Conduct Committees aren’t enough to save the NFL

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.


Spirit of Gentleness

Last week I did Yoga on the roof of the Clarendon Hotel, about a mile from my apartment, under the light of the moon. I re-started my yoga practice about a month ago after a 9-month hiatus, and can’t believe I ever stopped practicing. I leave every time with gratitude for my body, how it bends and moves. And believe me, my body bends a lot less than some other bodies. Still, gratitude…

Our instructor for the night asked us to think about something we’d like to work on in our lives over the next lunar cycle (so basically, the next month). My mind immediately jumped to gentleness, a word a friend I was visiting used in a church service a couple weeks ago. Gentleness, as my body twisted and bent, and honestly as it creaked and shook. I’m not great at yoga. But as the instructor says “there’s no perfect in yoga, only practice.”

I’m going to go ahead and say that I think gentleness is the least represented of the “fruits of the spirit,” which Galatians lists as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” I’ve heard lots of love, joy and peace sermons, especially around Christmas. Kindness seems obvious, and generosity will be represented in any a church lives out its mission to serve others. Faithfulness seem paramount to the Christian story, a God who is faithful to the unfaithful people, or whatever version of the gospel you’d like to tell. I grew up around some more conservative evangelicals, and can say I’ve heard too many sermons on self-control.

Gentleness was an intriguing thought as I did my yoga practice under the lunar light. I love yoga, but I always need a few days recovery afterwards. Am I being gentle to myself when I put it through a program that leaves much of it in pain? I mean, not excruciating pain, not debilitating. Just soreness. Maybe practicing gentleness means working my body in a loving way. Working out because it makes me more aware of the gift of my body, and less about trying to be “in-shape,” whatever that means.

I used to run to try to stay “in-shape.” I liked it most of the time, although I think what I was most interested in was the feeling afterwards. I liked accomplishing something, and I especially liked the feeling when my body was regularly being worked out. When I wasn’t winded walking up stairs, or when setting a regular workout schedule didn’t result in frustration because each individual run was so difficult.

I met someone at a conference in Indianapolis who mentioned that she walks. As in, she’s taking part in a 17 mile “walk” in a few months, and has been practicing by walking 7 or 8 miles at a time up the coast of Lake Michigan in Chicago. When I heard this, I thought about how much I like walking. When I got home last week, I decided to try it out. I put in my headphones, turned on the latest episode of “Wait, Wait…” and walked for an hour. 3 1/2 miles later I had made my way through neighborhood streets, a local park and a large stretch of the canal that runs behind my apartment. I saw at least 3 families of ducks in the water, and enjoyed a regular Arizona sunset, which, if you don’t know, is almost always the best sunset you’ve ever seen.

I like the slow movement of walking. I’m not that concerned with how far or fast I’ve traveled, only with the things going on around me in the world. I don’t have to be concerned with ouching myself, or looking for my “best time,” and maybe most important, I don’t have to worry when I don’t make my “goal.” There’s no ulterior motive, there’s only the walk. Only gentleness, with the world and with myself.

I’m not really sure what gentleness is. I’m sure there’s a definition out there, but I don’t want it. If there was an easy definition for gentleness, I wouldn’t need to seek it out. I’d just know what it was. I have a hunch that it has to do with treating things with more care, paying more attention to events in life for their own sake. Not dominating or overpowering or forceful. Gentle. Like accepting bodily aches as signs of growth, or appreciating what my body can do rather than what it can’t do. Moving slower, not pushing but accepting. Being present, and preparing space for whatever the world has to offer.

So for the rest of this lunar cycle: Gentleness!



Privilege in Arizona (and beyond)

A friend and I have a competition going about whose home state is more crazy (she’s from South Carolina) and last week she ceded that with the passing of SB1062, Arizona was definitely winning.

The legislation is pretty troubling, not to mention confusing. To be clear, SB1062 is an amendment to a previous law, and will allow business owners to refuse service to individuals based on religious beliefs. It now sits on the desk of Governor Jan Brewer waiting for a signature.

In the days since the law passed both houses of the Arizona legislature, many voices have urged Brewer to veto, including both of the states Republican Senators, the conservative Mayor of Mesa, and even 3 of the state senators who voted for the law in the first place. With that much pressure, it’s hard to see the law not being vetoed…though I put nothing out of the realm of possibility for politicians in Arizona.

While the law bothers me, there’s another trend that is much lager which worries me more. In this law, as in laws regarding women’s rights, marriage equality, and basically every issue related to race you can think of, our public sphere has decided that people’s abilities to be in control of their own lives doesn’t belong to them. According to our political debates, women need a government to tell them what they can and can’t do with their bodies, those who identify as gay need the state to tell them whether or not their love is the same as a same sex couple, and people who are Black need to be told whether or not their lives are as valuable as the lives of a person who is white.

I am about as privileged as it comes in this country. I am a straight male who is white. I went to college on the generosity of my parents, and had the social capital to get into graduate school. I am 27, and in an age in which many of my peers cannot find work due to the economic crisis, I am working full time in my chosen career. The social and economic system works for me in just about every way. I have never been pulled over because I looked “suspicious” and no one has ever questioned my ability to achieve what I set out to achieve.

