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The NFL, the Military, and the Problem With Masculine Institutions

Both the NFL and the U.S. military cultivate and reward a form of hyper-violent masculinity. The consequences of doing so have never been more obvious.
Ray Rice and Colonel Edward C. Rothstein. (Photo: ftmeade/Flickr)

Ray Rice and Colonel Edward C. Rothstein. (Photo: ftmeade/Flickr)

Like the National Football League and the military, so many institutions in our society remain organized around gender. This, in itself, isn’t news. When women entered the work world in droves in the 1970s, work institutions remained structured around the bread-winning male employee and the stay-at-home wife. Today, workplace and family-leave policies are still catching up with the concept of the dual-earner family.

The important point here, though, is that it’s not the composition of the institution—how many men, how many women—that makes it gendered. It’s the organization of the institution around ideals of masculinity and femininity that makes it gendered. And that’s a point that’s been missing over the past few weeks as both the NFL and the military have come under intense scrutiny for rampant sexual and domestic abuse.

Aggressive masculinity is encouraged on the field, but what happens when aggression, as we've seen with Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and countless others, is directed as violence toward significant others and children?

This intense scrutiny is warranted. The rate of sexual assault against men in the military is almost 100 times that of all men in America. According to the Pentagon, 1.2 percent of male active duty service members are sexually assaulted, compared to 0.014 percent of all American men. Similarly, domestic violence rates for NFL players are 39 percent higher than the national average for men in the same income bracket.

In “Son, Men Don’t Get Raped,” a collection of first-hand accounts of men who were sexually assaulted while serving in the military, Nathaniel Penn cites military data that 38 men are sexually assaulted in the military—every day. Women in the military certainly have a higher chance of being assaulted, but male recruits still do experience sexual assault on a regular basis. I have spent the last eight years studying the military as a sociologist. And from what I’ve learned, I wouldn’t be surprised if that number was actually much higher.

The military is a gendered institution in that it promotes and encourages violent masculinity. Every aspect of the military is geared toward the enterprise of waging successful “macho” war—as opposed to “sissy” diplomacy—against an enemy often described as “limp wristed” or “wimpy.” War is repeatedly waged to ensure that the U.S. maintains a dominating masculine force on the world stage. My own research shows President George W. Bush’s cowboy masculinity was considered the appropriate response to terrorism in 2003, while, more recently, President Obama has been urged to “man up” against ISIS terrorists.

To assert American manhood, the military must train recruits to fight and kill. Just like boys learn to associate masculinity with aggression, recruits must be schooled on the correct kind of hyper-violent masculinity for war. New recruits are called “pussies” and “girls” by commanders and older recruiters in order to humiliate them so they know their place in the institution. Recruits must prove their masculinity by taking the humiliation (even sexual assault) “like a man” and never showing weakness.

The horrific incidents of sexual assault described in Penn’s article are the byproduct of an institution built around cultivating and rewarding violent expressions of masculinity. Even the institutional response to sexual assault is telling. If the incident is reported at all, and if that report is not then ignored, the victim discovers there are no institutional mechanisms for dealing with the assault. Institutional questionnaires, forms, and treatment all assume female victims. Discharge papers write off victims as mentally ill. Men cannot actually be considered victims—there’s no structure in place for this to happen—and instead they are aggressors learning how to dominate one another before dominating the battlefield.

It’s hard to consider all of this and then not think of the NFL. Football is just another example of an institution where aggressive masculinity is cultivated and rewarded. When the first openly gay NFL player, Michael Sam, kissed his boyfriend upon being drafted, many were outraged and questioned if this was really the right kind of masculinity for football. Aggressive masculinity is encouraged on the field, but what happens when aggression, as we've seen with Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and countless others, is directed as violence toward significant others and children?

Sexual assault in the military and domestic violence in the NFL show the consequences of organizing institutions around violent masculinity. All of which makes me wonder: Can an institution built on violence ever possibly create and uphold a zero tolerance policy for violence outside of it?