- Football and Manliness: An Unauthorized Feminist Account of the NFL by Thomas P. Oates
On November 8, 2016, over half of American voters went to bed in shock after the election of Donald Trump as the forty-fifth president of the United States. On the next day, pundits, [End Page 264] scholars, bloggers, and academics all scrambled to rationalize how this came to be. Thomas P. Oates's Football and Manliness: An Unauthorized Feminist Account of the NFL offers the first academic account, at least that I have read, to explain this event. The goal of his book is to show "how the stories and pleasures surrounding professional football in the twenty-first century have expressed (and sometimes challenged) an emerging populist formation that connects managerial, financialized thinking with ideals of racialized manliness" (2). He maintains that the media messaging surrounding the National Football League reveals it as a bastion for the "patriarchy, racism, and corporate hegemony" that ushered Trump into the White House. By engaging feminist theory, the book "refuses dominant assumptions, reinscribes erasures, articulates silences, highlights contradictions, and amplifies quiet counter-narratives" of the new crisis in racialized manhood (3). To accomplish this goal, Oates analyzes the media depiction of football teams, players, coaches, and fans.
Oates begins by analyzing three melodramatic depictions of NFL teams as male homosocial enclaves. He deftly illustrates how narratives in the film Any Given Sunday and the ESPN television show Playmakers depict sexualized and unruly black athletes that need to be reined in by their white head coach in order to succeed on the field, all the while that this all-male sphere is threatened by an intrusive woman. He dissects the depiction of NFL athletes in the draft coverage to reveal how the process both celebrates the black male body and commodifies African American athletes as objects of homoerotic and white supremacist desire. Oates then focuses on books published by prominent NFL head coaches on the subject of leadership to identify a recent shift to a feminized managerial style that can result in masculine triumph. To understand the media narratives influence on NFL fans, he dissects the messaging and meaning of football gaming in the John Madden video games and fantasy football. Here he emphasizes how football gaming encourages fans to be competitive, self-regulating, and financially oriented citizens by commodifying the predominantly black athletes to "create a space where various forms of masculinity can be reconciled to one another" (152). The book concludes with an investigation of the recent concussion and CTE crisis surrounding the NFL as "an especially promising avenue to critique the consequences of commodification, question the wisdom of managerialism, reconstruct homosocial ideals as a damaging force, and demand more of fans than detached entertainment" (171).
As a scholar of mass communication, Oates is at his best deconstructing the gendered media message, both the obvious and the complex, surrounding the male homosocial sphere of the NFL. Throughout the book, he provides a valuable argument and model for shifting the locus of masculinity and football off the gridiron and onto the cultural by-products of the game. His sources from academic inquiries, films, video games, self-help books, journalists, and player interviews support both his arguments and his approach. By enacting this strategy, Oates moves his analysis of American masculinity beyond those on the field to the deeper tensions in American culture and politics. Though the strings connecting the media coverage of the NFL to the election of Trump require quite a bit of stretching, Oates's feminist critique undoubtedly exposes the racial and gendered tensions permeating twenty-first-century America.
As a historian reviewing the book for a history journal, I found that Oates's analysis of the longer historical trends behind the development of these racial, gendered, and economic [End Page 265] depictions left me wanting more. To be fair, this was not the author's goal, and he admits that the book will only briefly "digress into history" (20...