Why Is It Still Confusing That I'm a Woman and I Like Football?

If I added up the time I spend watching football, researching players, and writing weekly fantasy recaps for my league, it would probably be at least a part-time job.
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Erin Darke
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If I added up the time I spend watching football, researching players, and writing weekly fantasy recaps for my league, it would probably be at least a part-time job.

Hello. My name is Erin and I am a football addict. I am a devotee of the RedZone channel, and if I make plans on a Thursday, Sunday, or Monday night, I always qualify it with “as long as you're cool watching the game with me.”

I’m also an avid fantasy football player. I am in my fifth season playing and in two leagues, one of which I co-commission. If I added up the time I spend watching football, researching players, and writing weekly fantasy recaps for my league, it would probably be at least a part-time job, if not enough to earn full benefits. I am also a woman. For some reason, this still seems to confuse people.

When I meet a new guy (at a party, Uber driver, etc.) this interaction often ensues:

Me: I’m a big football fan.

Guy: Oh, cool. Me too.

Me: Who’s your team?

Guy: The Jets.

Me: Man, you guys have had a rough year so far. Like, what is going on with the offensive line and Ryan Fitzpatrick? Matt Forte has been a nice addition, though.

*pause*

Guy: Oh. So you, like, actually like football?

Yes, I actually do. I have had dozens of variations of this conversation, and it is endlessly infuriating. Whether it’s a conscious turn of phrase or not, the implication of that word — “actually” — always feels like the guy is saying:

A. “It was initially inconceivable that you, a girl, could be a football fan.”

B. “You said that you were a football fan so I, a dude, would find you cool and/or hot.”

Sometimes this is then followed up by inquiries as to whether I have a boyfriend and “Does he like football?” I do, and he does. But, honestly, sometimes I lie because I can’t deal with the “oh” that follows, as though my having said boyfriend explains it all. I loved football long before I met him, and the insinuation that my interests revolve around the man in my life is insulting in a way that I hoped we had grown out of as a society.

A recent Monday Night Football game drew more than 11 million viewers, and at least a third of those are estimated to be women. So, almost 4 million women watched that one game.

In 2015, the Fantasy Sports Trade Association estimated that 57.4 million people in the U.S. and Canada played fantasy sports and that 34 percent of those were women. That’s 19.5 million women playing fantasy sports.

With numbers like that, why do some people still find it hard to believe that women like me genuinely enjoy it?

Fantasy football, the cruel and beautiful mistress of my fall.

Fantasy football, the cruel and beautiful mistress of my fall.

I was discussing this with a friend, and he suggested that perhaps men don’t understand it because football is exclusively played by men. I could see this being an argument, except that a large percentage of the entertainment I (and most women) have been exposed to is mostly “played by men,” yet we still watch. I don’t turn off a superhero movie or war film because it’s only men onscreen. At the end of the day, they are still human stories.

Perhaps it’s just the continuation of traditional gender roles. But in a time when we have a woman running for president, women winning more than half of the USA’s medals at the Rio Olympics, and the MMA fight between Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm becoming one of the most-viewed pay-per-view matches in history, it seems silly that we are more culturally able to accept new norms for what women can do than what they watch and enjoy.

I’ve also heard talk about women turning off football because of domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault scandals involving players like Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, and now Josh Brown. The actions of those men were horrifying, and the way the NFL has handled them is terrible, but the abuse of women and children should be human issues, not just women’s issues. I made the choice not to let the bad behavior of some men ruin the entirety of a thing I enjoy. But I do respect and understand any women and men who did decide to stop watching.

I distinctly remember the first full football game I watched. I was 12, it was Thanksgiving, and the Lions were playing. I walked into my aunt and uncle’s house and realized I had gotten too old to go play with the kids. I looked to my right, and all of my female relatives were in a hot kitchen cooking food. I looked to my left, and all of my male relatives were sitting on the couch watching the game and eating said food. It seemed like an easy choice. I took a seat on the couch and asked my uncle to explain the game to me. I’d like to say that I was an early rebel against traditional gender roles, but really it just looked like watching the game was more fun.

I still find it more fun.

I have tried many times to explain to non-sports fans (both men and women) why I love it, but it’s a hard thing to put into words. The simplest explanation that I can come up with is that I enjoy being passionate about something that I am not responsible for. As an actor, my life sometimes feels very self-absorbed. My successes and failures feel like they ride on whether or not I do a good job. When I watch sports, I take the victories and the heartbreak as my own, but I am always aware that I did not cause them…though that doesn’t stop me from the occasional superstitious knock on wood. As a sports fan, I also have a community in that passion. Every time my team loses, I share that loss with every other fan. The thrill of victory is also a community of joy. (Though, as a Lions fan, it has lately been more of the former.)

Football, and sports in general, give us an opportunity to watch people who are elite in their field compete against each other. It’s a physical game, but it’s a mental game as well. Watching the narrative of a team or a player unfold throughout the season is endlessly fascinating to me. Will Carolina, humiliated in the Super Bowl last year, come back swinging with a renewed fire or hanging their heads? (So far, it seems to be the latter.) It’s storytelling, but it’s real life, and the end hasn’t been written yet.

This summer, an NBC marketing executive said, in reference to the Olympics, that “the women, they’re less interested in the results and more interested in the journey.” I would like to assure him that I am interested in the results. The results are why the journey is interesting. I don’t think anyone turned off the Lord of the Rings trilogy after the second film because they “enjoyed the journey.” When we invest in a story, we care who wins.

The same is true of sports, for both men and women.

And then you have fantasy football, the cruel and beautiful mistress of my fall. I have always loved puzzles and games. My family plays cards; it’s what we do when we’re together. Fantasy football mixes everything I love about watching sports with the thrill of strategy, decisions, and personal investment. You can do your research, you can look at matchups and weather and put together what you think will be the best lineup of players, but at the end of the day, it’s also luck.

It’s human cards. A two of clubs is the first-round wide receiver who gets injured in game one. You still have to play the hand you have, so what’s your move? What card do you pick up next? It’s sometimes thrilling, often frustrating, and always compelling.

I’ve read other articles about women playing fantasy that have focused on the “keep in touch with your friends” aspect of it. While that is a thing I love about it, and I completely respect women who play for that reason, I would still happily play with strangers simply for the mental game, and I’m sure other women would too.

I’m not writing this article to shame men who have been surprised by a woman’s interest in sports. I simply want to share my thoughts about a subject I’m passionate about in the hopes that next time I say I’m a football fan, someone will believe me — and ask me about my team.