Is what’s happening in the NFL causing a crisis of identity in the American male?
There’s a lot going on in the NFL right now, and not all of it is football.
The first is the violence that happens to the players themselves. NFL football players are exposed to violence on their jobs on a regular basis, but we don’t talk about it that way. The second is violence that the players do towards others, outside of football—systematically and repeatedly. And the third is violence the organization as a whole does to outside groups of people. This systemic violence—to each other inside the NFL, to those others outside the NFL, and to other groups, can be seen as similar to the way violence works in conjunction with the “Man-Box.” And once you see those patterns—the enormous pressure put on American males to be big, to be strong, to succeed at all costs, and to justify violence—it’s hard to not see what is happening in the NFL as indicative of a turning point for men themselves.
Let’s start with violence to the players themselves—specifically the information about CTE, concussions and brain injuries that is coming to light. For those of you who haven’t heard the sobering statistics, there are two stats that are of great importance.
One is that almost one third of all football players—one third—are expected to get some form of brain damage from trauma to their skull. This means that 33% of all NFL players could become disabled just for doing their job. Where else is a job allowed to be so dangerous?
Another recent study examined the brains of football players who had died in the past 10 years. Of the professional NFL players, 76 out of 79—96%—had degenerative brain disease. And of the 128 total football players they examined—those who played professionally, semi-pro, college or high school—80% of the brains tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy. New studies are also assessing the damage in living ex-NFL players.
As with other major corporations, we may find out that the NFL knew that the sport itself was dangerous to the people who played it long before they released the results publicly. It is reminiscent of the way tobacco companies hid the fact that cigarettes were killing people or the way GM did not disclose the fact that their cars were killing people early enough to prevent additional people from dying. The NY Times recently wrote about “How One Lawyer’s Crusade Could Change Football Forever.” The lawyer is Jason Luckasevic, and as the Times reports: “In 2011, Luckasevic filed suit against the N.F.L., at first on behalf of 75 players…In September, the N.F.L. filed documents in federal court, prepared by actuaries, estimating that 28 percent of the retired players eligible for payments under the settlement will develop long-term cognitive deficiencies, many of them at “notably younger ages” than the general population. In other words, they will suffer from early-onset dementia. With that, the connection between football and brain damage was validated. There was no more denying it.”
Violence that causes irreversible, debilitating and permanent injuries to the players themselves should be be enough alone to give us pause.
However, the violence does not stop in the NFL itself. The second piece of this is the way the violence spreads outwards. A “tipping point” is said to occur when something spreads from individuals to small groups to large groups. And the culture of violence spreads when individuals within the NFL spread the violence out to other individuals—whether it is in the form of suicide like Junior Seau, domestic violence as shown by Ray Rice or Jovan Belcher, violence against a child, like Adrian Peterson and his son, or violence through bullying, as in the case of Richie Incognito and the Miami Dolphins. There is the obvious question about whether a sport like football, which breeds and trains players for aggression on the field is then able to keep that violence off the field. There are some who theorize it might be the head injuries themselves which cause personality changes which then create more violence in the home. It’s important to understand, however, that the NFL doesn’t have just a “domestic violence” problem. It has a violence problem; one which affects the very support system players need most—their loved ones, their children, their colleagues.
And what happens when the violence spreads outwards to other groups of people? The third non-football news about the NFL is the inherent racism of the refusal to change the name of the R*dskins. The word R*dskin is a racial slur against a group of people that were nearly wiped out by genocide. That seems like a pretty good reason to change the name. You can ask if the R*dskins name really that offensive, but the answer is—yes, yes it is.
Yet the team owner Dan Snyder infamously told USA Today in 2013, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
Racism is an act of violence. And I am going to ask anyone who does not think of racism as violence to start thinking about it that way. Racism causes harm to groups of people who are already marginalized by our society. Racists actions are inherently acts of violence because they intentionally cause harm in the present day to people who have been harmed and oppressed in the past. And that is violence.
How is the crisis in the NFL symbolic of a crisis of identity for the American male today? And, relatedly, would the loss of football be a crisis of identity for the American male?
Think about all the fallen archetypes we have had. Male role models who become fallen heroes. Anyone from kings who “conquered” far off lands, to swashbuckling pirates to swooning Casanova’s, to military heroes, to the cowboy who got swallowed up by the marketing of The Marlboro Man, to priests who suddenly had a bad branding day when they were accused of being pedophiles. Policemen—as a kid, they were smiling do-gooders who are now often portrayed as brutal, murdering thugs. Politicians? Big businessmen? There’s not many of the old ancient archetypes that are all that positive any more. They all seem to have been tarnished in some way.
And now you have football.
Football used to be the epitome of what was good about our country. It was seen as clean cut, all-American. It was competitive, aggressive in a good way—there always has been a lot of strategy involved rather than just physicality. Football was heroic.
And football has always been a place where boys can be boys, men can be men. Watching football with the guys is as “normal” an activity as you can get. And despite gender equality in so many other areas—football is NEVER going to be something that women do. It may be something the girls watch with the guys—I certainly have at times in my life—but it’s never going to be a girl or a women “thing.” And, I’ll just state the obvious—the more violent and aggressive it becomes, the less likely it will have women swarming in droves to it. In fact, you could argue that one of the reasons that football is becoming increasingly aggressive is to KEEP it a guy thing.
But here’s the thing about heroes. You can’t really be a hero if you cause life-threatening harm to those you work with, to your friends and families, or to marginalized groups of people, can you?
So what happens when you can’t look up to football players as heroes any more? Does it create a crisis of masculinity?
What do you think?
For more Good Men Project Sports coverage of the recent issues coming out of the NFL, check out:
- Athletes’ ‘Killer Instinct’ – In Words. In Pictures. And In Your Face
- The End of Football for Men and Boys? Readers and Experts Discuss Where We Go From Here
- The NFL’s Concussion Problem Just Got A Lot Worse
- We May Be Right. We May Be Crazy: Musings on the NFL’s Violence Problem
- The National Football League: Too Big To Fail?
Main photo: aidanmorgan / flickr