It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Nope, not Christmas. And not PSL season, either.
Football season is in full swing. The College Football Playoff rankings are about to come out, and I just navigated a tough week for my fantasy football lineup. This weekend I’m headed to a game to cheer on my hometown team, and I hope I lose my voice by Sunday (just in time to watch the NFL all day).
Believe it or not, my sports fan idol was actually not my dad - it was my grandma. She loved Notre Dame football and handed down that passion to me. She kept coming to South Bend for every home game, even after my grandpa died. While I learned more about the actual game of football from friends and SportsCenter, my grandma instilled a lifelong love for the sport and my teams.
My journey of football fandom
All my life, though, football fandom has come with baggage and skepticism from others.
During middle school and early high school, my interest in sports as a fan came with expectations from others. People expected me to act like a tomboy. (I didn't.) They assumed I wanted to play sports as much as I wanted to watch them. (I didn’t.) There was even some weird pressure to actually be athletic. (I’m not.)
It felt like I had to prove my fandom by behaving like an athlete. It wasn’t enough to just want to cheer for my favorite team; I had to be good at sports to justify my interest in them. But this pressure was unique to me being female. My unathletic, male cross country teammates were in as much of a rush as I was to get off the bus after a meet and start watching the afternoon games, but no one questioned their motivation.
At best, people seemed to imply that my being a football fan was “cute.” At worst, their assumptions were much more damaging.
In high school and college, my hanging out with football players and other athletes was often accompanied by the assumption that I was hooking up with them. Some of the harshest reactions came from other girls, who accused me of just “playing the role” of sports fan to attract guys.
And while, admittedly, I did have my fair share of shallow relationships, my interest in football was always genuine. Being able to speak about the actual game as a topic of mutual interest was the foundation for many of the friendships I made in college.
As I got older and learned more, I grew to care more about the sport. I grew up cheering for Notre Dame football, but my interests broadened as I learned more about other schools and conferences, and different styles of play and coaching. I got into recruiting and worked for Rivals.com.
I even had a gig at the local high school in my hometown working the scoreboard for home football games. I’ll never forget when I walked into work my first game back. My old cross country coach saw me and said, “I’m not surprised to see you back here,” which I took as the highest compliment. My coach always knew that I was a true fan.
A better future for female fans
I’ve moved past being offended when women listen skeptically to me talking about my love for the sport. But really - ladies, can we please stop gatekeeping in this way, by policing other women’s interests and questioning their motivations? Let’s lift each other up, not push each other down. Let’s embrace our diversity of interests as women.
Maybe football will always have more male than female fans because it’s a sport primarily played by men. But I do think that as we raise our daughters to be athletes, fans, cheerleaders, and team managers, we can do more to erode the stereotypes that often come with being a girl in the stands. Being a fan doesn’t have anything to do with the boys - it’s about the sport. And the sooner we can move away from other assumptions, the better.
So if you ever get skeptical looks at the sports bar or judgy remarks about being the only girl in your fantasy league, just remember that women have a right to feel like they belong in football fan circles. Continue to cheer for your team and your players from the heart. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone, and you belong in this space just as much as the guys do.