Every time I hear another ex-player or father tell me he doesn’t want his son to play football because of concussions, I nod my head, and wonder if that’s the entire story. It’s the story I told my son, Darius, when he matter-of-factly informed me he was planning on playing football in the fall of his twelfth year.
“No you aren’t,” I said.
“Dad, I’ve already signed up at school. Hunter’s playing.”
“I don’t care what Hunter’s doing,” I said. “You’ve got a good brain and I’m not letting you mess it up.” I explained what a concussion was and what happens when the skull stops suddenly and the brain continues to drive forward, careening against bone, how no helmet can protect against that kind of damage, how I’ve had four concussions playing football, how I don’t remember any of those games or practices, how I still get headaches and lose sleep at night.
“How many times do you laugh at me for not knowing where my keys or wallet are – or when I can’t remember the names of my students or colleagues? Is that what you want for yourself?”
For two weeks we pushed against each other. Even my wife, Rachael, had begun to take his side, on occasion, telling me, “You can’t stop him. He’ll only resent you.”
“Yes, I can,” I grunted. “Watch me.” Fortunately, Hunter didn’t end up playing after all, and Darius let it go. Maybe I instilled a little fear regarding brain damage and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but what I wasn’t saying was that my reservations were not just about the injuries.
Darius is discovering girls, and to our consternation, has even gone on his first date, albeit supervised. Rachael wrote out a contract he had to sign that hangs on the refrigerator. It stipulates no sexual contact whatsoever and reminds him he is not yet an adult and the activities he engages in during these public outings should reflect his age. When he nervously tried to tell his mother, in a mock casual voice, “I have a girlfriend.” Her response was, “No you don’t.”
Both of us are trying to protect him from a place that seems to be pulling boys and girls into the very adult worlds of sex and violence before they could possibly understand the consequences. It’s not just a matter of wanting to keep our perfect little boy perfect and little. We know we can’t. But what we can’t change we can resist, so that when we see another young man charged with rape or assault, I can look at the predators and victims and say, “Not my son.” More than that, we hope to offer a counternarrative, one more complex and harder to articulate than the one we see in the movies or hear about in the locker room.
There is something primal and beautiful about feeling the thrill of your own body, what it is and can do. I love how Rachael takes pleasure in my body. When she says she married a man, when she calls me her man, I like it and there doesn’t seem anything loaded or unhealthy pressuring the words. She’s responding to something visceral and honest connected to deeply-felt needs we both share – that need to feel protected, desired and cared for that may be part culture, but is also partially instinctive.
And coming up with a useful and positive definition of masculinity is nearly impossible; it requires a real comfort with ambiguity, a resistance to definition.
I have no idea what “being a man” means and no desire to define it. I am satisfied to feel it as a part of my nature and to keep an eye on it lest it become destructive. When I hear the term defined in a manner meant to excuse violence, cruelty, and misogyny, I shudder. When “boys will be boys” or “being a man” becomes code for enabling a group of people to give up the responsibilities of acting like adults and gives them license to act like animals, I want nothing to do with the idea. This allows us to stay who we are and never take responsibility for what we have been, what we have done, or for the culture we are complicit in sustaining every day.
I have a beautiful son. I want him to grow to be a good man. I want him to feel free and safe, to define what that means as he grows. It’s easy to tell him being a man has nothing to do with how much you bench press, how far you can throw a ball, how many fights you’ve fought or won, how many women you’ve slept with, how many friends you have, or how much money you make. I can tell him I don’t care if he plays sports or the piano or marries a boy or a girl or no one at all. I can keep telling him what isn’t “being a man,” but that doesn’t help me define what it is. He will look to his friends, teachers and coaches for models, and he will see himself in the mirror of the internet and television screen and in the eyes of those who love and desire him. When he makes the choices that will define him, he will be surrounded by influences and people who have made easy choices and will encourage him to do the same.
What I want to teach my son is not so much how to “be a man” but how to become an adult. If he can remember courage, compassion, loyalty, and that a sense of responsibility to each other matters, he might be able to hold onto himself even when that means being hurt. That it is okay to be afraid and even angry but not to let that darkness drive you and control you. That there are choices more complex than predator and prey.
I want to tell him, be like Eric. Walk back out into the rain when everyone else ducks for cover.
And then I want to tell him, “No, protect yourself. Run.”
Originally published on Heart of a Man
Read part 1 here
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