Sunday Football – Rethinking Masculinity

For people who follow sports, lately there’s been a wave of conversation about locker-room bullying and what it means. A player for the Miami Dolphins, Jonathan Martin, outed another player, Richie Incognito, as a bully.

Threatening and insulting (racial slurs) voicemails were uncovered.

In the initial wave, many critiqued Martin, the person bullied, for defying locker-room culture and going outside the chain-of-command (lots of military metaphors are in play), or for not just “manning-up” and handling it. A very smart essay from Grantland, a website linked to ESPN that tries to combine smart writing with coverage of sports and popular culture, and often succeeds, summarizes the reaction:

The Shadow League’s J.R. Gamble called Martin “soft.” Giants safety Antrel Rolle said: “You’re a grown-ass man. You need to stand up for yourself.” Ex-Dolphins lineman Lydon Murtha wrote
that Martin was a “standoffish and shy” player who “broke the code” and
that “playing football is a man’s job” of “high testosterone.” Sports Illustrated‘s Jim Trotter spoke to a mean fleet of NFL types who all agreed that Martin was “a coward.”
One said: “I think Jonathan Martin is a weak person. If Incognito did
offend him racially, that’s something you have to handle as a man!”

But as the extent of the offense has been revealed, the new focus is on Incognito as a bad character. He molested a woman a golf tournament (it seems likely large sums of money were exchanged and she signed a confidentiality agreement). Respected teams had him listed as “don’t draft for reasons of character,” so maybe it’s just a bad apple. Others suspect that the coach told Incognito to toughen Martin up, but just didn’t expect it to go so far.

For people who don’t follow sports, the affair in Miami has sparked a number of conversations, among them a discussion of masculinity, which is why I’m writing about it.

The Grantland essay is among the smartest. This piece deserves to be read in its entirety, as it’s written in a voice that makes it hard to excerpt, weaving in and out of a stereotyped masculine voice and then a critique of that voice, but here’s a powerful line:

There will always be locker-room assholes. They should be curtailed. And
when a player says he needs time off for mental reasons — again: in a sport with a suicide problem — it shouldn’t spark a national conversation on whether he’s soft.

But I want to focus today on the Chicago Bears and their WR Brandon Marshall. Marshall has never been my favorite guy. He has a DWI charge and two arrests on suspicion of domestic violence, including being accused of punching a woman in the face, and once he was stabbed. So not a great guy, though I haven’t heard anything since he joined the bears. But then he said this and definitely nuanced my opinion of him:

“Look at it from this standpoint,” Marshall said. “Take a little boy
and a little girl. A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as
parents is ‘Get up, shake it off. You’ll be OK. Don’t cry.’ A little
girl falls down, what do we say? ‘It’s going to be OK.’ We validate
their feelings. So right there from that moment, we’re teaching our men
to mask their feelings, to not show their emotions. And it’s that times
100 with football players. You can’t show that your hurt, can’t show any
pain. So for a guy to come into the locker room and he shows a little
vulnerability, that’s a problem.

“That’s what I mean by the
culture of the NFL. And that’s what we have to change. So what’s going
on in Miami goes on in every locker room. But it’s time for us to start
talking. Maybe have some group sessions where guys sit down and maybe
talk about what’s going on off the field or what’s going on in the
building and not mask everything. Because the (longer) it goes
untreated, the worse it gets.”

Once again – as Grantland says – this is a sport with a suicide problem, so when Marshall’s talking about things getting worse, he’s not speaking hypothetically. I’m really pleased that Marshall (among many others) are speaking this way. Our male sports stars are, for better or worse, the paragons of masculinity in this culture. If they lead, perhaps at least a few will follow.

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