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The Sports Desk

League Loves All Women

For decades, the NFL has been supported by ads that degrade women. But something changed in 2013—and it’s got everything to do with concussions. Prepare for the battle of mama-friendly beer spots.

Harold "Doc" Edgerton, Football Kick, 1939, © 2010 MIT. Courtesy Charles A. Hartman Fine Art.

A bearded man, hands full of shopping bags, stands next to his girlfriend in a lingerie store. His gaze is blank. A red bra is draped over his shoulder. A sportscaster announces that he’s had his spine removed and should change out of his skirt.

That 2010 ad, for FloTV, ran during Super Bowl XLIV, and it wasn’t atypical by any stretch. But judging from the ads that have run this past season, the days when commercials during football games portrayed women as emasculating nags may be done.

At least I think so. If those ads were running, I would’ve noticed: I’ve watched football any given Sunday, Monday, Thursday, or Saturday since the season began in September. And for the last two decades.

During this year’s Broncos vs. Chargers debacle (as I refer to it) in Week 15, my husband and our crew were talking about the ads we haven’t hated this year, like Bud Light’s “Ramsey,” from the brand’s “It’s Only Weird If It Doesn’t Work” campaign. Then our conversation zeroed in on the fact that the ads that outright denigrate me, the ones we were used to, were conspicuously absent. I thought to myself: Either Budweiser, Miller, Coors, Dodge (the list goes on and on) ditched their ad agencies or something’s up.

After all, belittling and offending the NFL’s female audience hasn’t been bad for business. As seasons of sexist ads piled up, so too did women viewers. Yet this year felt different. Where were the blatantly misogynistic ads I was used to seeing during timeouts and two-minute warnings?

The NFL’s own commercials lay bare just how much it covets women and our formidable purchasing power. In “It Doesn’t Matter,” an ad for NFL apparel, mothers, lady skateboarders, and women on scooters repeat a rousing speech from Baltimore Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh. It ends with a beautiful woman in a Ravens jersey doing the “Ray Rice Flex.”
 


 

And they paint the goal posts with Pepto Bismol each October to demonstrate how determined they are to help us fight breast cancer. And they offer us slim-fit versions of players’ jerseys. And they’ve formed partnerships with Marie Clare and Vogue.

But with growing concerns over the connection between concussions and long-term brain injury, the league also needs to sell women on the safety of the game. If it can’t do that—if it can’t keep mothers from pulling their kids off the field—it won’t be in business.

In other words, if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

 

USA Football, the NFL’s nonprofit dedicated to educating and encouraging young players, ran a national TV ad during the 2012 season for its new youth safety program. In it, a young football player thanks former New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan for coming to practice and teaching him how to tackle properly. In 2013, amidst all the concussions talk during this League of Denial era, their new ad, “Heads-Up Certified,” focuses on a young player and his mother. And while the NFL spent thousands to run the Sheehan ad nationally more than a dozen times during games last year, it has spent millions running the 2013 commercial nationally—more than 400 times—during NFL games and programs with high female viewership, like The Talk, Let’s Make a Deal, and CBS This Morning.
 


 

So imagine how happy mama would be if, one day, she saw the 2013 commercial on TV, and suddenly it was followed by something like Dodge’s “Man’s Last Stand” ad from 2010, showing the faces of downtrodden men as Michael C. Hall lists all they ways they’ve been worn down by the women in their lives.

Quite the juxtaposition. We love you and we love how much you love watching your children play football, you life-ruining hag.

USA Football has begun hosting football clinics specifically for women. In Kansas City and Chicago, hundreds of moms have learned about concussion awareness, the proper way to wear equipment, and safe tackling techniques. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell attended those gatherings, and while speaking to moms in Chicago, he acknowledged the important role they play: “Moms are oftentimes the decision makers. They’re the ones that are looking for information to help their children make better decisions, to make sure that they’re playing safely.”

But the moms are also worried.

An October 2013 article on the USA Football website reported an HBO Real Sports/Marist National Poll showing that 85 percent of parents would let their children play football. But not included in that brief article were additional stats like 36 percent of women (and 31 percent of men) saying the link between concussions and long-term brain injury would make them less likely to let their children play. Or that more women (20 percent) than men (12 percent) say that concussions would be the deciding factor.

More importantly, that poll was done in July 2013, before ESPN dropped out of Frontline’s League of Denial—based on the book of the same name, about traumatic brain injuries in NFL players—the news of which created a maelstrom of media coverage. Last summer, only 55 percent of those asked said they’d heard about the connection between concussions and long-term brain injury. That number is surely higher now. President Obama, the Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson, even Brett Favre all have said they wouldn’t want their children to play football.

One of the most striking moments in League of Denial is when coroner Bennet Omalu shares a conversation he had with an NFL-affiliated doctor: “Bennet, do you know the implications of what you are doing? If 10 percent of mothers in the country would perceive football to be a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.”

We love you and we love how much you love watching your children play football, you life-ruining hag.

