Sexuality, Gender and Race in American Football

     The origins of American football have helped shape the face of the sport and its role in our culture today. In its early stages, football was a white male-dominated sport. Reforms to college and professional leagues over the years have extended to include both women and minorities, specifically African Americans. However, despite these changes there continues to be a hegemonic notion of white masculinity connected to the sport. The history of football and its progression over the years can be viewed as the source of the continuing issues of gender, sexuality, and race in the sport even today.

     In looking at the implications of football on our society, it is important to also observe the sport’s origins. Because of Princeton’s involvement in the earliest form of American football, Mark Bernstein’s Princeton Football provided an excellent account of the sport’s early culture. The first intercollegiate football game was played between Rutgers University and Princeton University in 1869, and since then Princeton played an important role in the progression of football (Bernstein, 9). Bernstein describes how shockingly violent early football was, citing former player Luther Price who called it “near butchery”. This lead to Theodore Roosevelt’s eventual call to reform the game and make it less violent (34). Bernstein’s work highlights the stories of Princeton’s most prolific and iconic players, framing them as heroes. Rather than delving into issues of sexuality or race in the realm of the sport, Bernstein instead focuses on the athletic heroes which helped establish college football as we know it today. The way that the history of football is often framed reflects the hegemonic views surrounding football in our culture.

     The expectation of masculinity in football likely stems from early customs found in Rugby, football’s ancestral form. In Rugby, the teams used to consist of married men playing against bachelors and the distinction between the married and the unmarried pointed to a ritual test of masculinity (Dundes, 76). According to Dundes’ piece, the reason that college football is so popular in America has to do with its ties to masculinity. He states that “it is almost as though the masculinity of male alumni is at stake in a given game, especially when a hated rival school is the opponent” (75). Ideas of masculinity have very much been tied to the sport, so the association between manliness and football continues. The actual sport of football also holds certain practices that reinforce this idea of masculinity. In order to play the game, one must manifest physical and cultural values of masculinity (77). Dundes also comments on how the uniforms present a bulk-shouldered, exaggerated visual of man who, while dressed in this manner, can “engage in activities such as hand holding, hugging, and bottom patting, that would be disapproved of in any other context” (76). This relates to the ideas of sexuality in football because while the realm of the sport stereotypically excludes homosexuals, the strictly heterosexual players themselves engage in many homoerotic activities.

     There are many stereotypes surrounding gender and sexuality in football. Football remains an unquestioned male domain in the eyes of popular media. There is a widely-held notion that there is only room for heterosexual, “masculine” men within the realm of football. In fact, many football players are portrayed in popular media as bullies to anyone they deem effeminate. Ironically, many of the practices commonly found in football are highly homoerotic. During the draft, men carefully observe the bodies of other men and describe those characteristics which they value and appreciate the most. By placing the draftees under the male gaze, they are placing them in a position normally occupied by women (Oates, 75). Teammates also often touch one another’s bodies in a way that, off the field, would be deemed nothing but homosexual (Oates, 81). Although the stereotypical representation of football players is tied to an image of masculinity, there is a homoerotic undertone to the sport. Nevertheless, the hegemonic idea of heterosexual masculinity in football leaves little room for homosexual or female entities to enter the scene. One of the few inclusions of females in football presents them as hyper-sexualized objects of the male gaze (Bruce, 133).

     This hegemonic idea of women in sports is evidenced by the portrayal of females in football ads. According to Toni Bruce’s article, mediasport is “an overwhelmingly male and hegemonically masculine domain that produces coverage by men, for men and about men”. Marissa Miller, Sports Illustrated and Victoria’s Secret supermodel, became a spokesperson for the 49ers for the 2010-2011 season because the NFL wanted to involve women in marketing and “recognize the female football fan”. The images from the campaign reflect the stereotype of the sexualized female football fan. The NFL’s selection of Marissa Miller as the face of the female football fan-base presupposes that this is what the female fan actually looks like. As I analyzed the ad campaign, I noticed how primped and posed the model had been for the shoot. She did not resemble the average American female fan who often dons the team’s jersey and cheers them on with her male counterparts. The use of models in football ads mainly reaches out to the male viewers. Sexualization in media “represents sportswomen within discourses of idealized sexual attractiveness” (Bruce, 129). Although the NFL claimed to make strides to include their female fans, their ad campaigns continued to target the heterosexual male viewers. Dundes argues that American football is seen as a male activity that defines and affirms masculinity. Women are left, or rather permitted, to be spectators and cheerleaders, but never participants (Dundes, 87). Due to the sport’s origins as a white male-dominated practice, its current dynamic continues to marginalize women and minorities.

