Five questions for Jeffrey Montez de Oca

Bonding with father over football inspired sociological research

5 Questions for Jeffrey Montez de Oca
A college German cinema course opened Jeffrey Montez de Oca’s eyes to his future. It was 1994 and he was at the University of California-Berkeley, and the class focused in part on the rise of the Nazi Party. It was also the year that Proposition 187 – known as the “Save Our State” initiative – was a hot topic. The anti-immigrant ballot measure became a key issue in Gov. Pete Wilson’s re-election campaign. Montez de Oca remembers seeing a campaign commercial that contained faux surveillance footage of the San Diego-Tijuana, Mexico, border as Mexican families streamed into the United States. Montez de Oca’s grandfather was from Mexico and his grandmother was Jewish.

“I made the connection between the propaganda of the Third Reich and what Pete Wilson was doing and I realized I never would have noticed it if I hadn’t taken that film class,” he said. “That’s when I realized that education wasn’t just an avenue to a better-paying job, it was something very powerful.” Montez de Oca also understood that what he wanted to do was become a university professor and help others have similar revelations and experiences.

He went to grad school at New York University to study film, and while there, he wrote a paper on football broadcasting in the 1950s. “That was also revelatory to me; football was the way I had bonded with my father as I grew up,” he said. That paper ultimately became a dissertation, which led to more research on the game of football; it later spurred an award-winning book.

Montez de Oca is an assistant professor of sociology at UCCS with interests in sociological theory, sport, media, identity and inequality, the Cold War, and urban food security. He teaches courses on sport, gender-sexuality, and popular culture.

“I want students to have skills to critically analyze the media they consume, whether it is television, movies, music or commercials,” he said. “I want them to be able to analyze and understand at a deeper level what’s going on so they can be smarter citizens.”

1. Your book, “Discipline and Indulgence: College Football, Media, and the American Way of Life during the Cold War (Critical Issues in Sport and Society),” recently was awarded the 2014 North American Society for the Sociology of Sport Outstanding Book Award. Did the book come from your dissertation and what did you learn from your research?

Discipline and Indulgence: College Football, Media, and the American Way of Life during the Cold War (Critical Issues in Sport and Society) by Jeffrey Montez de Oca
I revised the dissertation and produced the book. At one level, I’m looking at how United States football fit into a broader cultural cold war. Obviously, when we think of the Cold War, we think of the Berlin Wall, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and all the covert and overt CIA operations around the world. One prong of the U.S. cold war strategy was militaristic, with the goal of containing the Soviet Union to limited spheres of influence. The other half was built around developing an economic infrastructure around the world that centrally was about trade and commerce. We were trying to demonstrate that U.S. capitalism provided the highest standard of living the world had ever seen, and one way that could be measured was through consumer comforts. Football became a big part of the cultural cold war because it demonstrated the American way of life. The other thing I’m trying to argue in the book is that there was a construction of white masculinity during the Cold War and football was central to that construction. I call it fortified masculinity. In one sense, this fortification can be compared to cereals of the times, which were “fortified,” which is to say “enriched.” White masculinity was enriched by privileges – privileges based in the political economics of the post-war period. It was the rise of unionization and the family wage that allowed a man to buy a home and support his entire family. At the same time, I use the word fortification in the sense of a fortress or bulwarks of defense. Men also served as global policemen in the military. Masculinity became associated with cutting off emotions, of being stoic, self-sacrifices and all of the things that we now call traditional masculinity. Football – in terms of play and of being a fan – encouraged a particular kind of masculinity that was consistent with the broader political economy and culture of the Cold War.

2. In another instance, you examined Super Bowl ads for alcohol in a co-authored paper, “The Male Consumer as Loser: Beer and Liquor Ads in Mega Sports Media Events.” I loved this title. What did your research find?

I was fortunate to participate on this project. The first author, Mike Messner, was my graduate adviser. We looked at commercials – the beer and liquor ads during the Super Bowl and in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. We looked at how these ads communicate to 20-something white men – college-educated men – who are seen as a very active consumer segment.

There’s this whole construction of collegiate life that persists beyond college into the early 20s, which is threatened by wives and girlfriends. We talk about two different constructions of women in the ads: There are the “hotties,” which we all know are the models and model-types too beautiful for the average guy to have, even though he’s always supposed to desire them. The other group is the “bitches” – the wives and girlfriends in the commercials. What makes them bitches is that they are demanding – they want things, they want to talk, they want the guy’s attention. But these women draw the men away from the fraternal bonding that they enjoy in their male peer group where they can hang out and have this youthful masculinity for years and years and years. And of course it involves lots of alcohol consumption. The girlfriends and wives become the bad guys in these commercials because they pull the guys away from their buddies.

The guys in the commercials oftentimes are constructed as losers: They can’t get the hotties; they’re stuck with bitches – if they even have a girlfriend or wife – and oftentimes they are the butt of the joke.

This construction of the average guy as loser is speaking to the broader changes in the political economy of the United States in the early 2000s. The family wage is now gone, and at the same time, women, racial minorities and sexual minorities have made inroads in the labor market, so there is competition for jobs. What we argue is that there is a lot of anxiety among these young, white men and the advertising tapped into that and provided them with a villain – the wives and girlfriends – in order to construct an image of a very desirable lifestyle that involves the consumption of a lot of beer and liquor.

