The head football coach at Mesa High School used to joke that when I was born, he told my mom she should just “Give him to me now.” I was a big baby, from a big family, and I grew into a big man. As a young boy, it was fairly common for people to ask if I played football, sometimes skipping the initial question to simply ask “so what position do you play?” as if it was a given I was a football player.
I did play football, for 2 years, because when you’re told your entire life that you’re built for it, you start to believe it’s the right thing to do. I played center, the position that ‘hikes’ the ball to the quarterback for 2 years in high school before finally calling it quits. The teams I was on were pretty bad, but that’s not why I quit. I finally got fed up with being made fun of by my teammates, taunted by my coaches, and encouraged to be something I didn’t want to be.
The memory that sticks out the most came towards the end of my sophomore year. The coach (not my moms friend from earlier, but another coach) was chewing our team out because of how bad we had been on the field. He criticized us for not being tough enough, or manly enough, or aggressive enough, or some combination of those criticisms. I don’t remember the exact words; it doesn’t matter. Some form of those words were always used. Football, if you spend any time in a locker room, is about being a “man,” whatever that means.
During his talk that night, he picked up my helmet to make an example. “Look at this helmet! There aren’t an scratches! What, are you afraid to hit someone! Are you afraid to be a man on the field!”
It was a few weeks later that I walked into the coaches office and told him I was done. After an hour long conversation about the opportunities I was walking away from, I walked out the door and never stepped foot in a locker room again.
Watching Roger Goodell, commissioner of the NFL speak today about the recent abuse scandals in his league, I couldn’t help but think about my memories of playing football. What was the sport trying to teach me? What was the point of it all? As a pastor, I tend to think in these kinds of large, global terms. When people formally come together to do something, their actions general produce core concerns, implicit cultural objectives for what they are doing. Yes, it’s about the game itself. But it’s also about something more, something which extends beyond the field of play.
This is what I percieve about sports in America:
Baseball is all about tradition. (Probably too much so. It has trouble looking into the future, trouble innovating, and trouble drawing younger fans.) It’s about what has come before, it’s about holding up the history, and it’s about respecting where the sport cam from. There’s a proper way to do it, and that way is almost as important as the game itself. And this is often what defines baseball.
Basketball is a playground sport. It places community and team above just about anything else. If you’re on the team, you belong to the community and you will be supported. It’s what leads Bill Simmons to talk about “The Secret” in his “The Book of Basketball,” which, it turns out, is team chemistry. Even off the court there seems to be a strong emphasis on sticking together.
This is not to say that there are no problems in the MLB or the NBA. But the main focus in those sports is on something most people can agree is worthwhile.
What I experienced in football at the high school level, and what I hear from people who celebrate the sport, is an emphasis on a certain kind of masculinity, one which in any other context would appear archaic and barbarous. It places aggressiveness and toughness ahead of everything else, applauding participants for violent behavior. It may occasionally speak about camaraderie and community, but overall it wants men to develop a certain way of playing the game, one which wouldn’t be accepted in any other civilized setting.
If the NFL is going to “deal” with the domestic abuse problem it faces, it’s going to take more than a special committee. The culture of the entire sport of football is going to have to change. I don’t know where that begins, but if you care about football you probably should start trying to figure it out. Because the thing I worry about the most isn’t the epidemic of abuse in the league itself, but about all of those “men” I grew up with, who played football and were taught the virtues of aggressive, violent, tough behavior who aren’t playing professionally, and therefore aren’t subject to whatever new committee the NFL comes up with. I’m sure most respect the women and children in their lives, that most of them haven’t done the things Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson have done. But it’s hard to read about those stories and not think that some of that behavior resulted from being brought up in a culture that applauds those kinds of behavior on the field. And it’s hard not to think about all the men who were raised in that culture, and still believe that to be a man, they have to be what they learned on the field and in the locker room.