Burn The Witch: Sarah Fuller & American Football Culture
by Jessica Fithen
Let’s get something out of the way.
American football culture is fucking vile.
You won’t change my mind.
I grew up around football. I have three brothers, and two of them played football. I’m also from Indianapolis, Indiana, and lived there during the reign of Peyton Manning while the Colts made a successful Super Bowl run. I remember the electricity of the city, the camaraderie of an entire town fully buzzed by their superstar team. I think back to how many incredible movies I’ve watched that extol the virtues of football sportsmanship, maturity, sacrifice, team spirit and courage. “Rudy,” “We Are Marshall,” “The Blind Side,” to name just a few.
And then I wonder how the hell we got here.
Last week, Sarah Fuller, a soccer player for the women’s team at Vanderbilt University, was asked to step in as a place kicker on short notice for the men’s football team. The football team had experienced significant roster upheaval with much of the team being quarantined as a precaution for COVID-19, so with only a few days notice, they contacted Sarah and asked if she would play (source: Sports Illustrated).
I screenshot several of these comments, and as I usually do, made a lovely little collage of the “support” and well wishes Sarah was receiving to post on the You Look Like A Man Facebook page.
The 10 comments I featured (out of literally hundreds of possibilities) were:
- “Knock her cleats off”
- “I can’t quit laughing at this! I hope she made the team some cookies too!”
- “I will pray for a botch snap and see what happens”
- “Any leaked nudes?”
- “Gang bang in the locker room lol”
- “Hope she gets tackled lol”
- “I hope she gets creamed”
- “I hope someone cleans her clock”
- “Hope she gets hit out there its gonna be funny”
- “Hope she gets broke in half”
These were by far not the most aggressive or hateful of the choosing, this was meant to be more of a simple sampling of what women in athletics see every time their names are mentioned. As of this writing, that Facebook post has been shared over 30,000 times and has close to 4,000 comments. I’ve also banned upwards of 300 profiles from my page for their hateful participation on this post.
And here is what I’ve learned.
Men Are Proud of the Culture They Created
Men are proud of this culture they’ve intentionally created. Many men stopped by my post to inform me that football is a “shit talking” sport, and these comments are not only par for the course, but mild. They gleefully recounted their own days on the field, wistfully recalling all of the horrendous things they had said to one another, or about other players. While some admitted that the “sex stuff” said about Sarah crossed the line, they shrugged and informed that she’s simply going to have to suck it up, because this is how men talk. (Some even vehemently argued that “gang bangs” can be consensual and respectful, and aren’t inherently rape, so I was simply overreacting at that comment).
But “locker room talk”? Granted I’ve not been inside the men’s football locker room in any recent memory, however I’m having a hard time locating public wishes of “gang bangs” and other desires of seeing players permanently injured, maimed, disfigured or even killed. After many similar comments, the thought occurred to me…not only are men okay with this, they’re glorifying it. They enjoy it. They encourage it. “Shit talking” has crossed the borders of normal game ribbing of your opponent, and moved into public wishing of sexual violence and harm of another human. And everyone has accepted it.
Men Don’t Understand Women’s Bodies
Over the course of the thousands of comments I received, it became clearer with each response that this was not typical “shit talking” going on here. There seemed to be a literal frothing at the mouth over the idea that Sarah would be injured, with men literally envisioning themselves in the place of the opposing team, hitting her as hard as they can to teach her a lesson about invading their sport. They described the many ways they would hurt her, how she would look and feel, how they would laugh in her face, skipping off the field, high fiving their friends on the sidelines.
Football is a contact sport. Yes, we know. It’s a violent, FULL contact sport that rewards heavy hits and big plays. As a place kicker, Sarah is unlikely to be on the receiving end of such hits often, although of course it does happen. But historically, place kickers are not exceptionally large individuals and not chosen for the team based on their ability to take hard hits. In fact, at 6’2”, Sarah’s body is taller, and larger, than the male kicker she replaced, who stands 5’7” in stature. Yet remarkably, there was no equal concern for the smaller male kicker… only that Sarah would be “plowed” over by the gigantic male beasts of the opposing side.
In fact, here’s a breakdown of the average size of male kickers and punters in the NFL (source: Business Insider). The shortest male kicker in the NFL is Trindon Holliday, who played for 5 different NFL teams at a height of 5’5.”
Some argued that even though she is taller and larger than many of the NFL’s kickers, she is still a woman which means her “lady bones” were prone to osteoporosis and not appropriate for the football field. They also argued that her “muscle density” will never compare to a man’s muscles, therefore even if she was twice a man’s size, she would still be incapable of absorbing a tackle the same way. These exchanges reminded me that women’s ski jumping had been banned from the Olympics for over 90 years, until 2014, because of fears that the hard impact would dislocate women’s uteruses, rendering them infertile. Of course, there is no scientific basis for these claims, just garden variety ignorance and sexism, on full display (source: The Nation).
