Sports can be a prism through which to view larger social and cultural issues. Nowhere is that more apparent than with issues relating to the battle between ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ masculinity.
Today, the sport of football is under fire for its head injury crisis. It is also more popular and more profitable than ever. Though less talked about, the sport of baseball is also in the midst of its own crisis – it’s ravaging pitcher’s arms at astronomical rates.
What we are seeing in both sports is evidence of the auto-immune disease of traditional ‘man-box’ type masculinity-–those aspects of masculinity relating to aggression and athletic dominance, where toughness is elevated above all other qualities, are metastasizing and turning upon itself, to the point where we men are actually doing damage to our own bodies and minds.
Football, the NFL, and Youth Leagues
Here at Good Men Project Sports, we have written extensively about the dangers of playing football, including the growing head-injury crisis—the dual problems of concussions and CTE—that threatens the physical and mental health of anyone playing this “collision sport.”
In our 2014 article, The End of Football For Men and Boys, we asked “Now that the genie is out of the bottle, what does the future hold for football? Is there a future for football?” Sports Illustrated recently asked the same question in its 2016-2017 NFL Preview issue, with a story, entitled ‘Football’s Endgame: What Would Happen If Football Just Died?’: “Ten years ago it would have been easy to laugh off the question, but given the current climate, it’s about time to consider: What if football ceased to exist?”
Although the NFL continues its pattern of obfuscating what have become obvious truths about the dangers of the game and the link to its player’s severe health problems, the conversation does seem to be slowly changing.
Players like Chris Borland, are retiring young, worried about the long-term effect of the game on their lives. Athletes like LeBron James and long-time NFL offensive lineman Eugene Monroe are speaking out about not letting their kids play the game. Last week, Monroe explained: “’No, son. I cannot knowingly allow you to destroy your brain.’ This decision hurts my heart.” LeBron explained why he wouldn’t let his son play football, even though LeBron himself did: “I needed a way out (of poverty). My kids don’t.”
Enrollment in youth football programs is down, there is a growing acknowledgment and discussion at the youth and local levels about the true risks of the game, and new lawsuits, such as the class action lawsuit filed by two moms against the Pop Warner Football League a few weeks ago, continue to push the conversation forward.
Yet change is and will be hard.
Because, despite all this, there is also a backlash that shows how difficult it will be to change the culture of football. First, as judged from the amount of people watching the game and the NFL’s profits, the game has never been more popular. And anyone watching the first game of the 2016-2017 NFL season could see that the League still does not police or seek to address the problem of the vicious helmet-to-helmet hits by the on-field gladiators. If you missed it, you can check out the series of helmet-to-helmet hits on Carolina Panther’s QB, Cam Newton, from that game here.
In addition, despite clear factual evidence, many people still are clinging rigidly to the very things that quite literally are killing us and harming us. For example, I was speaking with a friend of Good Men Project contributor and head injury activist, Ted Stachulski. Ted authored a piece on concussions based on his own personal experience, entitled In the Dark, which recounted the life-long damage he has suffered as a result of playing youth and high school football. Despite the severity of his injuries, his own male friends continue fight him on his own lived experience.
As I engaged with one of this friends and childhood football buddies on his Facebook page and explained about the dangers of CTE to boys and men, I implored him to read up on CTE. He grew enraged at what he called a “crusade against Pop Warner Football.” The response was “I don’t need to. I don’t believe in telling another person how to raise their kid. I wouldn’t tell a woman how to handle her body and I wouldn’t tell someone else how to raise their kid.” I was then told to “go wrap yourself in bubble wrap and sit in a corner.”
Men like that believe that football is a crucible that molds men. The physicality. The discipline. The violence. The killer instinct.
Baseball, MLB and Little League
One of the first pieces I wrote for the Good Men Project was an article about my experience coaching little league baseball, in which I touched on the overly-competitive nature of even 8 year old travel baseball.
But what really got me thinking about baseball as an expression of the ‘man box’ was a book I’ve been reading called ‘The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports,’ an investigative sports journalism story by Jeffrey Passan about the increasing crisis in arm injuries in baseball.
