The NFL Killed Masculinity. Can Players Ever Reclaim it?

To be a man in the NFL is to be a bounty hunter, a missile, a shamer, homophobe, punisher, beater, and extortionist.

There's no greater team and character building sport than football, period. The torturous training regimen dramatically shapes you literally and figuratively. As a teenager, running hills in the heat of summer camp prepared me for the passion of racism, "hating" colleagues, and bureaucracy. I learned all these things with and through men, but there's no denying the NFL has killed masculinity.

To be a man in the NFL is to hold cities hostage though stadium negotiation deals. To be a man is to conceal evidence of early death due to head injuries from your employees. To be a man is to turn a defensive eye to spousal and drug abuse. To be a man is to be a bounty hunter, a missile, a shamer, homophobe, punisher, beater, and extortionist who will get on his knees and be thankful for winning a game. And we men pay to see this shameful display of manhood. We pay for the morbid intrigue and corruption. Audiences have concussed themselves. As a society, we have become no different than the game itself. Winning at all cost is undoubtedly masculine, undoubtedly American. Yes, the NFL has killed real manhood.

What's real manhood? I applaud Johnathan Martin for outing Incognito and the Dolphins' organization for their harmful, as well as emotionally immature bullying tactics. He proves to be the only man truly demonstrating the character traits of courage, tolerance, and integrity. The obvious racist jaw flapping around Seahawk defensive back Richard Sherman missed the mark.

Now, Michael Sam, the gay football player, will teach the NFL and its homophobic fan base how to be a man. The lessons won’t come from Sam’s play on the field. They'll come from his endurance, ability to overcome obstacles, examples of interdependence, and his honesty. Still, most the discourse on ethics in the NFL revolves around individual players. This one man's high character isn't enough for me.

I can't let my son play football because I want him to be a man.

The irony is that football as a sport is an incredible teacher. Growing up, football placed me in positions that exposed my character. I learned how far and fast I could run by overcoming fear. I faced physical giants every day. Very few experiences can humble an ego-driven, 150-pound, 15-year-old like being coached to scamper towards a hole occupied by a 270-pound guy named "Dano."

Dano didn't care that he was twice my size; Dano needed to stop me as much as I needed to elude him. The inevitable collision never scared me. The landing’s what took my breath away. And if I failed to execute the run, or play to Coach Simon’s liking, he would run the same play—again and again. I can wax poetic about the lessons taught in Oklahoma drills.

I learned what an even playing field means. I know how to rely on others. It gave me a man-cave that helped form intrinsic qualities of hard work, determination, fairness, and sportsmanship. Sure, I had an ample supply of women who imparted these lessons—in particular, my best teachers (parents) were two old women, Ma Elsie and Mary, who raised me when my father abused my mother and abdicated his responsibilities. Because of my rearing, I needed male surrogates so that I could understand what it meant to be a man. Football gave me examples.

For many urban males like me, sports provided the direction, structure, and discipline that crack cocaine, Reaganomics, and a corrupt criminal justice system stole from my neighborhood. Sports provided the rose-colored glasses I needed to view a father I never knew (and who later died in prison.) Sports gave me positive male friends, structure, and a community I could rely upon. Athletics improved my vision of masculinity.

I only played a few years of high school football because it began to blur my vision of masculinity. There are traditional initiations between upperclassmen and rookies at all levels in all sports. Having played several, none exhibit the physical abuse endorsed in football. To be tough is to take and deliver punishment. Hazing is tradition in football. I still struggle to see the relevance of physical manipulation in football. The game itself is abusive.

I eventually gained positive lessons of masculinity through cross-country and track. The culture of football just didn't fit my intellectual aspiration or emotional sensibilities, and, that culture trickles down from NFL.

Sure, the NFL will "clean up" the workplace environment rife with flagrant sexism and homophobia. This isn't enough for me. The NFL will attempt to police the N-word. This isn't enough for me. Changing the name of the team in Washington, D.C. wouldn't be enough for me. I can't risk allowing football to help teach my son how to be a man.

Andre Perry (@andreperryedu), founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).

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