by Matt Rowan
I was thinking I might avoid the whole subject of Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito. For those of you who are unaware of the situation (which is becoming increasingly unlikely given its twists and turns so far and the unavoidable sensationalism), Karissa did a nice synopsis in a previous post. Take a look. It fills you in on the gritty, grim details. And you might be surprised adults would act in the ways that have been described — so-called professionals, what’s more. Guys like the guys you see doing those United Way ads! I’m not, not after six years of playing the sport in high school and college, not after years of football camps in places like Champaign-Urbana and Iowa City and enduring coaches from football capitals like Oklahoma.
The problem is both unique to football, at least in terms of its perniciousness, and so likewise a component of the larger cultural discussion we’re having about bullying (or hazing, if that seems more reasonable a term to you). But as I say, football’s bullying problem is especially entrenched and toxic. I have no doubt of that. You hear stories of this sort of behavior all the time, or you experienced it yourself in one form or another if you played. Drew Magery over at Deadspin did a fantastic piece about his time playing for Colby College and douchey way he was treated there, a series of experiences in which joking but actually not joking occurred.
ESPN did a fine job of covering the revelation of Incognito’s role, in a way that I don’t think sensationalizes the problem (I’m not being sarcastic; I truly believe ESPN did something right in its coverage of a major sport’s controversy, at long last). Grantland’s Brian Phillips did ESPN one better and declared “war” on warrior culture, which I applaud. There’s a definite need, and Phillips draws direct attention to the “macho” men who’ve killed themselves in horrifying ways over the past decade. The ugly reality we refuse to accept (like Patton did during WWII) is that mental illness is a very real phenomenon and not something we ought to be telling players to rub some dirt on and walk it off.
Full disclosure, as an offensive lineman, I was probably very similar to Martin — at least the media’s depiction of Martin. I was extra sensitive and ruminatory, didn’t necessarily enjoy the traditional football player’s lifestyle — though I earnestly tried to at Illinois State University where I began my abbreviated experience as a college athlete (feeling a stranger in my own skin throughout that freshman year, too). The coaches reacted as if you were an alien if you suggested anything remotely problematic was going on with you internally. I remember admitting to my line coach at ISU that I was feeling depressed during our spring meeting and his eyes bugged out, or might as well have. To him, and the prevailing culture of the team, everything could be solved by just “kicking some ass.” Actually my line coach at ISU was beloved for his various football colloquialisms such as “If you don’t like me, fight me.” A poet, that guy.
One of the players at ISU had serious mental issues that were never addressed ever. At one point during practice for some perceived slight or another, he removed his helmet and bashed a teammate with it. During our spring endurance exercises, I distinctly remember in the midst of one drill being told by our defensive coordinator that he “thought I was soft.” Maybe I was (I recall being more bewildered than insulted, feeling I was busting my ass in a drill and here was this guy with asshole comment), but later — replaying the experience in my head and what I should have done or said — I kept thinking, “if this is what tough is…” I could go on and on about the coaching staff, who were equal parts used car salesmen, religious zealots and vocal adherents of warrior culture. They were good old boys from Oklahoma, through and through. They played for colleges like Oklahoma State and Tulsa. They had skewed impressions of what it took to be a great football player, still do, I’m sure, and they more or less pushed me out for not being fully onboard.
(I remember being really excited that Noam Chomsky was coming to speak on campus and we’d be given extra credit for attending his lecture from our political science professor. The coaches told their players to take what Chomsky said with a grain of salt, at least from what I heard. They never addressed me directly on the subject. I guess that was the beginning of the end. The moment I felt completely out of sync with the program. The last meeting I attended felt like I was in the audience, watching our head coach address his players. It was raining outside but that seemed like a good sign.)
Football culture wasn’t limited to college. As a shy but big-for-my-age sophomore, I was brought up to the varsity team after several players had gone down with injury and there was concern they’d need to add depth. I knew less than nothing about what I was doing, but I really loved the intensity of the sport and the general acclaim one gets for being a sophomore on varsity. I only started one game that season, and it was mainly because the senior I was standing in for had an engagement that made him late to kick off. The truth was, I didn’t want to draw attention to myself on the team. I don’t know if I could have been a more effective player that season, or if anything was holding me back, but I was terrified of the attention you’d get from your teammates as an underclassman in a starting role — horror stories of being made to run naked across the football field didn’t sit well with me, and moreover, were the least of what I was told I might expect. Who knows if any of it was true? I kept a low profile, made no waves, endured.
But should we have to endure? Should the culture of a team make it hard for anyone who falls outside of a very narrow set of values feel like a total outsider? I credit my ISU coaches with killing my love of playing football. I still wonder if that’s fair. I like to think it was inevitable, that eventually it got to the point I didn’t want to play football for my own reasons, which had nothing to do with any external forces. But I don’t think that’s entirely true. I mention my high school experience, also, to note that for the most part it was very different from college, where the warrior culture was so prominent, so essential. With the exception of my fear of the possibility of hazing, I never really experienced anything terribly negative as a high school player. Teammates seemed to genuinely care about each other. What happened? And what can be done to fix the problem, to destigmatize normal things that people go through? I don’t know, but I’m on the side that pushes for a change that has to start with the coaches.
I can honestly say I’ve never told anyone to “man up.” I encourage more men to do the same.