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Women and Football...An Unlikely Match? Maybe Not.

This past weekend, amidst the looming trepidation of coronavirus spikes and carefully crafted reduced spectator (or no spectator) protocols, what remains of college football season limped off to a start with a backdrop of tarp-covered bleachers. And it was so exciting...finally!! Disclaimer...what you are about to read is unabashedly one-sided.

Anyone who knows me has no doubt that I love football. My Clemson Tigers have my heart, and I will ever be loyal to my hometown Jacksonville Jaguars even though I no longer live there. I actually also genuinely love the game. All of it. And I am not alone...according to recent statistics, women comprise nearly half of the fan base in many markets, both at the college level and in the NFL.

My original interest in football stemmed from a deep-seated desire to have the information I needed to fully participate, and frankly, not look dumb. As a girl growing up in cheerleading, it seemed silly to me to spend that much time in a stadium or gymnasium without understanding what was happening on the field or court. And it was a LOT of time!! How ridiculous did we look when someone on the squad started "Push 'Em Back, Push 'Em Back, WAAAAAAYYY Back!" when the offense was clearly in position? (Totally embarrassing to Teenage Me, of course!!)

The Clemson Case Study

Dabo's Ladies Clinic July 2019

In 1981, Clemson won their first national championship (in the Orange Bowl against Nebraska 22-15...) which also happened to be the year I was making my post-baccalaureate education decision. As much as I already enjoyed football and the culture surrounding it, I swear this pivotal event in Clemson Football's longstanding history did not influence my decision to attend college there. But it sure helped. It helped, because I knew I wanted to be in a place where spirit was high and sports (specifically, football) was a unifying force. It was here, in the Danny Ford years, that I witnessed the girls being just as committed as the boys (or at least pretending to be)...and learned to stand up in the Southern heat for four hours in a dress and heels. (Did we really do that???) Today, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney draws 3,500 women to campus in July for his All In Team Foundation Ladies Clinic, where it's not all about tailgate recipes and game day fashions...we also watch film, break down defensive plays and listen with focused fascination to how the recruiting process works. (It's worth noting...he also raises millions of dollars for breast cancer research and lovingly honors cancer survivors in this forum.)

I realize Clemson has not cornered the market on exciting and fulfilling college experiences, nor is it the only place where football commands such attention and affection. It's just the example from which I can speak first hand, and the culture which has embraced me as fully as I have embraced it in return.

Why We Love Football...Many Reasons

Believe it or addition to exposing us to a unique vocabulary and infrastructure, football plays to our uniquely female interests and attributes, and we don't have to apologize for it. Lauren Perry describes her own attachment well in the article linked below, and I resemble her remarks.

In no particular order, and relying on my own personal experience, here are some of the ways football and females are a natural fit.

1) Sensory Smorgasbord

When I joined the Jaguars event staff in 1994, I was given a book on women's relationship to football which suggested that men and women physically watch games differently. That piqued my interest...was this true? Since then, I've noticed such patterns do exist. Men tend to hone in hawk-like to the play itself, the formation, the X's and O's of each moment. I'm forever amazed by their detailed recollections down to the date, score and how many minutes were left in the game of a failed attempt or unexpected game-changing move...particularly if they were athletes themselves. (This is particularly vexing when they can't seem to remember our birthdays or anniversaries or to pick up milk on the way home from work.) Women are watching the plays too, evidently in more of a "big picture" way. We are also detecting the overall color schemes, who is walking up and down the aisle nearby, what banners are displayed on the walls lining the field, and the emotional faces of the boys on the sidelines (wondering how their mothers feel seeing her son's agony over a mistake or his carting off the field with an injury). The concession stand smell of hot dogs with too much mustard, the woman in line for the ladies room wearing too much perfume, the drunk guy behind you yelling too loudly at all the wrong times. All part of the sensory experience. (What a cute top the woman two rows down has on...I haven't seen that one...)

If you appreciate the athleticism and incredible potential of the human body, this sport has a lot to offer you. How can they run that fast, jump that high and fall so hard on the field, then jump right back up and run to the sideline like nothing happened? For 60 minutes?? Wow. Standing on the sidelines during player warmups one Saturday (an extra special, rare treat), I couldn't help but marvel at these larger-than-life athletes' resemblance to thoroughbred racing horses (an awe-inspiring compliment). And OK, ladies, we also know who the good looking ones are -- and if they are also good guys, they are that much more handsome. (At this stage in our lives, maybe we even have a daughter or niece who would be his perfect match?)