What troubles me about the existence of these debates in our society right now is something I cannot fully relate to, but which I am aware of. It’s not just that these laws exist, or that there are people who have their rights restricted, or whatever; it’s that I am not, nor will I be, the subject of many of these debates. No one will ever debate my freedom to marry who I choose; no one will argue my right to birth control or try to regulate what I can and can’t do with my body; someone who looks like me will never be made to stand trial for their own death (see Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis); and no one will ever argue for whether or not I am allowed service in a restaurant.

Beyond the laws, the fact that we are debating them at all strikes me as undemocratic. Democracy literally translates as “self-rule,” something which cannot exist if those freedoms have to be approved by someone else. How can we practice self rule if the self is not in charge of making the decisions about very personal matters? How can we claim to live in a country that values democracy if we leave decisions about who can participate in day to day life to folks not affected by those decisions?

In terms of the Gospel, I am reminded that Jesus often encounters people whose lives have been controlled by others perceptions and political power. In John he walks up to a woman at a well, someone avoiding a crowd because she has been so ostracized, and rather that dictate to her some command or mechanism of control (which, it seems like she was expecting) he creates space for her to be who she is. In Luke, he encounters a tax collector name Zacchaeus. Rather than pronounce some form of requirement for fellowship, he simply welcomes the worried man to come down out of his tree and join in a meal.

Throughout the Gospels, this is Jesus’ method: folks who have been persecuted, whose lives have been determined from elsewhere, whose statuses have been the subject of public debate and discourse, are welcomed into the presence of the living God. They come into spaces where their lives and identities are no longer the topic of public discourse.

I’m getting tired of hearing debates about who can control women’s bodies, or whether or not those who identify as gay can express their love in a traditional ceremony, or whatever. And if I’m tired of them, as someone whose life decisions and identities will never be in question, I can only imagine how bad it has to be for the millions of people in this country whose lives are up for debate daily.

Real men have bodies

It’s no secret Facebook uses user information to coordinate adds. It’s why I get adds for online Divinity Schools (I apparently have an interest in religion) and adds for Budweiser (for the record, I brew beer and usually post pictures of it). I also run, and to help motivate myself I’ll post about it every once in a while. And I’m sure that’s the reason I get advertisements for ways to transform my body, from the flabby, hairy chested form it now manifests, to a lean, hairless, “built” machine-like physique that looks pretty darn “sexy” without a shirt on. Usually these adds feature side-by-side frames, one with the “before” shot, and the other with the results of whatever program is being sold.

Recently, there’s been another add showing up on my timeline. Instead of the side-by-side results oriented pitch, it shows 3 drawings of different body “types,” which are defined as “ectomorph,” “Mesomorph,” and “endomorph.” (you can check it out here. For the record, I took the test and I’m a fall between an endomorph and a mesomorph)

The first set of adds, the results oriented pictures, make me think immediately of the creation of an ideal male physique, something which may or may not be accomplished in this life, but which we all ought to strive for. Of course, I’m not sure how many men I know who were born without body hair, but I don’t think it was very many, and the punishment a person has to go through to maintain that kind of look (here’s one with The Rock that showed up for a while) seems kind of extreme (ok, so for some people lifting weights isn’t punishment…I’m not one of those people). And so, we accomplish an irony of the past 100 years of advertising: too be beautiful, at least according to the adds, means accomplishing something which cannot happen naturally.

The second set of adds get at another modern problem when talking about bodies: reducing really complicated sets off genetics to oversimplified categories. Roughly estimating, there are 3.5 billion men in the world (assuming the worlds population is 7 billion and that roughly half of those are men). Based on that information, I venture to conclude that there are at least 3.5 billion types of male bodies. Can groups be made? Sure, it’s possible. But why is society so quick to segment large groups of individuals into easily sortable categories? Remember when society did that with race? Or class? Or nationality? Remember how that still serves as a way to exert power and control in really bad ways?

I’m bothered by these adds, partly due to my own insecurities (yes, as a man I have insecurities about my body) but partly because of the power they try to exert on humanity. Can we, as a people, be done with celebrating what for many is a completely unattainable beauty? And please, can we stop lumping large groups of people into different categories based on perceived difference? Please?

From the perspective of the Christian church, we should reject them not only because of their use of power to control (although really, that’s a pretty good reason) but because they don’t jive with Jesus. Contrary to the imagination of those in the media, we don’t have a picture of the actual Jesus. Sure, the modern world has produced their own portraits, from the ‘Swedish’ Jesus (as my friends and I have called this blue eyed figure) to the muscular Jesus and so on.

But the only image of Jesus’ body we get in the bible isn’t toned and controlled; the first real descriptions we get are when he’s being beat and broken by the powers of the world. In three days, despite their efforts to inflict control over his body, he is raised from the dead, seemingly overcoming and (hopefully) ending the violence. The Good News of the cross can be understood as the power to overcome the control the world seeks to enact on bodies.

Why, then, are we still letting bodies be controlled? Why are we still giving in to hairless-muscular-sexy-without-a-shirt-(unnatural)-masculine-beauty?

I mean, come on Facebook? Leave me alone! How about some real men! with real bodies! Like these:

These make me happy!