The XX Factor

The NFL Opines on “the Role of the Female”

The female fulfills her role.

Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Today, the New York Times’ Ken Belson reports on how some female football fans are growing disillusioned with the sport in the wake of a wave of domestic violence arrests of NFL players, and an endlessly bungled response by league officials. “Before this week I held the N.F.L. in a different view,” Chicago Bears fan Nicole Larvick told Belson. “It seemed different—like families and communities were important to them. But I know it’s just a business now.”

But Belson’s piece moves the needle past Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson to show that the NFL’s woman problem did not originate this week, that football has always been just business, and that the disconnect runs far deeper than the domestic violence issue. “I think the league is tone deaf to a lot of cultural things,” said 50-year-old Elise Johnson. “Society has evolved. I don’t think the N.F.L. has evolved.” Take this quote from NFL chief marketing officer Mark Waller, talking about why women are important to the league:

The matriarch of the family predetermines an awful lot that goes on, from what sport you play to what media you watch to what products get bought … The role of the female in the household is huge. On the emotional side, the role that the female builds that a family can gather around is fundamental. That sort of communal aspect, which is such a part of the game in America.

So “the female” of the species—or as I like to call them, “women”—are important to the NFL because they produce babies who could grow up to play football, watch football, and consume football-related items. The female’s “role” in the “household” is to build an emotional bond and a “communal aspect” that the “family can gather around”—presumably on Sunday afternoons in front of the TV. It sounds like women have just been cast in an exciting new role, as gazelles in a nature documentary narrated by the NFL marketing machine.

Last year, as Mina Kimes notes in ESPN the Magazine, Nielsen reported that female viewers make up 35 percent of the league’s regular-season TV audience. That means that a lot of women like watching football, but also that they represent the league’s greatest opportunity for audience growth. Bringing them on board will require the NFL to do more than view women as moms who can grant the league access to their husbands and boys. As Kimes puts it, women will “embrace the league when they believe its values align with their own.”

So far, the NFL has instead opted to try to sell women products that align with their fashion sense. Belson reports that the NFL reached out to women on Tuesday with a Manhattan fashion show featuring Victoria’s Secret models wearing NFL jerseys strategically cut to show some more skin. That’s exactly how matriarchs like to dress when preparing chips and dip for the big game.