2) Our Social DNA

More than enough good food and good company!

My husband is a devoted Tiger fan too, and he enjoys the abundance of food and drinks offered by generous hosts at home games. Yet if we end up watching "the game" on television, enveloped by the air conditioning freely flowing in our home, he's fine with that. Some of my male fan counterparts, although they also enjoy being physically present, often choose their own TV where there is less distraction and cheaper beer if given a choice. For me, the tailgating with friends where the menu is planned out the week before and each of us gals contributes a homemade favorite (packaged carefully in disposable plastic containers), running into acquaintances on the sidewalk, merging into traffic along the one road in with car flags flying, rapid-fire texting the morning of the home game in well-intentioned attempts to locate sorority sisters scattered across various lots in radius of Death Valley, sitting in lawn chairs "visiting" for hours prior to kickoff -- even the gathering to watch away-game-of-the-week at a local sports bar or fellow fans' home -- is just as important as who wins. (OK, well, almost as important...) Being in the stands high-fiving random strangers on every side of me every time we score/make the catch/sack the opposing quarterback? Even better.

3) Something Fun to Debate (aka, A Break From Politics)

Before you react to my use of the word "politics" in the sub-head, please hear this. I care deeply and patriotically about my country/state/city and the leadership running it, and I do my homework before I vote (and yes, I always vote). I also consider America one team. However, that's not the culture we live in, particularly now. Political statements on helmets and how we feel about them aside, breaking down why a play worked or didn't work, celebrating or lamenting Saturday's game in the Monday morning sales meeting, debating the accuracy of a referee's controversial call, even spirited discussions with opposing fans over whose team is better and why, at the end of the day is basically harmless. It's hard to hold a lifetime grudge (even against a Gamecock fan - ha), because the subject matter is not personal. This does not mean we are not equally as emotional or passionate, one way or the other! However, I'm personally not on the field or in a decision-making role, and neither are you (most likely), so we are not failures if our team loses. However, we do get to take credit if they win. :)

4) Traditions Are Not Just For Holidays

Fans leave our mark on road trips...

In most households, women are the keepers of the traditions, and we hold on to them because they distinguish a special occasion from a normal day. We make sure the expected favorite dishes are present at Thanksgiving, the special birthday plate is dusted off on our loved one's special day, the Christmas tree goes up (and gets taken down) like clockwork year after year. Traditions foster security, certainty, and a sense of belonging. Football traditions are no different...we wear orange every Friday and stamp our $2 bills with tiger paws because it makes us feel part of something bigger. We know the alma mater by heart, and we stay until the end to sing it with thousands of other alumni whom we will likely never meet, because in that moment, we are family. We even create our own traditions within the traditions! Those chants we scream enthusiastically which make absolutely no sense to anyone else? We can't imagine a game or pep rally without them.(Duuuuuuuvvvvaaaallllllll!!!) When are we going to do The Wave? Oh yeah...only in fourth quarter. Men undoubtedly appreciate these moments as well, but for me, these seemingly insignificant gestures add the color to the content. I'm not ashamed to say when those buses pull up to the top of The Hill and our Tigers line up to run down it, I feel the same swell of emotion every time as if I'm seeing it for the first time. (Hurry...let's get to our seats so we don't miss it!!!!!)

5) Memory Games

Let's face it...our memories dim slowly over time as we age. Ugh. I am finding this to be increasingly true since my own cross-over into middle age. Cognitive experts recommend incorporating some form of "game" or puzzle into our day to exercise our brains as we get older, just as we exercise our bodies. For some, crosswords or sudoku or watching Jeopardy does the trick. I have consciously chosen football as my brain booster. I figure I'm interested enough already and I'm already spending time on it and in it, so why not get the added benefit rather than reinventing the wheel? This means challenging myself to remember player names, numbers, positions, where they are from and where they play in the NFL after college. (Or if they are NFL players, where they went to college.) I watch for the AP Top 25 each week and consider who went up in the rankings and who went down...and why. I repeatedly commit to memory the names and teams of head coaches -- which change a lot -- and try to recognize their faces out of context. I often fail (or have to Google it), but the mental stretching gives me hope that all brain cells are not completely lost. (And no, this is not an invitation to quiz me...haha)

