On Sunday, as nearly 100 million Americans gather to watch the New Orleans Saints take on the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV, they’ll be treated to something they’re probably not expecting: an ad speaking out against abortion. The spot, produced by the extreme right-wingers at Focus on the Family, features Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow and his mother, who claims she was advised by doctors to abort fetal Tim but “chose life” instead. Their message? You should, too.
The ad has caused quite a stir, as neither CBS nor the Super Bowl has ever before accepted a so-called “issue advocacy ad,” and CBS just last week turned down an ad for a gay men’s dating site. Public outrage from the left generally and from a coalition of more than thirty progressive organizations coordinated by the Women’s Media Center has resulted in a firestorm of press coverage. More than 100,000 e-mails and phone calls have been made to CBS and related parties urging them to pull the ad.
While it’s easy to see how this spot breaks new and unwelcome ground for the big game, the (more troubling) fact is that in many ways, the Tebow/Focus on the Family ad is just a new expression of a longstanding Super Bowl tradition in which women are valued only in direct relation to their usefulness to male athletes and fans.
I’m hardly the first to point out that the Super Bowl’s fans, athletes and institutions aren’t always friendly to independent women. The commercials that air during the game seem to actively compete for the Most Jaw-Droppingly Offensive Ad Award, and they feature only two kinds of women: one the one hand, sexually available and easily manipulated hotties in various states of undress, (as in this ad, in which men can literally control elite racecar driver Danica Patrick and compel her to take off her clothes, get into a shower and make out with another woman); or, on the other hand, unlovable shrews who make men miserable (as in this ad, in which we discover that football refs know how to keep their cool under pressure because they’re already used to their wives screeching at them at home). For decades, these spots have appeared to target either 12-year-old boys, or men with the equivalent level of emotional maturity. This, despite evidence that the actual Super Bowl audience is now nearly 40 percent female. By the time the world was introduced to Janet Jackson’s nipple jewelry during the 2004 Super Bowl’s halftime show, it was hard to see the ensuing faux-scandal as anything but the ultimate win in the annual female-flesh-for-watercooler-buzz exchange, the only real offense being that Jackson, the female whose flesh was in question, may have had a role in the orchestration of the whole kerfuffle.
As the most popular sport in the country, football is a boys’ club from day one. At least on the school- and kids’-league level, designated girls’ teams allow young women the chance to play basketball, softball or hockey. If they want to be involved in football, however, they can either be cheerleaders or they can fight a long and sometimes violent battle to be accepted as the only girl on the team, as 13-year-old Kacy Stuart had to do in 2008 when the Georgia Football League authorities disqualified her because of her gender, only to reverse their decision once Stuart’s mother launched a letter-writing campaign and the story made national news. And much like the struggle of Katie Hnida, who quit football at University of Colorado after being sexually harassed and assaulted by her own teammates. In 2003 Hnida became the first woman to score in an NCAA Division I-A football game, playing for the University of New Mexico.