And why— besides the physics of the human shoulder and elbow—is that happening?
Because of an overriding trend towards pushing even very young boys to throw more, harder, and faster:
“In 1959, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story about arm injuries. The main headline: ‘The Pitching Crisis.’ Mentioned as one of many cautionary tales was a man named Paul Pettit…
A decade earlier, the seventeen-year-old Pettit was among the best-known baseball players in Los Angeles, a hard-throwing six-foot-two, two-hundred-pound left-hander who in one high school game struck out twenty-seven hitters over twelve innings.” After years of pushing his arm, throwing every day, his shoulder and elbow gave out. “Pettit thew 30 2/3 innings at the major leagues, won one game, [and] gave up pitching at twenty-one….
‘A sore arm is like a headache or toothache, Warren Spahn, the future Hall of Famer, told Sports Illustrated for the 1959 story. ‘It can make you feel bad, but if you just forget about it and do what you have to do, it will go away. If you really like to pitch and want to pitch, that’s what you’ll do.’
For every Warren Spahn, every freak who managed to throw tens of thousands and live to throw tens of thousands more, there were countless Paul Pettits . . . .”
Interestingly, even though one take-away from that story is that back then we were less knowledgeable, medically speaking, it is fascinating and terrifying and sad that the problem has gotten worse, not better, even as we’ve learned more about the science.
And that is because the problem is not (just) one of science. It’s a problem of culture: the culture of proving your worth and dedication by “manning up,” “sucking it up,” getting out there on the field and dominating.
Passan concludes that the culture of baseball (and masculinity) struggles to prevent arm injuries and lacks the support for the changes necessary to do so. He writes that without a serious shift in how people think the players, the next generation of pitchers will fall prey to the same problems that plague this one.
We are still delivering messages to our boys and men that success, that being ‘a man’ is defined by toughing it out, by physicality, by physical aggression. Last month, the National Review published an article lamenting the growing “pussification” of men:
If you’re the average Millennial male, your dad is stronger than you are. In fact, you may not be stronger than the average Millennial female. You’re exactly the kind of person who in generations past had your milk money confiscated every day — who got swirlied in the middle-school bathroom. The very idea of manual labor is alien to you, and even if you were asked to help, say, build a back porch, the task would exhaust you to the point of uselessness. Welcome to the new, post-masculine reality.
As J.W. Holland of the Good Men Project wrote in his rebuttal, this argument is not only incorrect, but it is dangerous.
We are sending off our boys and men to play a game that is killing them, and we are resisting efforts to change that game, yes —because of the power and money of the NFL—but more so and underlying that, because of our culture of defining our ideal superhero sports figure men by their capacity for violence and heavy hitting.
We are ravaging the throwing arms of our boys and men in baseball, by coaxing them to throw more and faster, from a young age, and by over-emphasizing winning over taking care of our own boy’s bodies. These are values of a culture that celebrates and measures masculinity by the ability to throw a 100 MPH heater.
Our culturally defined metrics of success and greatness for our men are lining up our heroes for their own decline and demise.
NB: Now, the obvious criticism that I haven’t addressed is, “Well yeah, you dumb-ass, but sports is all about athleticism and winning and physicality, so you’re just a wussy moron.”
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but here is one response: What is the point of becoming a success at something if you are unable to reap the rewards because of the way you became successful? If the price for success was your own body or mind?
The coal mines were a way for some of our grandfathers to get out of poverty in the 1930’s and they may have made a decent living for back in that day and had families and a home of their own. But many also died miserable painful deaths well before turning 70 from, cancer, emphysema, or black lung.
It’s an unfortunately apt analogy.
So yes. Sports is about athleticism and there is nothing wrong with playing to win the game, as Coach Herman Edwards would say.
But if we are shredding our arms and brains, and destroying our bodies to get there?
There’s nothing manly about that.
That’s just self-destruction.
Photo Credit: Associated Press/File
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