6) Human Interest and Interesting Humans

Amidst all the controversy over the safety of football, the outrageous salaries of professional players, and the hostage-holding tactics of pro teams expecting communities to pay billions for new stadiums, there are many bright lights in sports beyond the ones illuminating night games. There is plenty off the field to tug at our heartstrings, give us hope and keep us in balance. Countless players and coaches devote time and money to community service, both as individuals and with their team members. In Clemson alone, the football players build a Habitat for Humanity home annually on their one day off from practice. How can we forget our coaching staff's monumental mission in 2006 to make a home for player Ray Ray McElrathbey's 11-year-old little brother who had no where else to go, bucking all NCAA rules to do the right thing? And subsequently, were you in the stadium at halftime as Disney filmed a scene for the upcoming movie "Safety" telling this incredible story? (I was...chills!!) I could go on and on. Every college town and sports metro market has its own highlights and heroes, reminding us they are not all "thugs." In fact, far from it, if you dig a little deeper.

Why Football Loves Us...Many Dollars

Raising kids right... ;)

Ladies, it's true, we can spend some money. That's not a shallow most households, women make the buying decisions on most major and minor purchases, not to mention select and purchase most gifts. More than 100 years after the birth of football, the NFL (and others) took notice and responded with logo'd apparel cut to fit our bodies and styled to suit more feminine tastes. No more wearing men's styles in smaller sizes that hung or felt funny...we began to have choices of our own. In the South, where it's more common for female spectators to dress up in trendy styles reflecting our team's fabrics and colors, boutique clothing and jewelry designed for game day is a booming industry. Not to mention the abundance of creative and colorful tailgate accessories such as tabletop decorations, serving dishes, specialty coolers, plates, napkins, etc get the picture. And guess what? If we prefer to wear leggings with a jersey featuring our favorite player's number (or the one our favorite student got us for Christmas), or go casual in shorts and a team t-shirt, that's acceptable, too. The rules of fashion are simply different on Saturday and Sunday. We even dress our kids and grandkids in team apparel beginning at birth and pay extra for the monogram. Of course, we ladies can't wear the same thing twice (what about the photos on Facebook??) so a wardrobe of orange/purple/tiger stripe in both winter and summer styles, plus a variety of t-shirt designs, plus all weather gear, are the staples of the true fan's wardrobe. And on the Christmas list? New cowboy boots embroidered with Tiger paws to wear in the post season (knock on wood). Bring out the wallets!

Let Us Play

There are now more and more women on the field and in the front office, in addition to the stands. I applaud them, as I know it's not easy. Even with new technology for injury protection and physical conditioning, football is a brutal game, even for referees. The administrative side is lagging behind the corporate world in hiring women and allowing us executive opportunities, although that's changing. Women like Hannah Storm, Erin Andrews, Holly Rowe, Suzy Kolber, and the original media maven, Andrea Joyce, paved the way in a male dominated industry for women to be taken seriously in sports broadcasting, even though it's taken years to get off the sidelines and into the booth. Women executives, beyond those whose fathers were team owners, are popping up as leaders in sports business. I've often poignantly reflected that I missed my "calling" (or perhaps I was born 1/2 generation too soon) to be sitting at the broadcast desk with Cris Collinsworth or Todd Blackledge (who, incidentally, was the really cute quarterback at Penn State when I was in college).

For a powerful graphic representation of the female influence and interest in football and how it has grown, including the names of our sisters shattering the glass goalpost, click the link below.

So What?

So what do we do with all of this? Whatever we want. Join in because you love the game or maybe you just love the people who love the game. Not your thing? That's OK, too. If you have other passions or simply don't enjoy it like I do, please at least understand what you are missing. The chance to experience every emotion humanly possible in one sitting...from joy to sorrow to frustration to anger to elation to boredom to sobbing uncontrollably in exuberance when Deshaun Watson throws the miraculous winning touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with :06 seconds left to win the 2016 College Football National Championship. There's no thrill like it. Go Tigers!!!

(the most exciting 25 seconds in college football)


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