The (in)compatibility of Feminism and Football

Lina AbiRafeh
9 min readDec 6, 2022

What is a feminist doing at a football game? I asked myself, as I looked at the crowd (of mostly men), screaming at a team (of men). The floor of our seats was littered with beer cans. The air reeked of sweat — and ketchup.

The team wasn’t doing well. The guy behind me yelled: “Stop being pussies, defense! I’ve got a box of tampons for you!”

I cringed. Should I have been surprised? Nope. There’s a stereotypical fan base for football. A cliché. Built on so much truth. Sundays watching football, drinking beer, eating nachos, while the women hang out in the kitchen.

“Honey, could you bring me a beer?”

It’s the 1950s — most of the time.

Football culture is — by and large — a hyper-masculine American tradition that tends to exclude women. The game is — for the most part — played by men, for men. Yes, there are exceptions (and I’m sure I’ll hear from all the exceptions!), but, undeniably, American football is about guys.

There’s a dominant “football culture” that is obvious — not just at games. And there’s an image of masculinity attached to watching/playing football — or even understanding it. Young boys who don’t show an interest in this game (or sports in general) are often not viewed as particularly masculine. And there’s “locker room talk” — please don’t get me started. Sure, it applies for all sports. But still. Oh, and, cheerleaders. The objectification of women continues. There’s just so much to unpack here!

Even the term “football widows” — referring to a woman whose husband often leaves her alone while he plays or watches football — reminds us that football is men’s domain, and men are acceptably “absent” (or: as good as dead) for football season because clearly, football takes precedence over all else.

As with most things in the world, the sport comes with inherent sexism. Young girls who show interest in playing the sport too often lack the opportunities to do so. The inherent message is that girls would be less worthy on the field than boys. And so the few who show interest are discouraged. And if they enjoy watching the sport, they inevitably fall into the “one of the guys” trope.

So there’s a gendered element to football. The sport isn’t played — or viewed — equally by women and men.

According to a die-hard football fan, he says:

Football is a guy’s game. Sure, women can watch. And we like when women know a lot about football — for a girl. But please don’t ask me dumb questions while the game is on! Wait for the commercials. Most women only like football because their brothers or fathers or boyfriends taught them about it. And that’s not too many women. And when girls go to a football game, don’t wear a pink jersey — real fans wear the jersey colors of the team. And no teams are pink. It just shows you don’t know anything about football — that’s just a fashion statement. And make sure you know the name of the player whose jersey you’re wearing, and a little bit about them. In other words, don’t watch if you don’t care about the game! If you don’t like the game, the other women are in the kitchen. That’s the way it goes.

He continues, and it gets better:

I have names for all the women I don’t like watching football with. There’s Miss Sensitive — where she jumps every time there’s a big hit like she’s watching a horror movie. Football is about getting hit! There’s The Faker — the woman who pretends she knows what she’s talking about but says all the wrong stuff and by the end of the first quarter you know she’s full of it. Then there’s the one who doesn’t give a shit — sitting on her phone the whole time, doesn’t even want to be there, asking if we can change the channel. Then there’s The Agitator — she doesn’t know anything about football but will cheer for the teams you hate just to annoy you. And finally there’s my mom — she’ll sometimes sit and watch the game and try to be nice, but she makes weird corny comments with no clue about what’s happening. But I let her be, because she’s my mom and she’s controlling the leftovers.

My favorite kind of woman to watch the game with is the one who will get me a beer. And some snacks.

Then there’s the objectification of women. Yes, I said that before, but it’s worth repeating. Cheerleaders, as a start. They are actually athletes in their own right. That’s right. They are athletes — not ornaments. But still, how are they viewed? How are they treated?!

And there’s the so-called “lingerie bowl” — here we go. Brace yourselves, feminists.

The LFL — Lingerie Football League — was founded in 2009 as an American women’s semi-professional tackle football league. It later rebranded as the Legends Football League in 2013, but the concept remains unchanged. It calls itself “the most attractive competition in the world” which, unsurprisingly, “enjoys great popularity among the male population.”

I couldn’t make this up if I tried. Real life presents so much feminist fodder, it’s appaling.

The LFL was founded by Mitch Mortaza, whose latest tweet seems to paint him in a different light:

In the US girls are driving some of the fastest growth in football. Nearly 500,000 girls between the ages of 6–17 are currently playing Flag Football with High School participation up 40% since 2018. (As per NFL Football Ops)

It’s hard for me to reconcile these two images — supporting girls’ sports while also objectifying women. Anyway, I leave that dilemma to you all.

Meanwhile, the game goes on.

We say over and over that representation matters. And — it really matters in sports. Because it is not at all representative. Over the years, young girls see very little representation in professional levels of football. In fact, can you think of any at all?!

And then there’s Title IX — federal law from 1972 prohibiting sex-based discrimination in school or in any education program that receives federal funding. For sports in particular, Title IX requires that male and female athletes are rewarded equally. This includes access to sports and training facilities, equipment, and so on.

