Like pretty much every other woman in America (or at least the ones I’m friends with on Facebook), I can’t stop thinking about what just happened in Steubenville, Ohio. It’s so sad and so horrible I almost feel bad writing about it on a book blog. But, books have always been a part of how I try to understand the world. Sometimes literature provides the best insight into the really troubling aspects of our society. I’d say that’s the case with Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, so bear with me for a minute.
While we don’t have a TV, I’ve watched the media’s bizarrely sympathetic coverage of the convicted rapists (cable news just won the tough battle with reality television and saving the environment for the #1 reason I don’t own a TV). After watching this this clip all I wanted to do was spend the rest of the day listening to old school Ani Difranco. The year or two the rapists will spend in Juvie is apparently a death sentence for their football careers. And some people are very upset about this because football is the most important thing in the world, especially if you live in Steubenville, Ohio. Do we really value football more than women’s health and safety? Yes, we do.
The fact that I blog about literary fiction, don’t own a TV, and just admitted to being into Ani fifteen years after it was cool (if it was ever cool), might reasonably lead you to believe that I already think football is dumb and boring and bad. You’d be so wrong because you’d have forgotten the most relevant fact: I’m from Wisconsin. I love watching football. I threw a Superbowl party in my (all-girls) dorm when the Packers won Superbowl XXXI. I still have the VHS tape I used to record the game so that I could watch it whenever I wanted, like I did with my favorite movies. The next year, I got in an actual email fight with one of my then best friends (who happens to be from Chicago) when she got all gloaty after we lost to the Broncos. My angry, drunken, The Bears Still Suck emails were not a highpoint in our friendship. Soooo, I was totally, embarrassingly, emotionally involved in football when I was in college.
How did I learn to equate winningness in football with happiness in life? From my Dad. Who this very past fall stormed out of my birthday party when this happened. In the world of true football fans, no emotional outburst is too extreme when your team loses. When 4th and 26 happened, I threw shrimp at my parents’ television. That I’d just dunked in red cocktail sauce. Were my parents pissed that I got in a food fight with the Philadelphia Eagles in their living room? Of course not. There’s not a Packer Fan on earth who’d have blamed me. It was a heartbreaking loss.
So I think I understand the emotional connection that people in Steubenville have with football. I don’t condone it, but I think I understand how it works. Here in Wisconsin, it’s socially acceptable for my dad to storm out of my birthday party because the replacement refs blew a call and cost the Pack the game. But what was the effect on me? Well, it made me feel like a football game was more important to my dad than the day I was born. Which made me sad. Now, take this and multiply it by a million. In Steubenville, the football careers of high school rapists are more important than the young woman who was victimized. Which isn’t just sad, it’s tragic.
For a while now, I’ve known that getting emotional about football is stupid. Like really, really stupid. In the years since college, I’ve learned that the final score of the Packer game has absolutely no bearing on the real world or my life. I don’t really care who wins anymore. But, I still love to watch football. Why? Because it’s fun. I get to wear this T-shirt, tailgate (beer and brats!), and hang out with my friends and family for a few hours on the weekend. I know it’s barbaric, but it’s exciting to watch. And sometimes, I still can’t help but get a little tiny bit involved in the soap opera plotlines. If Greg Jennings ever reads this I’d like him to know I was none too happy to hear about this, but I commend whoever is handling his publicity. You get the picture: I’m still a Packer Fan.
Or at least I was until today. Admittedly, I should have ditched football a long time ago. I broke up with Catholicism when I was thirteen because its anti-feminist, anti-gay, pro-pedophile, big money politics sickened me. Sound like any other all-male organization that’s been in the news a lot lately? As the child of a Sicilian immigrant, was it really easier to break up with this church than with this one? It’s not just one corrupt program at one university or a few bad seeds. At every level, football is a fundamentally corrupt institution.
We’re part of a society that mistakenly treats athletes like heroes. Over and over and over again. We somehow invest so much of ourselves in a game that it becomes more important than real life. We have a bad, bad relationship with sports. It’s not just a fun game anymore. It’s not just a nice escape from the real world for a few hours on the weekends. We’ve allowed this hero-worship to perpetuate a rape culture so pervasive even our high schools are infected.
So what’s the first step in breaking up with football? To stop spending money on it. I don’t think I’ll every pay for Packers’ tickets or buy another Aaron Rodgers T-shirt. If more women in America did that, we might get somewhere, because it’s all about the money.
Then, with the money I save, I’m going to buy everyone I know a copy of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Happy Birthday! Here’s a book I think you’ll love. Merry Christmas! I got you a book. Despite its flaws (overly wise nineteen-year old protagonist, lame female characters etc.), I think Billy Lynn says a lot of what really needs to be said about our absurd national obsession with football. It’s also a really good read.
Placing Billy and the Bravos at a Dallas Cowboy’s game on Thanksgiving is a brilliant concept. Through the eyes of actual soldiers, Fountain exposes the sad absurdity of our misplaced hero-worship for overpaid athletes. When Billy and the rest of the guys meet the players, Billy is struck by the uselessness of this well-fed, well-supplied team. Sarcastically, Billy imagines sending the NFL, with all of its warrior propaganda, to an actual war:
Attack with all our bears and raiders, our ferocious redskins, our jets, eagles, falcons, chiefs, patriots, cowboys… they are so huge, so strong, so fearsomely ripped that your bombs and bullets bounce off their bones of steel. Submit, lest our awesome NFL show you straight to the gates of hell! (184)
But, war pays a lot less than football and the huge gulf between the actual soldiers and the Sunday warriors widens as they interact. Fountain deftly explores the contrast between these two groups when Billy and Sargeant Dime tour the equipment room. Overwhelmed by the amount of supplies and resources, Billy thinks:
How does it come to be, that’s what he wants to know, not just the how but the why off all this stuff. Only in America, apparently. Only America could take such a product-intensive sport and grow it into the civic necessity it is today. (182-3)
It’s not just our American obsession with stuff that the reader takes away from this scene, but the contrast with how dangerously under-supplied our troops were in Iraq. The supply room perfectly illustrates the extraordinary expense and effort wasted on a meaningless game. The power of corporate greed and the superficiality of the spectacle paints a disturbing portrait of American values.
While this isn’t a novel that deals with women all that well, it seems to get at the same feelings I have about Steubenville. Our real lives and the real people in them are more important than sports. In the same way that I can’t believe we care more about football than we do about women’s safety, Billy is appalled by parents who care more about football than their own children. (Hi dad!) After meeting the players, Billy decides to give away his autographed football to a kid who looks like he could use it.
Outside the Whataburger booth he spots him, a smallish, twitchy kid with a head too big for his neck, ill dressed for the cold in a thin cotton hoodie and fake falling-apart Reeboks, and why the fock would parents spend hundreds of dollars on Cowboys tickets when their son lacks a proper winter coat? (189)
Why do we feel like it’s okay to elevate a game above other people’s well-being? After Steubenville, I hope more people are asking themselves that question right now. That’s one of the great things about Billy Lynn – it asks that question while also being funny, smart, sad, entertaining and well-written. It’s a book about a lot more than football, but after this week in the news, I’ve got football on my mind even if it is officially out of my life.