A Gathering Voices Post by Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop
Imagine putting a woman in every single seat of the four home stadiums of the teams my husband, John, coached for during his NFL tenure. We would only have a fraction of the women we need to equal the number of women physically assaulted, raped, and/or stalked by an intimate partner every year in the United States.
In fact, we would have to fill those four stadiums up with a woman in every seat at least thirty-eight times to have the number we needed.
Of the over 10 million women who are assaulted, raped, and/or stalked by someone who says they love them every year, about 20% obtain a civil protection order. And over half of those protection orders end up being violated.
It would take over 150 NFL stadiums full of women in every single seat to represent those assaulted by an intimate partner every year in America. More than 120 of those stadiums would hold the number of women who either did not report or did not receive adequate protection from law enforcement or the legal system.
The chilling reality is that domestic violence, and the sexual violence that frequently accompanies it, is deeply embedded in American culture. And, as is the case in many of the distortions of our culture, the bodies who bear the brunt of these realities are most often female and more likely to be women of color—more specifically African-American women. In fact, the leading cause of death among African-American women between the ages of 15-34 is homicide at the hands of a current or former intimate partner.
And the uniquely American game of football shows us these harsh facts in clear relief. The fact that an icon of our culture shows us the distortions of our culture is no surprise. The more important dynamic is how we collectively react to seeing ourselves laid bare.
Since the video of Ray and Janay Rice in an elevator in Las Vegas made its debut into our collective consciousness, the reaction has been consistently this: someone must be held accountable. Ray Rice must be punished, Roger Goodell must be fired, the NFL must be given its comeuppance. And while these cries for accountability are, on some level, an acknowledgment of the gravity of what people saw in the video, these reactions do little to acknowledge the complicated and banal realities of domestic violence.
The NFL is the quintessential exemplar of male dominance. It is American football at its most extreme. And women take up space only in very marginalized and diminished ways. As I described in my Open Letter to Roger Goodell from a Former NFL Wife and An Abuse Survivor, women are most often either decorations or distractions in the NFL. Women do not have access to formal channels of power. And our proximity to that world is often limited to a supportive role—wives, office assistants, cheerleaders, or fashionably dressed sideline reporters for TV.
Both femininity and masculinity are displayed and performed in highly caricatured forms in the NFL spectacle. And there is a profound comfort that many find in the confines of an NFL stadium where men can be men and women cheer them on from the sidelines.
Violence toward women flows freely from this kind of space where power that dominates is rewarded handsomely and caricatures of masculinity and femininity are propped up at every turn. The fact that there are men in the NFL who abuse their intimate partners should not be a shock to anyone. The fact the NFL has not lost an ounce of its popularity because of the “recent unpleasantness” is no surprise either. And herein lies the promise of what could come next for America and its beloved NFL.
Sometimes it takes seeing something in such an unfiltered form to create the collective will for cultural change. The challenge is what habits we call on in our reactions. So far, those habits have been of the punitive persuasion—somebody must pay because this is somebody’s fault.
Cultural change, however, comes from a deeper place in which we can see broader patters of causality and responsibility. This deeper, broader place of inquiry allows for a shared resolve to emerge. From that kind of space we can agree to look at what helps create the conditions that make America so very conducive to such high rates of intimate partner violence coupled with such low rates of prevention, protection, justice, and healing.
If the NFL could see itself as the mirror that it is for American culture and begin to reflect its gaze back upon itself not for its own survival, but because of a genuine concern for the culture that birthed it, then what Ray Rice showed us may be just what they need to be honest with themselves and with us.
In my new book on big-time sports I ask the question about whether football and other big-time sports depend on gender stereotypes to thrive. Is there room for humanity in all its complexity to find vitality there? Can a sport like football move into a more life-giving mode of operation not just for women, but for men, too, and still thrive itself?
Caricatures of masculinity and femininity and the valorization of violence and domination therein harm us all—people of all genders, ethnicities, economic levels, and racialized identities. And these caricatures come from a place that does not bring life-giving ways of being together as communities, as a nation.
As Christians, we are called into this difficult space of potential transformation with humility and a thirst not just for justice, but for healing. There are not any institutions in the American landscape that have been able to substantively diminish the harm that domestic violence inflicts. The church is included in that list.
Ecclesial responses have not simply been inadequate to the task, they have often more deeply entrenched the affliction. Christianity has used things like forgiveness and reconciliation as a salve in situations where these responses are more like poison to those who suffer in abusive relationships. The church has tolerated and even encouraged silence when voices were crying out to be heard. And the church has valorized dominance and violence not just in God’s name, but in God’s nature.
We all need the truth that can set us free from the bondage of violence and the distortions it unleashes.
If we could fill those stadiums with those of us who have felt the blows, felt the shame, occupied the lonely days of not knowing how to escape or when it will end—we would not hear the roar of ecstatic fans. We would hear the truths of lives torn apart by fear and the deeply embodied wounds that rape and abuse inflict. Past the bruises the photo-shopped Cover Girl adds protesting domestic violence are highlighting is the more complicated legacy of intimate partner violence—sleep disturbances, depression, disordered eating, PTSD, chronic illness, poverty, homelessness, shame, guilt, and a cavernous loneliness that persists even in places crowded with people.
If we listen closely, we would hear the wisdom that comes from having been there.
Domestic violence is, at its core, about power. It is not about love, it is not about attraction or about obsession. It is about power and dominance and control.
For the NFL to change the way they use, distribute, and abuse power has to be a point of emphasis in their work to address domestic violence. And for we Christians to follow suit, we must interrogate our own power dynamics.
Can we let the voices of those who have been there teach us about the complexity of what wounded bodies need to heal? We don’t just need justice. We need truth. And we need that truth to ring out from the ones who say they care, from the ones who claim to want to love and protect us.
Next time you find your seat in the stadium of your home team or in front of your television to enjoy the game, look around the crowd. Know that we are there among you, the ones who know the truth, the ones who have been there.
About the Author:
The Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop, PhD is the author of Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports (2014) and Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ (2010). She is a theologian, minister, and blogger at www.marciamountshoop.com. Marcia's writing flows from her experiences as a woman, a mother, and a football coach's wife. It also comes from her years of work on cross-cultural community formation, ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue, and difficult issues, dialogue, and healing around race, gender, and sexual violence.