Football Has a Problem

Football has a problem with toxic masculinity and it doesn’t like to talk about it.

Even if you’re not a football fan, you’ve probably heard about Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden and his fall from grace. If not, the short version is that he wrote a bunch of emails containing racist, homophobic, and misogynistic remarks. When they came to light, he was forced to step down from his job (long version here). It’s no secret that football has it’s problems but this brings up an issue that I don’t see us talking about as much as we should: football is the standard-bearer of toxic masculinity.

Toxic Masculinity?

You’re probably seeing that phrase a lot lately, but actual definitions seem to be a bit thin on the ground. So, let’s take a minute to unpack it. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, toxic masculinity is a group of ideas concerning “the way men should behave that are seen as harmful, for example, the idea that men should not cry or admit weakness.” The idea that men must not show any emotions except excitement or anger, that they must be dominant or they’re somehow less than a “real” man, and that a man must win at all costs? These are all a part of toxic masculinity. And, they have led to many of the problems we face today.

It’s Not a Surprise

When looked at from the standpoint of toxic masculinity, the news about Gruden isn’t at all surprising. Julie DeCaro’s article for Deadspin, “Stop Venerating Men Who Care About Nothing But Football,” begins by detailing a few of the many of red flags that were waving. She writes:

“When he was the head coach of the Raiders and Buccaneers, Gruden famously awoke every morning at 3:17 to the Notre Dame fight song. The alarm clock that played it, a relic from his childhood, expired of natural causes.” She goes on to say, “These days, he is awakened by cellphone. He chooses between alarms set for 4:29, 4:15, 4:04, 4:00, 3:52, 3:47, 3:45, 3:30 and 3:15—”just in case I need to cram a little.” Most days, he is at his desk by 4 a.m., and he stays there, save for a workout, for about 12 hours.

Can you say “obsession”, boys and girls?

He’s Not Alone

The thing is, Gruden’s not the only coach with this level of fixation about football. DeCaro also tells us that former New York Jets coach Adam Gase left his wife at the hospital minutes after the birth of their child. Why? To meet with a potential recruit (it was Peyton Manning). She says that these stories, and others like them, are passed around the sporting world as lovely tales of the sacrifices coaches are willing to make for their teams rather than “psychopathic behavior”. While you can argue whether or not this type of behavior is psychopathic, I think we can all agree that it’s not a healthy way to live one’s life.

A Primer for Toxic Masculinity

DeCaro’s article describes toxic masculinity to a tee. The obsession with winning? Check The willingness to overlook disgusting behavior if it furthers a goal? Check. The mocking of anyone not sufficiently “in” (i.e. not sufficiently white/male/straight)? Check. I suspect the only reason the author didn’t say “toxic masculinity” themselves is because of the pushback. It’s always bad when someone criticizes football. Let a woman do it and it would be horrific. Either that or she knew it would never be published to receive that pushback in the first place.

This Is Not New

Football has a long history of questionable behavior. In its early days, the sport was extremely violent and dangerous, resulting in 19 fatalities in 1905. The situation had become so bad that President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to shut things down unless drastic changes were made. Later came the head tackling controversy. That was a dangerous technique taught to kids and resulted in numerous head and neck injuries. And, of course, there’s the traumatic brain injury problem plaguing the league today.

“The Past is Never Dead. It’s Not Even Past.” (Yes, a Faulkner quote)

As you can see, football’s past has some truly awful moments. Sadly, its present isn’t any better. Racist, misogynistic, and homophobic comments like Gruden’s are depressingly common. And, Gruden’s abject shittiness came to light in an investigation into other awful behavior: sexual harassment. The Washington Post uncovered multiple incidences of sexual harassment within the Washington Football Team’s (the origin of that name is perhaps the pissiest, most passive-aggressive reaction to criticism possible and is right on brand for football) organization. It appears that, while the symptoms may have changed, the disease continues unabated.

It’s Not All Academic

I speak about football’s connection to toxic masculinity from experience. To say that I have never been a big football fan is a gargantuan understatement: I hate it. But not because of the game itself. Most of the bullying in my life came from men who thought football was the pinnacle of manliness. Case in point, I was a firefighter for 22 years which is pretty the epitome of a “manly” job. Yet, because I don’t care for football, my manhood was consistently called into question by men who would’ve quailed in fear at things I did on a daily basis. Yes, that’s utterly ridiculous. But, it’s how toxic masculinity works.

Reading Toxic Masculinity’s Tells

Perhaps toxic masculinity’s biggest tell is that the way that it hides itself. The NFL spent a lot of time, money, and effort investigating the Washington Football Team. They found it had a “toxic work environment rife with sexual harassment.” But, for some reason, they have yet to release a report. And, recently, they said that further investigation has not found any other racist, misogynistic, and/or homophobic emails like Gruden’s. Yes, they’re telling us that they’ve looked and no other coach has sent similar disgusting emails. Seriously?

And then, there’s the response of team owner Mark Davis to Gruden’s mess. He said that he believes that “influential figures within the league office were intent on forcing Gruden out through calculated media leaks of the emails.” Another source said that Davis “thinks the league office is out to get him.” So, in Davis’ eyes, the problem here isn’t that Gruden said abhorrent things or even that he was dumb enough to do so in writing and in an official record, it’s that those disgusting emails were “leaked” to make him look bad. Those, my friends, are some impressive mental gymnastics.

If that isn’t enough, take a second and think about your own response to my claim that football is the home team of toxic masculinity. If you’re a man, it’s most likely some variation of “Oh, that’s bullshit!” Right about now, some of you are probably thinking, “Hey, there have been some really decent people who played football! So, it can’t be filled with toxic masculinity.” Right, just like the existence of good men who are cops means that the institution of policing isn’t riddled with problems.

Carry the Banner, Boys!

Racism, misogyny, and homophobia are the three pillars of toxic masculinity and they are all well represented within football. But, where racism and homophobia are a little more under wraps, the misogyny is right up in your face. From the lack of female players to the dreadful working conditions of cheerleaders–the only truly acceptable role for women in the sport–to the multiple sexual harassment claims, this destructive concept stakes its claim on football for all to see.

But here’s the thing: football, in and of itself, isn’t really the problem. The problem is that we men have taken what is basically a kid’s game and loaded it up with all our bullshit. And, then we use it to police and/or marginalize others rather than deal with our own insecurities. Which is pretty fucked up. And, that’s why I say football is the standard-bearer for toxic masculinity.