Women Football Fans Are Critical of NFL but Love the Sport

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Hitha Palepu is many things. She’s an entrepreneur and CEO, an author, a content creator, a mother. And she’s a Philadelphia Eagles fan — a major Eagles fan.

Palepu says she was first “swept up in the Philadelphia sports mayhem” after her family moved from Ohio to Pennsylvania when she was 6 years old. Her first love was the city’s baseball team, the Phillies. “I remember my mom let me stay up to watch the entire [1993] postseason and World Series at 8 years old,” in which the Phillies played — and lost to — the Toronto Blue Jays, she says. “All of us just rolled into school completely exhausted, including the teachers.”

Her Eagles obsession came later, when Palepu was in middle school. “And it had nothing to do with them being good — they certainly weren’t,” she says, laughing. “At the time, there weren’t many Black quarterbacks in the NFL, and I just remember Randall Cunningham and the [Eagles’] kelly green jerseys and it just feeling like we were seeing the dawn of a new age in football. . . . That representation, seeing what we’ve never seen before, it really moved me.”

“I don’t identify myself as a ‘football fan.'”

When Palepu moved from Philadelphia to Colorado and then Seattle for college and work, rooting for the Eagles helped mitigate her homesickness for the East Coast. “There was a sense of connection and identity of being,” Palepu says. “I always felt I was from Philly; no matter where we lived or how many times we moved, that felt like home. And the way I stayed connected to home was sports fandom.”

But like many other women who have long been fans of their respective football teams, Palepu chooses her words carefully. “I don’t identify myself as a ‘football fan,'” she says. She’s an Eagles fan. “I’ve never felt represented by or comfortable enough to call myself a fan of a [men’s sports league] the way I could easily say I’m a women’s soccer fan and a huge fan of the WNBA.”

For many women fans, their relationship with football — and with their own fandom — is complicated. They love their teams and what watching them play brings (community, connection, joy in a stressful world), but they simultaneously have misgivings about celebrating an organization that doesn’t seem to support their values. And given that more young women than ever before are expected to tune into the Super Bowl this Sunday (in no small part because of Taylor Swift’s high-profile appearances at boyfriend Travis Kelce’s games), the NFL may be finally forced to confront the future of its fan base.

Is the NFL Letting Down Its Women Fans?

Even if you’re not a football fan, you likely have at least a vague understanding of what Palepu and others are referring to.

According to The New York Times, the NFL has a “race problem“: while two-thirds of NFL players are Black, in 2024, only nine of 32 head coaches identify as people of color. (And this is a record high for the league: NewsOne reports that of more than 500 head coaches in the league’s history, fewer than 30 have been Black.)

Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune says the league also has a “woman problem“: more than 130 players have been arrested for domestic violence since 2000 (a USA Today database keeps record of all NFL player arrests for crimes more serious than a traffic violation), and the number of players arrested for sexual harassment, assault, and abuse is much higher. And yet, research published in the journal Violence Against Women in 2022 found that these arrests had a negligible impact on the players’ careers.

Then, there’s the league’s “concussion crisis,” as PBS calls it. According to a “Frontline” investigation, thousands of former players have claimed the NFL tried to cover up football-inflicted brain injuries, while a study from Boston University found that 92 percent of the ex-NFL players analyzed suffered from the brain disorder CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).

This is just a smattering of examples — you can easily get lost down a rabbit hole of other lawsuits, controversies, and contradictions associated with the NFL. (The NFL did not immediately respond to POPSUGAR’s request for comment.)

And while these issues are cause for concern for many fans, the numbers indicate that a greater proportion of women fans than men fans are troubled. On the issue of domestic violence, for instance, a Statista survey from 2023 found that nearly half of female respondents believed players convicted of domestic violence should be permanently banned from the league, while 31 percent of male respondents felt the same. Women are also more likely than men to be bothered by on-field violence, research has found.

Pediatric nurse practitioner and Detroit Lions fan Rebecca Baskin is in this camp. Like Palepu, Baskin’s love of football started early: when she was growing up in Ann Arbor, MI, her family had season tickets to see the University of Michigan’s Wolverines play, and they’d walk to The Big House (Michigan’s famed stadium) together every Saturday. Now, Baskin never misses a Lions game and participates in two fantasy football leagues (she’s winning one and in third in the other, thank you very much). But you also won’t find any players with a history of violence against women on her fantasy roster.

“When I do my drafts, I have my research on who I want to draft and then I also have arrest records,” Baskin says. “I’m like, ‘Alright, this person has been charged with domestic violence. I am not going to draft you.'”

“Sometimes you’re just like, ‘Why am I watching this?'”

