By Anne T. Donahue
This weekend, the Kansas City Chiefs (horrible team name, cannot believe it still exists) came another step closer to playing the Super Bowl, and this is the first time I’ve ever known any fact in real-time about the NFL. And there are two reasons for this:
- Taylor Swift, and
- Travis Kelce
If you’ve spent one to three minutes on social media since October, you’re well aware that Swift and Kelce are very publicly dating, and at any particular moment they’re being taped or photographed within an inch of their lives. For some, this has proven problematic: Taylor’s mere presence at any/all football games arguably “takes away” from the spirit of the sport, and has brought with her a tidal wave of fair-weather fans who care only about the NFL because it’s now adjacent to the most successful woman in pop music. The sport, to these fans, has become a media circus. Unlike the multi-billion-dollar circus that organized football is on a regular day.
The thing is, Swift’s dedication to the franchise and the attention she’s brought with her is useful – and not just in terms of Kansas City merch raking in additional dollars for the franchise. I’m not a football fan. So much of the NFL makes me sad, but nothing so much as the scientific findings that repeated blows to the head lead to long-term brain damage (CTE) that eventually render a player far from the person they began playing as. Yet the league is built on hyper-masculinity and the choices made by the powers-that-be not to change a thing. I’m a killjoy, I know. I’m also a person who writes primarily about pop culture and gender norms (still a killjoy? You be the judge!), and I’m writing this week about the National Football League because a pop star has made it a talking point not just for sports fans, but for those of us who tune in only to the Super Bowl for the Half Time Show.
Enter: the Kelce family. While Jason Kelce was the subject of Netflix’s Kelce just last year, those not in-step with the lives of NFL darlings (hi) are only getting acquainted with he and brother Travis now. Jason and Travis seem a far cry from the players I’ve taken delight in resenting (Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, the Manning brothers – the list goes on), and their podcast has become an avenue for Real Talk™ about parenting, gender, vulnerability, and tangible concerns about CTE and when to move on from the sport.
These conversations are also important. They’re important because they annihilate the ideology that “real men” don’t talk about feelings/cry/worry or exhibit sensitivity/love/softness. They’re important because they bring topics like CTE and the physical effects of playing such a high-demand sport to a mainstream, general audience who otherwise may not know or care. When Jason Kelce was reported to have retired from the NFL last week, clips circulated of he and Travis reflecting on the revelation and Jason’s legacy. Jason cried. Travis supported him; he didn’t minimize his brother’s emotions, and he held space for him to let them out. All of this, in the wide world of football, is unprecedented. It elevates players from being “mere” athletes to real people who have a shit-ton to lose. And not in terms of football glory: these still-young men actively articulate the understanding that their professional may lead to them being physically incapable of caring for their grandchildren. These guys are voicing issues around relevance and fears for the future and the insecurities that make us human, all while under the guise of two brothers having a chat. Now with a few million extra listeners.
I know that Taylor Swift didn’t put Travis or Jason on the map, and I know that a strong message tends to elevate itself above what’s zeitgeist-y if it carries weight. But at the same time, Swift has linked her fans to an avenue through which the standards of a national sport can be challenged. She’s made the initial introduction, and while I don’t know if she and Travis will last or not (because I don’t know them), she’s certainly been the catalyst for alerting new masses to the experiences endured by NFL players. It’s not about whether she’s at games or what she’s wearing at games – it’s about what her entering the chat has wrought. Via the Kelce brothers, we’ve gleaned the realities of what it takes to play a sport that takes and takes and takes. And from there, new fans can reconcile whether that’s something they’re comfortable asking for. Or, maybe it’s time to put pressure on owners to prioritize psychological, mental, and physical health over the glory of a Super Bowl ring – a pressure that’s certainly possible when taking into account the strength of the Swift army.
Or maybe I’m just idealistic. After all, my next hope is that so much focus on Kansas City yields the conversation the league should’ve had eons ago: when are they going to change the team name?
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