Is it working? Yes.

According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, girls’ participation in high school sports has soared nearly 1,000% since the law was passed. And for collegiate sports, participation has increased well over 500%. Title IX turned 50 in June of this year. And there’s more good news here.

And then I spoke to a female athlete who plays a wide range of sports. Her view was… unsurprising.

My experience in sport has been dominated by men, and that is a universal experience for women in sport.

The NFL set up a pipeline to get more women employed in the industry and organization. I don’t know how effective it was. But still, it’s very male dominated. Women make up office staff, admin staff, and entry level roles while very few are in more senior positions or are part of coaching staff. I don’t know how effective such a pipeline can be if it’s still a male-dominated, patriarchal organization because from players to coaches, assistant coaches, managers, trainers, and owners, they are all male.

We can spout diversity and inclusion all we want but what is actually being done to change the culture? Is anything actually being changed if there are no feminists in decision-making positions? Are these capable, talented, passionate women that are employed there being set up for failure in an organization that is so male-dominated? Most importantly, if we are trying to get more women involved, how safe are they?

And then of course there’s money. It’s obviously a huge multibillion dollar industry. So what is actually being done? And how much are people let get away with? Sexual misconduct, harassment, assault, cover ups — should I go on?!

During football season, there’s a 10% increase in domestic violence when there’s an upset loss. (I had to google this. It means a defeat when the home team was predicted to win by 4 or more points.) Yes, men take out their frustrations with sports losses on women. Drinking culture is of course a part of this, but drink or no, the perpetrator has no excuse for being an a**hole. It’s really that simple. At the same time, many sports events are sponsored by drink companies, so there’s an uncomfy marriage here between sports and booze. Again, unsurprising.

The female athlete added this:

I suppose you can’t get away from sport without talking about the drinking culture. From drink companies sponsorship deals, to tailgating, to people making a big drinking occasion out of it, which is not uncommon to sports. But I think something that needs to be considered — and needs to be researched more — is the intersection of drinking, domestic violence, and sporting events.

Researched, but also addressed. Like — what are we doing to prevent this from happening?!

When I lived in Papua New Guinea — a big rugby nation — we used to say that women should stay home on game nights because no matter who won or lost — women always lost. Meaning, violence against women (sexual violence in particular) was used both to grieve and to celebrate. This needs its own blog — it makes me so mad.

Anyway, back to America. It isn’t unusual for athletes to also be perpetrators. And employers often turn a blind eye. Boys will be boys, right?! Well…

Increased media coverage on footballer Ray Rice is what finally led to the NFL amping up its domestic violence policies. Rice was caught on video punching his fiancée — undeniable evidence of abuse. And a**holery.

This incident at least began a conversation about sports leagues taking more responsibility and imposing penalties for the crimes committed by their athletes. And domestic violence IS A CRIME. (In case that needed to be said?!)

Seems that perpetrators of domestic violence in the NFL could be suspended without pay for six games. A whole six games?! Geez. Sacked and jailed seems more appropriate to me.

Anyway, there’s more ground to cover yet. Let’s get to the player-pay-gap. The Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) began in 2019 and has 64 active teams in 2022. This year for the first time, the WFA Pro National Championship Game was broadcast on ESPN2.

On average, an NFL player makes a yearly salary of $2.4 million. Quarterbacks make an average of over $7 million. And, professional WFA players?! They actually have to pay a fee from $250 to $800 dollars just to play, and they are required to purchase their own equipment. Many players have created GoFundMe accounts in order to fund their season. WFA players are not getting paid to play, but rather paying to play.

And then there’s the “other football” — or what Americans call “soccer”. It’s World Cup season, and many eyes are on that ball instead.

Women’s soccer does not receive the same attention or funding as men’s soccer. Unsurprisingly. And yet, soccer has made great strides to eliminate discrimination, becoming more friendly to female athletes in terms of equality of play and pay. After waging a years-long battle to end gender discrimination, US women’s and men’s soccer finally signed equal pay agreements this year. This means that any World Cup money made by the men’s team this year in Qatar would also be split. The men’s team lost to the Netherlands a few days ago, but the team could still earn at least $13 million, 90 percent of which will be pooled and shared equally between the male and female World Cup players.

The female athlete had this to say:

While there have been some gains, like the US women’s soccer team, getting equal pay, why is that the exception and not the norm? Look at basketball salaries for women vs men. Most of the women in the WNBA have to play off-season in Europe to supplement their income. That’s also why Brittney Griner was in Russia… but that’s a whole other story!

But on the whole women have to fight extra hard to get crumbs.

Meanwhile, speaking of crumbs, I’m still sitting at this football game (does it ever end?!) with all these thoughts running through my head. Are football and feminism compatible?! You decide.

The female athlete concludes with this:

There’s plenty to love about sport. But what I would say is, unless we interrogate and challenge the misogynistic, racist, and homophobic cultures that exist within these sports, they will only be perpetuated and deepened.

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!