“Shit Talking” To A Woman in Athletics Includes Sexual Violence
The grown man laughing about Sarah being “gang banged in the locker room” was the tip of the iceberg. Many additional men dropped by with their commentary that Sarah was probably a slut, enjoyed all the male attention, is “attention whoring,” and has probably fucked the entire team.
These comments were truly bizarre in the context that many of these same men told me they “shit talk” men the same way, although only an obtuse fool would pretend that male athletes are faced with sexually violent social media commentary as a typical part of their existence. They aren’t.
“She most likely gonna fuck the whole team” was a particularly helpful comment left by a married father of two young daughters.
Men Are Uncomfortable Calling Other Men Out
By a much larger margin, the men who commented on my post were more uncomfortable with calling out other men than the women were. Numerous men went out of their way to tell me I was wasting my time, I was a pansy, I was a snowflake, a crybaby, a wuss, pathetic. I was called an “ignorant fuck” and told I was “dumber than a box of rocks.” They claimed to technically agree with the spirit of the post – that these comments were in fact, in poor taste, but it was still stupid to care because hey that’s the internet, like it or leave it sweetie, and I should find something more worthwhile to care about.
These “Gatekeepers Of Things You Are Allowed To Care About” are many times more obnoxious than straight jackasses. They pretend to sympathize with your plight as a woman in male-dominated sports, while simultaneously encouraging you to be quiet about abusive and harassing commentary. It is a common form of both gaslighting and victim blaming – one man told me I was actually the problem, not the men making comments, because I had “made them famous.”
I was particularly struck by how many of them also appeared to be fathers – occasionally I would ask how they would feel if their daughters were spoken to this way. Often they claimed to value the “free speech” of men making gang rape jokes about college students on the internet above the wellbeing of their own children… and this was particularly horrifying. I wonder if they truly understand their daughters will grow up with a parent who does not have empathy for their struggles, the proverbial “suck it up” father, and will choose to not involve him when serious matters arise.
Men Are Angry. REALLY Angry.
There is always a place for respectful, calm debate and discussion. We actually don’t have to agree on everything, and that’s okay. While women are often accused of being overly emotional, my experience has been the opposite. Some of the men on my Facebook post wasted no time hurling abuse at me, personally, for the crime of showing public comments a woman in athletics had received.
My post didn’t direct anyone to attack anyone. It was not “doxing.” It simply was a screenshot of public comments on a public post. And yet, Tim not only ripped into me for being a “feminist,” he also suggested I kill myself.
Women Don’t Get A Pass
While the vast majority of negative commentary stemmed from men, women don’t get a pass. There were several comments accusing me of “cherry picking” comments, creating a “false narrative,” or otherwise faking my post, and one woman went so far as to inform the world that my post was manufactured with fake profiles to fit my "sexist" agenda. My original Facebook post actually contains no language about men at all – in fact it never uses that word, but because 90% of the comments were made by men (which is completely typical, unfortunately), I was accused of being the one who was “sexist,” not them.
“This generational culture of making shit up to prove how oppressed everyone is is so fucking dumb, grow up, get a purpose in life if you feel you need one that badly!”
Anyone with an internet connection is welcome to hop on any major sports outlet – ESPN, SportsCenter, NFL, NHL, NBA, etc… pages – and find a post that features a woman in athletics. Scroll. And then come back here, and tell me how comically absurd this allegation is. Unfortunately, true life is worse than fiction. No one needs to create fake Facebook accounts to manufacture fake comments to show how ghastly women in athletics are treated.
I understand the desire to believe that these comments don’t happen, that this was all some elaborate ploy to gather attention for my Facebook page. Often times people say “don’t feed the trolls,” chastising me for giving negative words attention.
But what happens when these comments aren’t from “trolls” at all? When happens when wishes of death and gang rape on a college student aren’t coming from some upset, lonely, angry incel locked in his mother’s basement, but from an adult, a married man with children, a leader in his community, a professional? This is why women like Audrey would rather believe that I would go to the trouble to fake unpleasant commentary rather than believe “regular people” are this vicious to women on the internet.
And that is why my work must continue.
To see hundreds of additional comments like these, check out the highlight folders “The Kicker” on our Instagram page, @you.look.like.a.man
Jessica Fithen (@filthy_fithen) is a competitor in the sport of Strongman and creator of You Look Like A Man.
Photo credit: Vanderbilt University