Baskin says that the men in her fantasy league, however, don’t seem to take off-field behavior into consideration when choosing their teams. “It never even crosses their minds. If I said I would never draft Ben Roethlisberger (a retired player accused by multiple women of sexual assault, which he has denied), they’d be like, ‘Why?'” she says. “It just seems like, at least in my experience, my female friends who watch football are a little bit more sensitive to the controversies in the NFL.”

As a healthcare professional, Baskin is also disturbed by the game’s potential long-term health impacts. “I mean, the absolute destruction it does to those guys’ brains,” she says. And so, while Baskin loves to cheer on the Lions with her 4-year-old son, “he will never play football.” A 2016 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 37 percent of women (compared to 26 percent of men) feel the same as Baskin and would prohibit their children from playing the sport.

“I feel like the NFL leaves a lot to be desired with concerns to player safety,” agrees Skye Payne, a Los Angeles Rams fan who belongs to five fantasy football leagues. “They’ve definitely stepped up, especially after Damar Hamlin’s [life-threatening injury] last year, and now they have better concussion protocols. But when you’re watching a game and you see a really bad hit, sometimes you’re just like, ‘Why am I watching this?'”

There are reasons Payne continues to tune in, though, and they’re good ones. Payne’s an only child, and when she was growing up, her dad worked a lot. “He was a hairstylist for movies and TV shows, so he wasn’t home a ton. And when he was, we watched football. It was a way for us to bond,” she explains. Payne says her dad has since passed away, “so now especially, I feel very connected to him when I’m watching sports.”

Much like Palepu, football also became a way for Payne to find a community wherever she has lived. As a student at the University of Michigan, Payne got a rush from cheering in the stands along with thousands of people who shared her interest. “And when things go poorly, when your team loses, you’re not alone,” she says.

So while Payne is cognizant of “all the bad parts of the NFL,” she says — she’s also troubled by the lack of repercussions for players who are accused of violence against women — it hasn’t yet been enough to deter her fandom.

“I think our lives are like, it’s such a disaster all the time. And I will take the small joys I can get,” she says. “The feelings that I get when I see my team win and when I am winning in fantasy football, where I get to build a community with my friends, brings me a lot of joy. And it outweighs the bad parts for me.”

A New Era For the NFL?

During the 2023 NFL season, a new demographic of viewers started to pay attention to professional football: Swifties. When Swift began attending games in support of Kelce, a Kansas City Chiefs tight end, many girls and women who had previously ignored the sport began tuning in. According to data from Apex Marketing Group first reported by Front Office Sports, women viewership for regular-season NFL games grew nine percent from the prior year, reaching an all-time high since the league started keeping track in 2000.

“The feelings that I get when I see my team win . . . it outweighs the bad parts for me.”

Personal stories seem to support the idea that the pop star is at least partially to thank for this audience growth.

“My 9-year-old daughter couldn’t wait to watch Dolphins vs. Chiefs this past weekend because of Taylor Swift & Travis Kelce. Then, she liked it so much that she wanted to watch the Sunday playoff games,” one dad posted on social media. In another post, a new viewer shared: “My parents are HUGE football fans. I’m almost 40 and have never been interested in football. You should have seen my dad’s face light up when I asked him football questions this weekend! Thanks, @taylorswift13.”

In just a few months, the NFL is already seeing major profits from these new fans. The New York Post reports that 16 percent of American shoppers cited Swift’s influence as the reason they spent money on professional football this season. According to Apex Marketing Group, the Swift-Kelce romance has generated an equivalent of $331.5 million in “brand value” for the NFL since Swift started making appearances at games this past fall.

But if these new fans find issue with the league’s less-than-stellar legacy of dealing with conflicts mired in racism and misogyny, will the NFL be willing to change its ways to keep them watching?

Allyn Ginns Ayers, an attorney, professional dancer, and Jacksonville Jaguars fan based in Miami, hopes the mere existence of more women fans will put pressure on the NFL to finally tackle some of the issues that have historically deterred this demographic.

“I do think that having more female eyes on the sport is probably a good thing going forward,” Ayers says. “And even if I’m not consciously thinking about how my dollars or attention is profiting things that I don’t necessarily support, I think that having an audience of people who are maybe more concerned about racial equity and gender equity and player safety will automatically put pressure on the league to make different decisions in the future.”

As Palepu sees it, the NFL is currently operating under the false impression that they need to choose between serving the interests of their existing fans and their new ones. “[But] that’s a binary that has no place in reality. This country has internalized the feeling that we need to take a side. And it’s a really shortsighted perspective,” she says. And ultimately, failing to evolve “is a choice that’s going to hurt [the NFL] more than it’s going to help them.”

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