The NFL Cross-Over

Katie Baker tries to untangle how Sunday Night Football became the third highest rated show among women:


The crude archetypes of female fandom -- the clueless girlfriend who asks if LeBron scored the touchdown, or the mom who waits for a pivotal moment to express her wish that they wouldn't spit tobacco like that -- manage to endure because everyone has watched a game with one of those types. But to assume that most women would take one look at the league's violence and sexual mayhem and slowly walk away betrays a misunderstanding of football's place in our culture, and also of women. 

 First, the climb in women watching "Sunday Night Football" is clearly correlated to the program's being the No. 1 television show among men. A rising tide raises all viewerships. But that can't be all. The must-see, must-discuss quality to the N.F.L. this season seems to exist because we're more aware of the savagery in the league, not in spite of it. Like many other "real" fans, I got into sports in large part for the characters, stories, rivalries and heartbreak. We saw interpersonal drama where casual fans saw only supersize freaks of nature battering one another. True enjoyment was the province of the devoted. 

But now it's nearly impossible for people even slightly attuned to culture not to recognize the reality-show-like intrigue of the N.F.L. News of Favre's indiscretions larded up network newscasts; even TMZ.com has a sports page now. And of course the N.F.L. actually does have a reality show, the wonderful "Hard Knocks" on HBO. Each episode is a well-told story, with a buildup and denouement, and it's obsessed with reality-show questions: Who's going to get cut from the team, who's going to move on and will these crazy people ever stop yelling at one another?

I don't want to discount the narrative element, but I'd actually submit that football's appeal to women, is pretty much the same as its appeal to men. I can think of few other athletic endeavors that combine balletic grace, keen intellect and brute strength in the same way. Frankly, I never understood why more women didn't watch football. I strongly suspect that it's because they are told that it's "a guy thing." That could never fly in my house.

I started going out with Kenyatta in the fall of 1998. I thought the world of her, but it was clear to me that for us to work we'd have to understand each other's obsessions, and share at least a few of them. Mine was pro football--a sport which she'd always regarded as "a bunch of dudes running into each other." After going out for a few weeks, I sat her down and said, "Look, there's something you need to know. Every Sunday, during the Fall, I watch football. I don't do much of anything else. That whole day is about football. I know you don't get it, but if you're interested, I'll explain the game to you."

She said she liked the explanation, and for the rest of that season I did exactly that. Painstakingly explaining formations, penalties and the forward pass. It's tough to pin-point when you truly fall for someone. But I'd say, for me, it was a Sunday when we were coming up 95 and listening to the Bills v. Titans playoff game. When I saw that she "got" why the Music City Miracle was a great play, I was done. This has been a football-crazy house ever since. But the lesson I took was that she probably would have been a football fan all along, if not for the haze of male exclusivity that pervaded the thing.  



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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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