular.
Thank you, again, Martha, for reading and commenting. Your encouragement means a great deal to me.
From my English experience of sport the questions of what sport is and what it makes of us is one I have discussed with my brothers (as I’m not actively engaged in it myself but they both are) and I have wondered about the questions of what sport depends on to appeal to such large numbers of people over such long times even with the more difficult aspects of the cultures surrounding it.
I think it’s great that you’re addressing these questions with honesty and a critical eye born of experience and insight.
I believe that we are to live as well as we can in the lives we have and this sounds like a great example of doing that – recognising the complexities and exposing them carefully to scrutiny.
I hope there are fruitful conversations as a result of your book and that your writing helps people reflect, wonder and maybe even change their language use and expectations
Thank you for reading and for sharing your thoughts. I share your hope that fruitful conversations grow out of the book.
Sports are worth our attention precisely because of the dynamic you have wondered about with your brothers–why do so many people care so much about sports? And what does that tell us about ourselves? Those questions help define the theological and ethical framework of the book. I hope you will read it and explore my assertion–that at the very core of this passion and even obsession around sports is our deep human desire for redemption to be possible and true.
Thank you for your good wishes, Margaret. I extend the same to you!
Biological differences are at play here.
Also, an interesting piece on feminism:
Looking forward to reading the book when it arrives.
I know all the invaluable lessons sports has taught my daughter Bri and that we learned together over her sports career. Compassion, character, teamwork and leadership are all lessons she learned from sports. They are all traits I believe any feminists is supportive of as well.
Good luck with the book.
Thanks so much for commenting here. Yes, I agree, there are so many great ways that sports can help to form strong, confident young women who know themselves and their strength. I know Brianna has given a lot to the world of sports and gained so very much, too.
My own growing up was deeply shaped by being a competitive athlete. There are many ways in which it saved me from from giving up when things got difficult in my teenage years. My coaches are still some of the most treasured people in my life.
I am glad you are planning on reading the book. I look forward to your thoughts. I hope you will share them with me!
I think it is wonderful that you have used your feminist lens and the insider knowledge you’ve gained as the wife of a coach to examine the many issues surrounding football and other sports. I salute your bravery and I look forward to reading your book!
Thank you for reading and for your affirmations. I hope you’ll let me know what you think once you have read the book. Writing it did come with some risks, but anything worth doing usually does! I look forward to hearing from you again.
Your post and these comments really sparked my interest in the book! lately I am more and more aware of the complexities inherent to any situation and the necessity of trying not to judge or assume. I will encourage my 22 year old son, an avid sports fan and occasional blogger on sports/culture, to read it as well.
Thank you for reading the post and the comments. And for making a comment of your own. Sometimes it is the conversation that emerges from a post that brings to the surface the most enriching things to think about.
I am thankful for your willingness to check out the book and that you are encouraging your son to read it, too. I hope both of you will share your thoughts with me after you read it. My prayer for the book is that it helps make space for the deep and constructive conversations we need to have about big-time sports in America.
I hope to hear from you again soon.