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.