Masculinity: Myths and Unpleasant Truths

A few years ago, former NFL player, Joe Ehrmann, came to UCC and spoke to us about something he called, “The 3 Myths of Masculinity.”

Myth 1 is the belief that to be a man, you have to be athletic. This myth starts early; you can see boys in kindergarten already starting to marginalize their less athletic peers.

Myth 2 is the belief that females are objects, and that they exist in order to please and gratify men.

Myth 3 is the notion that money equates with masculinity, and that high-income men are more manly than their less financially successful counterparts.

As a former professional athlete himself, Ehrmann confessed that he bought into these myths, but he challenged us to see through them in order to become what he called “men for others.” I’ll come back to Ehrmann and his “men for others” idea in a minute, but first, even if you aren’t a football fan, you may have read something about what has been going on with the Miami Dolphins.

Let me begin with a picture.

Martin and Incognito

AP Images

The guy on the right, number 71, is Jonathan Martin, a 6 foot 5, 300 pound graduate of Stanford University. The man on the left is Richie Incognito, another behemoth, but unlike his teammate, Incognito was dismissed from both Nebraska and Oregon Universities for disciplinary issues before landing a job in the NFL, where since joining the league several years ago, he has consistently been voted one of its dirtiest players.

Both men are in the news today because two weeks ago Jonathan Martin walked out on the Dolphins, alleging that he was a victim of harassment; the last straw broke for him when he sat down for lunch with his teammates, only to have everyone else at the table stand up and walk out, leaving him to eat in isolation. The Dolphins, who are now in major damage control mode, have started an investigation, and even though that investigation is in its early stages, they have already suspended Incognito.

Incognito, naturally, has gone on the defensive and said that as a sign of their deep friendship, Martin and he have exchanged over 1,000 texts, many of which are terribly vulgar in nature. It’s never a good sign, by the way, when you begin a press conference, as #68 did last week, by announcing to the world that you are not a racist.

So what are we to make of all of this? Is this simply the kind of he said/he said dispute that you’re more likely to find in middle school, or is there something deeper or uglier going on here?

Another shoe may drop before this is all done, but I think this case forces us to consider 3 very unpleasant truths, truths that are connected to but may go well beyond the familiar issues of race and class.

The first unpleasant truth is this:  if Richie Incognito were waived by the Dolphins today, there would be a long line of teams queuing up for his services tomorrow. That’s because in the crazy and thoroughly amoral world of pro sports, talent triumphs. It is all that matters.  Tiger can make a mockery of his marriage, and Mike Vick can kill dogs, but there is an Act 2 for these guys because they can play at a high level. It’s not an uplifting realization, and I wish it weren’t so, but like it or not, that is the way of the modern sports world.

Unpleasant truth number 2 is this: Jonathan Martin committed the cardinal sin of not fitting in. Martin is an intellectual. He was accepted by Harvard, a school both of his parents have graduated from, and he would have been the first 4th generation African American to go to the land of “Veritas” in Cambridge, had he not chosen Stanford, because of its more competitive football program.

Martin, by the way, is not the first intellectually oriented athlete who has struggled to fit in with his team. Tom Seaver, the Hall of Fame pitcher for the NY Miracle Mets, used to do the NYT crossword puzzle in the dugout, but he stopped doing this, when he realized that it made his teammates uneasy. Again, this is another very unpleasant truth, but that is how things work – or at least worked — in Shea Stadium in the 60’s and 70’s.

The third unpleasant truth may be the most disturbing of all, and it’s this: All of their Miami Dolphins teammates, every last one of them, have sided with Richie Incognito. They have cast their lot with the alleged bully and sided against the alleged victim. This is mind-boggling, especially when you consider that 70% of the players in the NFL are African Americans.

Some have suggested that this goes back to the “not fitting in” issue, that because Martin was born into a privileged environment, with two highly successful professionals parents, he is not authentically black — or at least not black enough. This may sound absurd, but basketball fans may remember that Jalen Rose, a former Raptor and member of Michigan’s Fab Five, made the same kind of comment last year about Grant Hill, the great Duke star, who had the apparent misfortune of having — not just two highly successful parents but also a father who was a graduate of Yale.

The root of all of this, of course, may be a profound misunderstanding. Some believe that Dolphins’ management may actually have asked Incognito to toughen up his teammate. (By the way, the only category that Dolphins lead the league in is in giving up quarterback sacks, a stat that might fall heavily on the shoulders of offensive linemen like Incognito and Martin.) If that allegation is true, then you’ll soon read about the Dolphins’ firing their head coach and general manager, and about how they’ve reached a significant financial settlement with both players.

It is more likely, though, that Richie Incognito mistakenly believed he was just having “fun” with Martin, and had no understanding of how his behavior was affecting his teammate. If that is true, it would say something disturbing about Incognito’s emotional intelligence, but let’s face it, this is an area of growth for many of us.

Let me end this morning with a UCC story. Years ago, a wonderful UCC boy came to see me because a classmate was continually “chirping” him, and it really bothered him. He wouldn’t tell me who the verbally aggressive student was, but it got so bad that the boy eventually decided to transfer to another school. After he left, he gave me the boy’s name, and I can vividly recall my meeting with him.

I asked the Year 2 student just one question: “Do you know why I need to see you today?” He immediately looked incredibly guilt-ridden, and he burst into tears before saying, “Yes, it’s about yesterday’s French test!”

