Every day it gets worse. Every day there is more news emerging from NFL locker rooms about racist, sexist, violent harassment, otherwise known as “bullying,” a term many are saying is far too benign. Every day we also get more sports radio hosts—the football version of the Iraq War chickenhawks—defending this status quo as a necessity in a violent “manly” sport. KNBR sports radio host Damon Bruce, who I suppose we can now call the “William Kristol” of this mess, said, “There is a serious group of you fellas out there that have just been so feminized by the sensitive types out there who continue to now interject their ultra-feminine sensitive opinions into the world of sports…. This is guy’s stuff. This is men’s stuff. And I don’t expect women to understand men’s stuff anymore than they should expect me to be able to relate to labor pains.”
The only “labor pains” worth mentioning—trust me—is the pain in having to listen to this guy’s show. To paraphrase something once said about Homer Simpson, in any other country Damon Bruce would have starved to death years ago.
But if there is one bright spot in this whole thing, it is the fact that– thanks to courage of Dolphins whistleblower Jonathan Martin—the curtain has been officially lifted on this horror-show of deeply destructive, macho horseshit. It has also shed light on NFL players and teams who are not willing to play these kinds of games.
An example worth far more attention than it is receiving is that of the Chicago Bears. The team somewhat surprisingly is at the top of the NFC North division, even with a new coach, Marc Trestman, at the helm. Maybe there is a reason the team has stuck together through injuries and adversity. It turns out that Trestman’s first act upon taking the job was outlawing any and all of this so-called “hazing”. He said to CBS Chicago’s Adam Hoge that this was the way it was going to be from his “first night” as coach.
Trestman spoke at length about how the function of sports should be to serve the opposite impulses of frat/bully culture that dominates so many locker rooms. He said,
“The words you use, the way you act, the things you say, affect people from all different backgrounds and places. We’ve got to understand that the beauty of this game is it draws people from everywhere, from different realities and different perceptions, but that can all be neutralized through respect and using the proper language and proper words in the right place and the right time, in this building, on the field, when we’re out in the community because we represent the entire city.”
Trestman’s culture-changing influence also adds more evidence to what former players have been saying to me all week: in the top-down, non-guaranteed-contract world of the NFL, none of this brutality happens without the approval of the coach. (The seat of Miami Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland should be feeling mighty toasty right now,)
It perhaps should not be surprising that the most quote-worthy, remarkable, inspiring analysis of this entire Dolphins mess has come out of the Bears locker room. As Pro Bowl Wide Receiver Brandon Marshall put it,
A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is “Get up. Shake it off. You will be OK. Don’t cry.” When a little girl falls down, what do we say? “It’s going to be OK.” We validate their feelings. So right there from that moment, we are teaching our men to mask their feelings, don’t show their emotions. It’s that times a hundred with football players. You can’t show that you’re hurt. You can’t show any pain. So, for a guy that comes into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, you know, that’s a problem. So that’s what I mean by “The Culture of the NFL,” and that’s what we have to change.”
It does have to change. It may need to start in Miami, an organization that saw Richie Incognito and thought that they had a true leader in their midst, but it sure as hell does not end there. It ends in every community the NFL influences with an ethos that “manhood” is defined by the ability to make others feel less than human. It ends when we stop demanding that people act in certain deeply unhealthy ways because of their biology. It ends when we start seeing people like Jonathan Martin as brave and those who find something ennobling in defending the violent harassment of bullies as the true cowards.