My oldest son is a baseball-loving 11-year-old who recently completed his first season in the Western Wildcats youth football league. From what I can tell, he loved the gridiron — including the basic indoctrination into football's toughness.
In August, he did bear crawls up a small hill, in full pads, at the end of long practices. He learned the art and science of tribal chanting a breakdown. He was drilled in the proper techniques for blocking and tackling, running and receiving, often going beyond perceived mental and physical limits — usually within earshot of some vintage football phrase like, "Rest is for the other guys."
Placed on the league's Orange Cats team, he benefited from a superb group of coaches. They put him in positions to enhance (running back) and challenge (linebacker) his particular athletic gifts and skills. On game days in September and October he experienced the gamut: the thrill of taking off on a long touchdown run, the satisfaction of angling for a solo tackle out on the edge, the sheer joy of winning. He also fumbled a few times, missed some tackles, got injured on occasion (ribs, wrist and neck) and felt the usual angst of losing.
I truly believe my son is a tougher kid for his first encounter with football.
What I don't believe is the toughness now thumping its chest in the story of Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin — the Miami Dolphins offensive linemen at the center of a National Football League-sized brouhaha. Martin left the Dolphins in late October citing emotional distress. Incognito has been suspended for conduct detrimental to the team, including, allegedly, sustained harassment of Martin for more than a year.
Verbal abuse, racism, bullying and the locker-room code all factor in as talking points. But there's a deeper and wider public conversation to be had about this so-called matter of toughness. Not to mention the true strength of a man.
Martin audaciously asked for outside help. He said, in effect, he could not and would not work or play in that environment. In so doing, it appears he's countered the prevailing football script of "manning up."
Some have accused Martin of being soft, weak, a coward, not tough enough — in short, less than a man. Football is football, the reasoning goes, and it demands above all else that a person is tough — like a man, damn it. Give me another bear crawl, yell something and hit somebody!
Other observers say: Football gets what football makes. We shouldn't be surprised — nor should we act hypocritically horrified — when the artifacts of football's culture-making come to light. This is true, but only so far. Any analysis of Incognito's personal history and general asshole behavior would conclude that to pin all of this on football is narrow, reductionist and silver-bullet to a fault.
Nonetheless, cultures by nature are powerful narratives oozing a formative influence over our lives. Precisely here and now we must wrestle with football — with the connotations of toughness that inspire, animate and support its culture.
Last summer, the columnist George Will argued: "The New Orleans Saints' 'bounty' system of cash payments to players who knocked opposing players out of games crossed a line distinguishing the essence of the game from the perversion of it. This is, however, an increasingly faint line." Football is indeed a violent game. Likewise, its culture often can violently suppress other values.
Darkly comedic Grantland.com's Brian Phillips captures the Incognito-Martin moment: Football "has become the major theater of American masculine crackup. It's as if we're a nation of gentle accountants and customer-service reps who've retained this one venue where we can air guitar the berserk discourse of a warrior race."
Phillips suggests that football has a broken-brain problem equal to the concussion discussion. It's evidenced in "institutional fetishes that reward unhealthy behavior," he says, eventually asking: "What's the point of being strong if all you stand for is abusing a suffering teammate?"
Which raises the question: How long will we implicitly accept football's toughness as being unhinged from the ethics of right and wrong, from human dignity or compassion? For good measure, how well are we conditioning and drilling our footballing boys in the virtue of knowing when it's actually wiser to walk away, when it's actually stronger to choose not to fight? Furthermore, can you still be a man and admit that sometimes you cannot bear the burden of a very hard circumstance alone?
My 11-year-old continues his progression from boy to man. It's a scary enough prospect before football enters the conversation. With one season under his helmet, I've thought: Will the game stick with him? Or will he choose the American pastime over the American obsession?
To be sure, both football and baseball are riddled with human weakness. Yet I'm becoming more convinced that my son's decision on football (in the long term) may not come down to passion or heart, perhaps not even to talent, skill and the toughness necessary to play the game. Ultimately, his decision could come down to those dudes on the Dolphins — and to the culture change we create, or don't, out of this opportune moment.
I love football as much as the next guy — as much as the next man, in fact — but it's at their glorious heights that empires are most in need of critical evaluation and social transformation. S
Nathan F. Elmore is a campus minister at Virginia Commonwealth University. He also writes, and shares his stories, essays and Instagrams at nathanfelmore.com.
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