I was a first year offensive linemen playing for a mid-major state school in central Illinois. In hindsight, there are all sorts of signs, if you’re willing to look for them, when you can understand better how playing sports at the collegiate level was destined to go poorly, to not live up to your expectations, because of something totally out of your control. I remember one particularly mean-spirited round of insults flung at another freshman lineman by our all-conference guard, himself an energetic and dominating presence on the team, risen to the top of the food chain and granted his alpha status. In the midst of the “joking” I said something along the lines of “that’s so mean.” It was evidently a triggering remark for our all-conference guard, eliciting this sneering reply, “We’d make fun of you, Rowan, but we know you’re too sensitive. You’d probably kill yourself.”
In the wake of the now all-but forgotten bullying scandal members of the Miami Dolphins football team — and particularly two players, linemen Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito — were embroiled in back in 2013, an excellent discussion about modern masculinity — and concomitant conceptualization of the range of emotions men were denied the ability to express — was granted a surprisingly large and nuanced forum. This discussion ultimately faded from the public eye just about as quickly as the scandal itself, but its vestiges remain.
In a big way it was stories like the one linked above that got me thinking about and, in some ways, helped me come to terms with my experiences in the hyper-masculine world of football, as a former prep and collegiate athlete. What we encourage our athletes to obsess over — stomping on anyone and everything that gets in their path — is foolish and counterintuitive to the point of having a society. Jim Shepard’s short story, “Trample The Dead, Hurdle the Weak,” portraying this draconian experience is a worthy commentary on the ways in which we dehumanize and are dehumanized as athletes. It opens in a way that gives me flashbacks to my own time playing the sport, to how I functioned, and what I was gladly willing to do to be considered exceptional:
Guy’s hurt? Fuck ‘im. Guy can’t get up, play’s still going? Run his ass over. Whistle’s blown? Stretcher-bearer time. Grab a blow and let the Sisters of Mercy do their thing.
“Faggots,” Wainwright says whenever the trainers come out for someone. He means the trainers.
We’re not talking games here. We’re talking Summer Practice, two-a-days, guys keeling over in the heat. When more than one guy has the dry heaves we call it Hee-Haw because of the sound.
Sports teams, at their best, are a vestige to, maybe even a ritualistic tribute to, the tribal notion of human beings banding together to enact a social contract in order to collectively defend ourselves from external threats. But that’s not what they’ve come to represent. As Shepard’s story alludes to and as “warrior culture” in Brian Phillips’s piece is defined as, what we have instead is a culture in which no one, whether on the same or opposing team, is ever truly safe to be and to function as themselves.
I’ve been reading Rebecca Solnit’s latest outstanding work The Mother of All Questions, and in it she reminded me of this pitch-perfect quote by bell hooks regarding what sort of violence the patriarchy exacts on men, either by the self or by means of brutal external forces:
The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.
The above depiction in Shepard’s story recalls just this sort of “emotional crippling” exacted by others. For any man or boy who has ever existed around other men or boys, the language of patriarchal conformity is surely familiar. Don’t be a “fag,” “a pussy,” “gay.” As Solnit notes in The Mother of All Questions, continuing with the narrative thread her citation of bell hooks’s begins, from an extraordinarily early age boys are taught to reject all things feminine.
Solnit relates the story of her five-year-old nephew, who when asked about why pink was no longer his favorite color said, apparently said as if on cue, “I like girls. I just don’t like girl things.” Solnit then adds, “Misogyny and homophobia are both forms of hating what is not patriarchy,” and accordingly, “Many of the gay men in my life have seemed more whole than most of the straight men I’ve known. They have been more able to experience and express a full range of emotion and understand and appreciate it in others (and often to have honed perception of nuances and shades of meaning beyond the rest of us as well as the wit to express it).”
My story is far from unique, but I find myself deeply relating to the ways in which hooks and Solnit describe patriarchy’s effects on men.
How terrified I was of ever even momentarily crying on the football field. There were seldom few instances in which such a display would have been considered acceptable. To be honest, it’s difficult even now to imagine such a thing is acceptable, knowing what I know, to write about, to think about, so strongly is this concept of “enduring and showing no weakness in the form of emotion” hardwired.
It’s as delusional as the “super men” contrived by founding ideologues of modern libertarianism like Ayn Rand, who like to imagine a world in which human greatness is achieved in spite of, not working in concert with, the masses. Yet this is the standard we set for our young adults who play sports. Rub dirt on your wounds and keep playing.
Having mental health trouble? Ugh, quit whining. I’ve seen how quickly a player who admits to any kind of struggle in the realm of mental health is discarded. I remember how little my o-line coach had to say to me when I confessed I wasn’t doing well mentally in our post-spring practice, one-on-one meeting. I might as well have said I couldn’t hack it to him. That’s what his expression read as he didn’t even bother to come up with anything remotely consoling in response. It was like he’d never heard of depression. This is not seriously surprising, though. I’d tried to admit having issues focusing on our plays and playbook earlier that spring, right before we began our opening drills, and his response was something along the lines of a curt, “Well you better fucking get yourself together.” Then I was urged to literally start running, which effectively ended the conversation.
I’d been screamed in my face by our head coach during winter workouts, apparently an effort on his part to fire me up and get me moving faster. I don’t recall it being terribly effective. I was already running for what felt like my life.
I’d been told by our defensive backs coach that he thought I was “soft.”
My roommate came to me, a defensive end privy to their meetings, choked up a bit and confessed that the defensive coaches in general didn’t think much of me. That was right around when I made up my mind to leave the school.
You either sink or you swim. I guess that’s the idea, too. The cream will somehow rise to the top. I don’t know, though. I have this feeling that we’re not creating our best society by encouraging these attributes. I know I don’t feel like I sank. I know I don’t feel like I couldn’t “hack it.” I just couldn’t stand the egotism, the testosterone, the complete and utter disdain for showing any human emotion other than rage — the falseness of the whole arrangement. It felt so hollow.
I guess I just saw how fragile this form of “strength” was. I saw how desirous my coaches were at hiding their humanity and how this trickled down to the players. Learned behavior passed on in an constant cycle. Where does it end, though? That’s the question I’ve been asking for a long time. It seems like we’re constantly hearing about stories in which players have committed horrendous acts of domestic abuse, cruelty to animals, violence against women, murder and violence against themselves. A long list of names come to mind, like Mark Chmura, Rae Carruth, Michael Vick, Jovan Belcher, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, Aaron Hernandez, Brett Favre, Ray Rice, and Ben Roethlisberger and the various accusations and outright convictions of horrific, even criminal, behavior associated with each of them over the past two decades. Even Peyton Manning, widely considered the NFL’s golden boy, has had deeply troubling allegations emerge from his past.
When you start adding up the number of players who’ve been implicated in something at the very least disreputable it becomes difficult to imagine this issue is strictly one related to head trauma and CTE issues. It’s symptomatic of a culture that values brutality and violence over all other physical, mental, and emotional attributes. Our best hope is going to have to begin with massively rethinking how we raise our young men, by means of teaching avenues like sports as well as other activities in which their socialization is the focus. That is, if we want men who understand what it means to be a whole person, free of the emotional stunting upon which our patriarchy thrives.
Matt Rowan lives in Chicago. He founded and edits Untoward and is managing editor of Another Chicago Magazine. He’s author of the short story collections, Big Venerable (CCLaP, 2015) and Why God Why (Love Symbol Press, 2013)