     The NFL Draft is a prime example of how white male dominance is reinforced in football. For one, the practice of selecting players is dehumanizing, one NFL general manager going as far as to say If we’re going to buy ’em, we ought to see what we’re buying” (Oates, 77). In recent history there has been a shift in the league from dominantly white to roughly two-thirds of NFL players now being African American. Some have termed this the “disappearance” of white athletes in football (78). Oates observes that at this moment where race relations are changing within the NFL is precisely when the draft has become a more popular event than ever. Black athletic dominance is seen as a threat to white masculinity, so the draft commodifies black bodies and places them under the control of white men (79). This structure of white dominance is rooted in social practices from our history. It would be unfair to assume that every general manager within the NFL views the draft as an opportunity to assert his dominance over these black athletic bodies. Instead I argue that the practice in itself is tied to social ideas of race that still existed in the developmental time period of American football. The issue of race and equal opportunity has also been prevalent in the coaching world of the NFL.

     Although African American players were given more opportunities once the NFL was desegregated in the mid 1940s, coaching positions were still a white-dominated business for a large part of NFL history. Advancing the Ball explores the movement towards equal coaching opportunities in the NFL. The league made it virtually impossible for African Americans to simply attain a head coaching position (Duru, 8). In fact, the first African American head coach of the modern NFL did not take over until 1989. Duru likens the fight for equal opportunity in coaching to an untold civil rights story of its own (7). Former Cleveland Browns player John Wooten lead the initiative toward equality in head coach hiring. This eventually lead to the passage of the “Rooney Rule” which states that every team must interview at least one minority applicant for head coach (70). Again, the fight for equality in racial representation in the NFL, long after its official desegregation, lies in the sport’s roots. Throughout the course of history, white males have exerted their power over racial minorities. This show of dominance has been embedded in the traditions and sports that are fundamental to our nation’s identity. Thus racial inequities have conceivably carried on into the modern world of those sports.

     This theme of white male dominance in football continues to marginalize females, homosexuals, and racial minorities alike. According to Messner, sports media all across the board constructs “hegemonic masculinity in relation to femininities but also in relation to marginalized or subordinated masculinities” (Messner, 117). This means that stereotypical masculinity is constructed by drawing the contrast not only to women but even the “less manly” men. As Dundes argued, masculinity is reaffirmed by the male ritual of football. The conception of gender, sexuality, and race in football today is a product of the hegemonic ideas of masculinity surrounding the sports world. The male gaze is pertinent to the marginalization of the “others”. As Oates described, the male gaze in the draft disempowers the mostly African American draftees to a role normally held by women. These three different sectors of society are subject to many of the same inequalities in the realm of football.

     The time period in which American football began to emerge contributed to its makings. Many of the rules and customs transferred over from the days of Rugby. These included ideas of hypermasculinity. Paired with the discrimination of homosexuals and African Americans that was conventional at the turn of the century, the groundwork of football left little room for anyone but white males to thrive. My position as a female in the sports world allows me to experience and understand the ongoing struggle of gender equality in football as well. I feel that the sexualization of females in the media disempowers women and discourages us from taking part in sports in the same way that our male counterparts do. Though our society has progressed since the foundational times of football, many of these ideologies are still woven into the practices of the sport even today. The fight for equality in gender, sexuality, and race will continue as long as these hegemonic values are still in practice.


Bernstein, Mark F. Princeton Football. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Pub., 2009. Print.

Bruce, Toni. “Reflections on Communication and Sport: On Women and FemininitiesCommunication and Sport 1:1/2 (2012) 125-137.

Dundes, Alan. “Into the Endzone for a Touchdown: A Psychoanalytic Consideration of American Football.” Western Folklore 37.2 (1978): 75-88. JSTOR. Web. 2 Mar. 2014.

Duru, N. Jeremi. Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.;

Messner, Michael. “Reflections on Communication and Spot: On Men and MasculinitiesCommunication and Sport 1:1/2 (2012) 113-124.

Oates, Thomas P. “The Erotic Gaze in the NFL Draft.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 4.1 (2007): 74-90. Print. Draft

This entry was posted in Final Project and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s