The league needs moms (and dads) to let their children play football, to love it, and to grow up and spend money on it. In the ’90s, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was so concerned about the kid-to-lifelong-fan pipeline he hired Sara Levinson, then co-president of MTV, to develop a marketing plan that included suggestions like: Nothing can be more important than how we manage young people (particularly ages 6-11…) into our fan continuum and begin to migrate them toward becoming avid/committed fans… Critical action: Generate early interest and enthusiasm. Transform/convert their casual interest into commitment. Amplify to avidity.

It’s hard to read that and not be reminded of how Big Tobacco went after kids (“Today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer”). League of Denial doesn’t make that particular connection, but its authors do outline, in detail, what cigarette companies and the NFL have in common: the denial of the detrimental effects of what they sell.

But with fewer kids playing Pop Warner—participation dropped 9.5 percent between 2010 and 2012—that conversion may grow more complicated. Whether or not the decline is due to awareness of concussions, an October 2013 nationwide survey of 500 men and 500 women by the Robert Morris University Polling Institute showed that 40 percent of parents support a ban on youth contact football, with 53.6 percent supporting a ban before middle school. Women were more likely than men to strongly or slightly be in favor of banning youth contact football before high school (44 percent to 37 percent) and were more likely to respond that they were unsure (14 percent to 8 percent).

While the women who sign their children up for sports are contemplating whether or not to let them play football, it’s probably a good thing they won’t have to watch beer ads that denigrate them during the game.

 

Gone are Miller Lite’s “Man Up” commercials from the 2010 and 2011 seasons that mocked men for drinking like women. Gone are women ripping each other’s clothes off in a “Great Taste/Less Filling” catfight from a decade ago. Miller did have one ad this year, “See and Say,” that played on a common trope: The group of men at a bowling alley aren’t ogling the waitress, they’re ogling a beer’s new bottle. But according to iSpot.tv’s database, “See and Say” didn’t run nationally during any regular season games.

Instead they’re running their “Originator,” “Pioneer,” and “Let It Flow” ads, that don’t even feature people, just hands: opening a can of beer, turning up the music, pouring out a cold one.
 


 

Of course, sexism, latent or otherwise, hasn’t completely disappeared from advertising. Networks offer airtime to local markets for each game, and it’s difficult to track which ads run then. Audi’s Super Bowl “Prom Night: Worth It” ad from last year, which repulsed many with its depiction of what could be consider assault, played on CBS, Fox, and NBC during 10 regular-season games in 2013.

But we’re no longer seeing ads like the one featuring former NFL player Terrell Owens getting rejected by Philadelphia Eagles fans, only to end up on a beach surrounded by a bevy of barely clad women as he enjoys a Carl’s Jr. Philly Cheesesteak Burger. The spot wasn’t unlike the brand’s previous ads, and featured a recognizable player—and yet for all of its 500+ airings, it didn’t run during a single NFL game this past year. Perhaps because it’s not in the same league as the Verizon ad that features the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees and a woman wearing a Saints T-shirt (which looks awfully like one you can buy in the NFL store), who’s angry she’s missing kickoff because she’s stuck at a baby shower.

It is what it is: pro-woman, pro-football, pro-NFL.
 


 

But is it deliberate? Well, I asked. The NFL’s director of corporate communications responded: “The networks determine what is suitable for their broadcast.” Sources at CBS and Fox have yet to reply, and NBC told me their people were too busy with the Olympics.

In the meantime, Axe, known for derogatory ads, just released its 2014 Super Bowl commercial, where, instead of doing terrible things, would-be tyrants do nice things and kiss their ladies. GoDaddy, whose sexist trash has run during the big game for years, turned away from fulfilling male fantasies this year and instead will show racing driver Danica Patrick, in a muscle suit, running toward a tanning salon with a bunch of other male bodybuilders. Of the 18 Super Bowl commercials purportedly scheduled that I’ve seen so far, the worst offenders are Old Spice’s “Get That Girl a Baby With a Hand Claw,” Dannon’s “Lady Licks John Stamos,” Hyundai’s “Different Version but Still Just Like Miller Lite’s ‘See and Say,’” and whatever it is that Squarespace is advertising.

As I said, we’re still not winning the sexism-in-advertising war. But the attacks are changing, and we’re not nearly as bad off as we’ve been.

In 2011, the NFL asked Toyota to edit a commercial focusing on how the company was sharing its crash-test technology with the league. A voiceover that worried about “my son playing football” became “my son playing sports.” Is it preposterous to think that the league, whose Big Tobacco-like attempts to cover up players’ brain damage have been exposed, may have asked networks not to run egregiously sexist ads? Is it even less of a stretch to imagine that a business would be reluctant to piss off women, many now armed with the knowledge of the horrors of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, because they might pose a threat to future profits?

It certainly seems more plausible than thinking our formidable purchasing power would ever be enough to tame the sexism we’ve become accustomed to during games.

On Sunday, I will watch yet another Super Bowl that doesn’t include my beloved Buffalo Bills. I will root for my husband’s Denver Broncos. I will hope the Seattle Seahawks’ Percy Harvin doesn’t get another concussion. And I will expect to be less pissed off when I watch the commercials than I have been in previous years. Maybe sexism isn’t quite so sexy when the league is on the line.