Two years ago I took a course in Testimony and Human Rights in which we read and discussed works of testomonial literature (Shoah, the work of Primo Levi and Rigoberta Menchu, etc.) and at some point we read an essay by Jacques Ranciere titled “The Intolerable Image.” Speaking on pictures and photography of war and trauma, Ranciere states “What makes an image intolerable? At first sight, the question seems merely to ask what features make us unable to view an image without experiencing pain or indignation. But a second question immediately emerges, bound up with the first: is it acceptable to make such images and exhibit them to others?”
I’m a woman, so naturally the original video of Ray Rice dragging the unconscious body of his then-fiance Janay Palmer out of an Atlantic City elevator felt like a knife in my stomach. I’ve seen the original video in fits and starts, stumbling upon it when I flipped through channels, immediately feeling like I’ve intruded upon something terrible. It wasn’t like the videos and photographs I’d seen in that testimony course, of men and women staggering out of concentration camps or a prisoner about to be executed. Those were pictures, frozen in a past that was too far away to be immediate. This was violence in real time, a cowardly suckerpunch caught on tape. It’s similar to the feelings expressed by Tom Junod regarding the execution video of journalist James Foley in his new introduction to the award-winning piece “The Falling Man“: We are bearing witness to something, but that something is incomprehensible.
The pre-evidentiary image was intolerable, to be sure. But not intolerable enough. Just showing the evidence of violence isn’t enough for a lot of people. Sometimes, intolerable images are what people need. They need the full picture, the full grotesque display, in order to fully understand. We’ve gotten really good at dismissing things, at shrinking the stuff we don’t want to enlarge the stuff we do. Sometimes they need the entire, excruciating video to understand domestic violence, and the new footage released last week of what actually happened – Ray Rice cold-cocking his wife in the face, knocking her out cold, standing in an incredulously banal way over her still form – was finally, finally, what it took for people to get it. (We can obviously debate whether or not the NFL saw the full tape back in April when they requested it, because the NFL has more money than God and they could have most certainly gotten the full tape, but I digress)
It is very hard to equate my love of football (and sport itself, really) with the fact that the National Football League, with all of its pink shoelaces in October and female sideline reporters and Carrie Underwood singing of the Sunday Night Football theme song, really and truly doesn’t give a flying fuck about women. When it does try to care, it sells us jerseys bedazzled in sequins or dyed bright pink. It gives us Marie Claire cut-outs with Brooklyn Decker telling women how to ‘pretend they like football’ in front of their boyfriends. Even my own school, when trying to appeal to female football fans, felt it necessary to hold a girls-only workshop that managed to tie in cosmopolitans and pink helmets. I thought I needed to wear a pencil skirt to even consider applying. Just give me a regular damn jersey. I’m not one of those chicks who pretends to like football because it’s going to make me fuckable. I already know I’m hot. Let’s talk passing yards.
I don’t have to pretend I like football. I legit love football. And European football, too (Come on, you Reds!). I tailgate every Saturday. I met my man at a football tailgate and it’s possibly the cutest story ever told in the history of the world. But hey, if you don’t like sports, that’s okay, too. You don’t need to be anything other than yourself.
But maybe that’s the problem. We keep saying to girls that they need to like this, that, and the other thing in order to be more desirable. To make men want us sexually. And to extrapolate that idea further – we say to girls that they need to be docile. To not speak up. To let ‘men be men’ and to giggle about football and the difficult shit, because being giggly and dismiss will make men want to put their dicks inside us.
We rarely let women be women. We rarely let them be. And if they do speak up, we say that they deserve what they got, or they were a gold digger, or they’re crazy, or that they’re whores. Because God forbid you are a women who likes sex.
I can’t tell you the complex and ultimately personal decisions that led Janay to marry Ray Rice in spite of this abuse, but I can posit that in Janay’s mind, she is the one that can fix him. Because women are the great healers of troubled men. If we just work on them a little bit harder. If we just love them enough one day the punches won’t land. I hope it doesn’t take a catastrophe for Janay to realize that in this instance, love will absolutely never be enough unless Ray Rice makes a severe Michael Vick style turnaround. I hope that’s the case. But that hope is very cautious.
Part of me wonders if I should even talk about these issues at all. As I’ve said before on this space, I’ve never been abused in a relationship and I’m loved by a very good and decent man, so to sit here and presume I know the dynamics of such a situation would be a lie. I’m saying all of this as a fan of a sport that consistently shows it doesn’t care about the lives or health of women, no matter what color is on the jersey. I’m saying this because I’m one of the statistically lucky women who has never been hit by a lover, but who has friends who have been hit and worse by theirs. I’ve listened to them. I’ve taken their stories into my body. And I stand as an educated ally. The Indianapolis Colts recently donated $100k to a domestic violence foundation, which immediately made me stand up and applaud, and there have been several other athletes getting kicked off or banned from their teams due to domestic violence charges. But who else will follow?
We can keep yodeling until the cows come home about how the conversation needs to change. But it can’t change when we aren’t even offered a spot at the table, as the fabulous Katie Nolan argued in her AMAZING video. Nolan also says that the NFL will never respect women until the media it answers to does. I think we are getting better in a lot of ways, but this whole debacle shows that the Goodell Era will be marked by politics over morality.
Obviously the first step would be a get rid of Goodell because he runs the NFL like an inept Vladimir Putin with a better tan, but with every day that passes I don’t think that will happen. Instead, the centralized vision of power needs to be dissolved, and there needs to be more attention paid to the way the NFL looks at its players and the culture of toxic masculinity.
My other question is this – if this is how the NFL tries to hide the domestic abusers in their ranks, who is to know how much information they’re hiding about concussions? Or any other criminal activity?
I don’t want Janay Rice to become another Kasandra Perkins. I want the conversation of violence around a knowingly violent sport to change. I don’t want us to pretend this stuff doesn’t exist until there’s more dead bodies on our hands. I want women to be invited into the conversation not out of pity or out of difference, but out of respect for our knowledge of the game.
Women love football. Right now, it doesn’t love us back. Or it’s trying to in order to satisfy the dollar signs. And hopefully, the firestorm and scandal surrounding this very embarrassing and upsetting issue will kickstart some genuine, actual change in the way we view sports and female discourse.