A few years ago, the head coach at Michigan, Jim Harbaugh, characterized football as the “last bastion of hope for toughness in America in men, in males.” (Rush Limbaugh heartily agreed.) This is an old, gendered idea and one often repeated about football in particular ― that boys need to be tough and football will make them so.
In truth, the same sport that’s supposed to help our boys grow up into “real men” is killing them.
In May, DJ Durkin, the head football coach at the University of Maryland, denied that there is a connection between football and the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) before calling football “the ultimate team sport.” He then said football teaches
life lessons, that I don’t know where else they can be mimicked or translated in the same way. Our society is going in a direction where it’s the opposite of that. So where else does someone learn how to be a part of something bigger than themselves? How to be accountable to more than just yourself? How to take ownership of what’s going on?
Twenty days later, Jordan McNair, a 19-year-old redshirt freshman on the Maryland football team, collapsed at practice. It took an hour for someone to call an ambulance. By the time McNair got to a hospital, his body temperature was 106 degrees. He died two weeks later.
The cultural meaning we place upon the game can have deadly consequences.
On August 10, ESPN published a piece titled, “The inside story of a toxic culture at Maryland football.” In it, a current player on the team said that McNair kept going even when he was having trouble standing because the program’s culture was so toxic. “Jordan knew that if he stopped, they would challenge his manhood, he would be targeted. He had to go until he couldn’t,” one of his teammates said.
It’s not surprising that McNair’s teammate specifically mentioned fears of stopping, even while having a heatstroke, because doing so would make a player vulnerable to taunts that he is not manly enough. What worse insult could there be in a space that has so consciously created itself as a den of male ego and toxic masculinity?
Durkin said that football teaches life lessons. What, exactly, did McNair learn from being a part of the Maryland football program? Perhaps the best way to collectively move forward from this tragedy is to push back on these toxic narratives about masculinity that are baked right into our country’s favorite sport.
The game of football in itself is not inherently a good or bad sport. There are many things a player can learn from the game: perseverance, strategy and teamwork. But the cultural meaning we place upon the game can have deadly consequences, especially when coaches, parents and fans encourage young players to ignore one’s pain or unthinkingly follow poor instruction, or relish in violence against others.
Participation in the brutality and aggression of football should not have to be a necessary step toward manhood. We need to expand our definitions of masculinity and embrace the many different ways that one can be masculine.
And we have to stop demeaning the feminine and women as a way of “motivating” boys. The first person fired at Maryland was Rick Court, the strength and conditioning coach. Court once worked under Mickey Marotti at Ohio State (a school with its own problems right now). In 2015, a player told Ben Axelrod at Bleacher Report about one of his first workouts with Marotti: “We had to do lunges with weight I could not lift. I looked at him like, ‘No, I can’t lift it,’ and he made me do it, and I’m like falling on the ground. And he’s like, ‘You p****!’ I had never been called a p**** before. For a minute, I thought I was a p****.”
Participation in the brutality and aggression of football should not have to be a necessary step toward manhood.
This kind of casual misogyny ― comparing boys to female genitalia in a disparaging way ― pushes the idea that to be feminine or a woman is to be weak. And in a sport that is as physical as football, to be weak is the worst thing you can possibly be. In isolation, this gendered insult is a small thing, but it exists on a spectrum, the other end of which is the dehumanization of women and a culture that ignores or excuses away gendered violence. As we all gain a better understanding of gender, power and violence, the adults in the sport have to stop setting boys up with a dangerous sense of being so unconcerned with their language.
If you can’t figure out how to play your sport without a restrictive and dangerous version of masculinity to guide you and the putdowns of women as motivational speech, maybe your sport isn’t worth it anymore.
People who are invested in violent masculinity of football know that football is reaching a crisis point. Last year, while in the midst of trashing NFL players who kneel during the anthem to protest police brutality and social injustice against black people in the United States, President Donald Trump said that attempts to make football safer were “ruining the game” and causing ratings to go down. In July, Larry Fedora, the new head football coach at the University of North Carolina, echoed Trump when he said that changes to the sport to make it safer were a problem. “Our game is under attack,” Fedora said. “I fear that the game will be pushed so far from what we know that we won’t recognize it 10 years from now. And if it does, our country will go down, too.”
Calm down, Larry. Change is happening and it’s necessary that it does. Trust me, a few safety regulations aren’t going to bring this country down. But continuing to ignore the cultural effect that toxic masculinity has on young men could.
In a recent piece, Patrick Hruby reported that about two players die each season playing collegiate football in the U.S. “Six of those deaths were traumatic, the result of injuries caused by collisions,” Hruby wrote. “The rest were non-traumatic, the result of intense exercise. All but one of the non-traumatic deaths occurred during the offseason.” It is more dangerous to practice football than to play it because of the reliance on brutal, physically punishing practices.
Asking for change isn’t an attack; it’s a rethinking of the possibility of what football can be and what it can do. Futures Without Violence (FWV) has created a program called Coaching Boys Into Men (CBIM), which instead of trying to dismantle these spaces wants instead to transform them. CBIM is an “evidence-based prevention program that trains and motivates high school coaches to teach their young male athletes healthy relationship skills and that violence never equals strength.” Coaches can choose to do this, for the betterment of their players and the community at large. Fans and parents can ask for a program like this to be used at their school or scaled up for a university setting.
Millions of kids in America will play football at one time in their lives, some professionally. That time spent on the gridiron will be transformative no matter what. Instead of being a place where kids learn to succumb to peer pressure, to pursue violence as a means to an end, or (sometimes literally) kill themselves for a place on the team, let’s make it a place where they learn teamwork, to strengthen their bodies and, most importantly, to challenge the ideas America has about manhood.
Change can happen right now. And it must.
Lives are at stake.
Jessica Luther is a freelance journalist, an author and a co-host of the feminist sports podcast “Burn It All Down.”