I had to tell him that, as conscientious as I’d like to be, I’m not actually tracking the daily test results of 1,150 boys. It turned out that this Grade 9 student had no idea that what he’d done had such a profound effect on another student.  Through his tears he mumbled, “He’s one of my best friends. I thought he didn’t mind it when I’d bust on him.” It was a nearly perfect example of the difference between intent and perception. The Year 2 boy may have thought he was just having some fun, but clearly that’s not how his former classmate took it. And in the end, that is the perspective that we always need to take. In the end, it’s the only perspective that actually matters. “How will my words, my actions, my gestures be perceived by the other guy?”

It’s almost too easy to pick on Richie Incognito, a guy who was reportedly bullied himself as a kid, a guy who seems to embody Joe Ehrmann’s myths of masculinity. The challenge for us is to be a different kind of teammate, a different kind of guy. It’s not enough not be the aggressor or the bully. We need to be the guy who can read the situation, the guy who can understand how another might feel, the guy who will step in and step up – even in the locker room, even when all the other Dolphins are saying, “Relax. It’s all just for fun.” We need to be, what Joe Ehrmann would call “a man for others.”


14 thoughts on “Masculinity: Myths and Unpleasant Truths

  1. On the Incognito/Martin stuff, I keep trying tco figure out what to make of it.

    Incognito is clearly an ass but I also wonder about Martin. The big item that I wonder about is why everyone was so surprised about this — there seems to be universal acknowledgement (from Martin and everyone else on the Dolphins) that Martin never told anyone on the team he was having a problem with Incognito.

    The coaches, players, even Incognito said they never had any idea that Martin was upset. That makes me wonder a bit. How did he never say “hey knock it off” “that’s too far” or anything else. Martin’s story isn’t “I brought this up to Philbin but he didn’t care so I left.” It’s “I was mad and I left.” He isn’t a middle school boy who perceives that no one will help him. He’s a Stanford grad with a large paycheck and numerous avenues he could pursue. Even if he didn’t want to talk about it directly, he has an agent who could have approached Ireland (who is a grad A moron based on the Dez Bryant stuff from a few years ago) or Philbin. He is in a union (the NFLPA is generally worthless but still exists). There was something else going on here for Martin just to have walked out and never said anything to anybody.

    I also think his “crime” from the Dolphins’ players point of view wasn’t being different (that didn’t help) but never saying anything in the locker room and then going public about it. It’s just a bizarre situation. I am sure at least one black player on the Dolphins wouldn’t have been a fan of Incognito dropping the N-bomb in a text message.

  2. As I read the most recent blog about the Dolphins, I couldn’t help but think about the courtroom scene in A Few Good Men

    It happens to be one of my favourite YouTube clips, not because I am a big fan of Tom Cruise but, because of it being one of those battles for the good which appeals to me. Of course, there are dozens of examples of this but this particular one has always stuck with me although I never quite knew why.

    After reading your blog I do now. What differentiates this particular battle for the good from others is the battlefield itself. Who can argue with the military’s purpose to defend a nation at all costs? Who can argue with the noble pursuit of freedom on behalf of all people?

    Or, in the shadow of our recent Remembrance Day ceremonies, argue that there is “no greater sacrifice for love of country”? But, as the movie so jarringly points out, one can argue with the way in which things are done even inside a military institution where one might legitimately dismiss roguish physical behaviour amongst the men simply because it pales in comparison to the real risks of physical danger, and perhaps death, in battle. It is within this irony that the courtroom scene is cast. Your blog makes this point in terms of the Dolphins.

    I have long been a believer that culture in any organization, whether it’s in business, education, health care, scientific research, government etc all begins at the top. Colonel Jessup says as much but in the end he gets caught in the difference between his rhetoric and his actions. Which makes me wonder, where is Coach Joe Philbin on all of this, or Owner Stephen Ross? My guess is that they are nowhere relative to where they should be. Whether Philbin ordered the equivalent of the ‘code red’ or not, he is the man in charge. And if he cannot be held accountable for the values which reside on the team then who can?

  3. Really good blog. Some Rudyard Kipling for the vulnerable/bullied is also in order — to try to limit the impact of failure, success and friendship on one’s sense of self:

    “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;”

    “If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;”

    We need to teach our young people resilience and perspective too.

  4. Jim,

    So good. I have made this blog post required reading for our upper school. I read Season of Life with the upper grade boys last year. Great stuff. Thanks. Hope all is well.


  5. brilliant speech.
    Kids feel unsafe about speaking up about being bullied and naming their tormentors. They fear things will only get worse, and in some cases that is true. The challenge for a school is to create a milieu where speaking out brings about positive change for all parties, especially for the bullied.

  6. Dear Jim,

    Another timely and thoughtful message for your guys. Am I a ridiculous throwback to believe that the notion of ladies and gentlemen–ha ha, yes, those absurd and obsolete term–and character might fix a lot of the problems in our society?

    Thank you for the chance to read this.

  7. It’s a fine rant.
    It should be on the op/ed page of the NYT.
    Sort of like yelling into the wind too, which is too sad a thought, yet likely true.

  8. Very nice, Doctor. Thanks. The term “African American” has been absurd ever since Jesse Jackson invented in circa 1987. It presumes both lineage and citizenship purely on the basis of skin color. It is especially peculiar when uttered in Canada, or internationally. One of my favorite PC news media moments was CNN anchors struggling with how to refer to rioting black youths in Paris a few years ago. