So why is the NFL so devastatingly tone deaf when it comes to issues of domestic violence? Because opposing the rising power of women at the turn of the century was one reason professional sports, and particularly the NFL, was created in the first place.
The fact the league was founded in the same year, 1920, as the passage of women’s voting rights is no coincidence. As women gained political power, some men retreated into promotion of their physical dominance. That was part of the motivation for the popularity of “Muscular Christianity” a movement that underpinned YMCA and backed college football’s brutal beginnings.
The design of “Muscular Christianity” was to ostracize women completely from sports and establish male team competition as a forum devoted to toughening the male upper class and to valorize male physicality.
The idea was popularized by the YMCA’s Luther Gulick, who professed to have evidence in 1906 that physical activity was detrimental to the female body and mind.
Muscular Christian ideas were also instrumental in the formation of all three lucrative male sports: baseball, football and basketball, and Muscular Christianity doctrine also helped institutionalize physical education. An import from England, Muscular Christianity resonated with President Teddy Roosevelt and others who became aghast at the “softening” of the young upper class American male; Roosevelt spoke of his pasty complexion, soft musculature and spindly frame.
Roosevelt wanted a rugged populace that could compete in war, both in mind and body, which was one reason he favored the burgeoning sport of American football. John Hughes, the English author and lawyer, and one of Muscular Christianity’s chief proponents, envisioned that the aristocratic male body had to be honed for a variety of reasons. “…man’s body is given him to be trained and brought into subjection, and then used for the protection of the weak, the advancement of all righteous causes, and the subduing of the earth which God has given to the children of men.”
Football took the “training” and “subjection” of men too far with its absurd violence. In 1906, 18 players died playing college football which prompted the creation of another powerful sports institution, partially at Roosevelt’s behest, the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The NCAA was designed to lessen the violence and codify rules.
Nevertheless, football, in particular, remains devoted to the valorization of male violence and male physical superiority. It’s a history that subconsciously informed the Baltimore Ravens to protect Rice when the first video surfaced of Rice dragging the lifeless body of his now wife out of a casino elevator. It’s a history that justified NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s initial two-game suspension of Rice. It’s also a history and culture the league is now confronted with and must change.