A Touchdown for Gender Expression?

By Bishop A. Marshall

For a long time, the National Football League has stood as a stain on socially progressive movements in the United States.

While corporate America was looking at the workplace through a new lens in the wake of spotlight stories concerning systemic misogyny and sexual abuse, Deshaun Watson was suiting for the Cleveland Browns last season in the wake of his 23 settled civil suits concerning sexual misconduct. 

It’s become common practice for men to champion morality and inclusivity during the work week just to indulge in the same old perverted misogyny on the weekend. But combating this false doctrine through condemnation has proven ineffective. Misogyny is systemically enforced and kept alive through tradition, and it’s in breaking the traditions that prop up its existence that men can see beyond the delusion they’ve been fed. Because of the power dynamics instilled through patriarchy, the only effective change will come from the inside out. 

Fortunately, as a new generation tackles the gridiron, some dated mythology tied to the sport is beginning to die: in the past five years, football has seen radical changes in coaching styles—and it’s had nothing to do with playbooks.

Coach Riley has lost to Gordon Bombay and the Mighty Ducks. Head coaches like the Alabama Crimson Tide’s Nick Saban and the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick embody the football coach archetype as cold, wise, war general-esque figures, doing so with winning results throughout the 2000s. 

Belichick holds the record for most Super Bowl rings by a coach at six, and Saban with the most college national titles at seven. But neither coach has seen first place in quite some time. With Saban’s last championship being three years old and Belichick’s four, both men have reached the sunset of their careers, and the new generation is on the rise.

Belichick and Saban will tell you these stories from a dimly lit bar, sipping a scotch neat. Their spotlight has been stolen by young guns, up-and-comers like the Detroit Lions’ Dan Campbell, the Miami Dolphins’ Mike McDaniel, and Nick Saban’s own protégé Kirby Smart of the Georgia Bulldogs.

But it’s not their win percentages or their contemporary football strategy that separates this generation of coaches from those that came before them. What’s so different about these men is their tone; the attitude with which they lead and the values they exemplify brings a new hope to sports.

Take Campbell, a coach who has pulled Detroit football from the rubble of dead franchises in his first year as head coach this past season. While most coaches might use two-a-day practices to set a standard of resolve with their new team, Campbell opts for a standard of joy as he described plans for a “legit pet lion” with a “big ass chain” to boost morale

Campbell played in the NFL up until 2009, making his divergence from typical coaching all the more telling. In the words of tenured sports analyst Rich Eisen, “If Barstool could create an NFL coach, it would be Dan Campbell.” To guys like Rich Eisen, Barstool—though admittedly host to a slew of its own problematic messaging—represents a foreign world of sports, a place where coverage happens through TikToks and tailgate vlogs. The difference between coaches like Campbell and coaches like Belichick exposes a generational rift that’s cracking football.

Or take McDaniel, whose wiry figure perfectly compliments his thin prescription glasses. Graduating from Yale and shocking his contemporaries with innovative pass schemes, McDaniel more closely resembles the nerds that his players might’ve shoved in lockers. 

“(McDaniel’s) all about preaching confidence to a guy and building him up, rather than trying to break him down,” says fellow Ivy League graduate and assistant quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. McDaniel takes this chipper attitude everywhere he goes, whether he’s steering the Dolphins to the end zone or answering a kill, kiss, or marry on his coaching staff for the media.

Coach Smart is often touted as the poster boy of this new generation, due to his Brutus-Caesar-like relationship to Saban. As Belichick had with him, Saban mentored Smart into the coach he is today. In recent years, Smart has dethroned his adviser, winning the national title in back-to-back seasons and beating Saban’s Crimson Tide both times. 

“This game won’t be decided by past traditions, it will be decided by plays made on the field,” said Smart before his first championship matchup versus Saban. 

It seems the dominance will continue too, as Smart has consistently recruited higher ranked high school athletes—an ability frequently attributed to Smart’s viral fiery pregame speeches, which have proven popular with younger generations. 

As statements like “bring back real men” continue to be echoed on social media on top of regular headlines exposing popular male figures as sexual predators, the pool of adequate male role models seems to dry up more each day. In such droughts, communities often funnel in the direction of the loudest voice. This is happening to modern men in what has been referred to as the Misogyny Pipeline; think of the recent rise of figures like Andrew Tate and the late Kevin Samuels.

What masculinity should look like today is still an ongoing conversation, one that calls for the input of all people. In the meantime, it’s good to see some slack pulled out of the rope, especially from your dad’s favorite reality TV show.