3. Are you currently researching football and how it affects culture?

I’m really excited about my current research that looks at the way the NFL markets to youth. Currently, there is a lot of concern about football and concussions. There are a whole bunch of other health risks, too – injuries to knees, shoulders, backs and necks. And of course there are the issues of domestic violence and bullying.

There is a lot of concern, particularly among middle-class families – about both the physical health risks as well as the mental health risks because of the culture of football. Surveys have found that middle-class parents do not want their sons to play football and even President Obama said the same thing last year. Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman – Hall of Fame quarterbacks – also have said they wouldn’t want their sons to play football.

Middle-class parents increasingly are not allowing their sons to play football. In fact, participation in Pop Warner football has been on the decline in recent years. And that constricts the flow of labor into the NFL. More important to the NFL is that the movement has the potential to cause a decline in the number of “avid fans,” fans who watch more games and purchase a lot of merchandise. The NFL understands that fandom begins at a young age and begins with the playing of football.

There’s also a lot more competition for consumer attention. Soccer is becoming increasingly popular, particularly among immigrants and middle-class, suburban white families. There are the X-games and new technologies, social media and video games. At the same time, gender norms are far less rigid than they were in the ’60s and ’70s, and girls have a far greater range than they did in the past, particularly in terms of athletics.

The NFL is more aware of this and it is marketing accordingly. In particular, they are trying to address kids where they are and not assume that they will organically become lifelong football fans. The NFL, in partnership with Nickelodeon, has produced a show called “NFL Rush Zone” where a group of kids who play football transform into superheroes and protect NFL football stadiums from evil invaders from outer space. The NFL also has “corporate social responsibility” marketing programs that fall under the rubric of NFL Play 60, a program that encourages youngsters to get 60 minutes of play every day as a way to try to combat childhood obesity. They also have Fuel Up to Play 60, which tries to get more healthy food to kids in schools.

The NFL provides grants to schools to fund athletics or to help fund the nutrition stuff. These grants are competitive and require that the schools turn themselves into brand-pure spaces – meaning they have to remove all other brands of competing products and promise to include the NFL or football in classes. For instance, they suggest using math word problems that involve football like: “If one team scores two touchdowns, three field goals and a safety …” They encourage art classes to have kids paint logos of their favorite teams. In this way, the NFL is able to sidestep traditional advertising on the Internet and on television, which are regulated spaces, and instead concentrate on schools where there is no regulation on marketing to children who the state sees as a protected population.

Central to this message is that football is safe and healthy even as more people worry that football is dangerous.

The next step in the research is to look at how the NFL markets to women since they realize that women spend money, too. The NFL spends marketing dollars on breast cancer awareness, for instance, and now cut jerseys to fit women. They even invest in flag football for youth that targets girls.

4. In another area of research, you used visual sociology to study photographs of the Thomas Indian School in Western New York State. How did you become interested in this research and what did you learn?

As I mentioned, my paternal grandfather is from Mexico and he met my grandmother who was a full member of the Seneca Nation of Indians. My father lived in the Thomas Indian School from the age of 9 to 18.

When I was doing the dissertation and the book, I was thinking to myself, “Football is a dumb game.” I love the game, but it’s a really dumb game: The whole point is to make the ball disappear, which is hard for fans to follow without an expert narrator telling you what is happening and a camera following the ball. The game represents everything I’m personally opposed to – it is homophobic, violent, misogynistic, tremendously patriarchal, and patriotic and so on down the line.

So I asked myself, “Why am I spending so much time focusing on this dumb game if I’m politically opposed to it,” and I thought, “The reason I’m doing this is because I love my father and that was the basis of our relationship when I was a kid.” But he did not learn the game from his father as I did, he learned it at the Thomas Indian School, which required boys to play football. It was part of the American Indian boarding school mission to take children from the sovereign nations and turn them into citizens of the U.S. and track them into the lowest levels of the labor market. The boys were seen as having a failed masculinity and what they needed was to be instilled with an Anglo-American masculinity or what we call traditional masculinity. Football since the 19th century had been seen as a socializing and masculinizing institution. So I saw a lot consistency with the research I was doing in the sense that football was used as a “cultural technology” to produce a particular kind of masculine subject.

Jeffrey Montez de Oca

Jeffrey Montez de Oca coaches his children in flag football.

I thought it was fascinating and that got me interested in researching the school. At the Indian School, I came across tons of photographs that were taken at the school. What I argue is that as U.S. racial ideology changed across the history of the boarding school movement, we can see it reflected in the photographs. From the 19th century through the early decades of the 20th century, the photographs were incredibly objectifying, and the kids were always glum and solemn. That shifts in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s when the state realizes that the project of Americanization is not working and its policies are incredibly brutal. Then the policies change and the state stops abducting children or beating kids for speaking their native languages. The photographs change, too, going from being objectifying to being subjectifying. For instance, we start to see a lot of close-ups.

5. Even though you don’t particularly like football, you said you “love” it because of the bonding experience. Are your children fans?

I have two kids, ages 12 and 9, and it won’t come as a big surprise but they are huge football fans. They love football, just like their dad and grandfather. I won’t let them play tackle football for all the reasons we’ve talked about, but I will let them play flag football. And I coach their flag football teams, and in our league, we have won two park championships in a row. It was a teenage dream of mine to coach high school football and now I’m living out that dream.

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