Female fans stand by NFL, if uncomfortably

FILE - In this Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014, file photo, Karla Owens wears a Baltimore Ravens' Ray Rice jersey as she tailgates before the Ravens' NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Baltimore. Some would say the league is at a moral crossroa
Patrick Semansky, File

CHICAGO (AP) Mary Jo Kane, a lifelong Chicago Bears fan and college professor, settles in to watch a football game and finds herself taking a tally of the players - one she'd rather not do, but can't help.

Have any of these guys committed a crime? Tried to strangle a wife? Knocked one out? Beaten a child?

The NFL has an image problem. Some would say it's at a moral crossroads as focus on abuse allegations against players and the league's response to them intensifies.

Some women have been among the most vocal NFL detractors. The National Organization for Women has called for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to resign. Yet female NFL fans - even those, like Kane, who are stinking mad about the abuse and the way the league has handled it - continue to watch.

Why?

The question could be posed to any football fan, female or male. But dissecting the relationship of the female NFL fan with the league reveals an already complicated union - one that, despite this uncomfortable chapter - runs deep.

Many female fans grew up watching football with their families. Sometimes, it was a point of bonding, perhaps with a father or a brother. So, fans such as 21-year-old Lisa Welch can't really imagine a life without the NFL.

''I was raised in a household where we watched football every Sunday,'' says Welch, who notes that this wasn't the case for her mom's generation.

Now a senior at the University of Minnesota who's majoring in sports management, Welch still has a dream of working for her beloved Chicago Bears. She had been relieved the controversy hadn't embroiled her team, until 2008 allegations against receiver Brandon Marshall resurfaced in a news conference by his ex-girlfriend's father this week.

Samantha Robinson is a fan of the San Francisco 49ers, whose defensive end Ray McDonald is facing charges that he hit is pregnant fiancee. The team has not benched him.

She's all for players who are guilty of crimes being punished. But Robinson, who works in public relations in her team's city, also says she refuses to let the actions of a few spoil the game.

''I think it's just bigger than football,'' the 25-year-old says.

''We all saw the photos of Rihanna after her altercation with Chris Brown, and yet he's back to performing at award shows, making millions and being applauded,'' she says. In 2009, Brown pleaded guilty to assault in the case.

Female fans may already be compartmentalizing and finding ways to fit into a league that is still largely ''a hyper-masculine space,'' says Kane, the University of Minnesota professor.

At games, women see cheerleaders and female sports reporters relegated to the sidelines and, when watching at home, sit through a multitude of ads that target male fans, including those that tout the benefits of erectile dysfunction drugs.

''If you're a female that cares deeply about football, you've already suspended some of that reality,'' says Kane, who is the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.

The NFL sees women as a potential growth market and has tried to make the game more appealing to them in recent years. In the last decade, Super Bowl viewership has been inching toward a 50-50 split between men and women, according to tabulations from the Nielson Co.

The gender divide is greater when it comes to those who watch consistently.

According to an Associated Press-GfK poll in January, 37 percent of American women consider themselves fans of pro-football, well below the 62 percent of men who say the same. But among women who are fans of professional football, 29 percent said their interest in the sport had increased in the last five years, while just 9 percent said their interest was waning.

The NFL has started female fan groups and has made a big push for breast cancer awareness in October, rolling out pink shoes, sweatbands and jerseys.

Now those efforts could come off as disingenuous without real action on domestic violence.

''This is a pivotal time because I think there are a lot of women who are watching what's going on,'' says Judith McKay, another longtime NFL fan. She's also an associate professor of conflict resolution at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale who's worked in the domestic violence field for two decades.

This week, just before another player was accused of domestic violence in Phoenix, the NFL rapidly hired four women to formulate new policies on domestic violence and sexual assault. And amid the Rice case, the Ravens have forged a partnership with and pledged donations to the House of Ruth, a center in Baltimore that helps victims of domestic violence.

''Time will tell if this is a cynical PR move, or something they are truly committed to,'' says Kane in Minnesota. ''I certainly hope it is the latter.''

If it is, she says, it will make watching the game she loves so much ''a whole lot more enjoyable.''

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On the Internet:

Minnesota's Tucker Center: http://www.cehd.umn.edu/tuckercenter/default.html

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Jennifer Agiesta, the AP's polling director, contributed to this report.

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Martha Irvine is an AP national writer. She can be reached at mirvine(at)ap.org or at http://twitter.com/irvineap

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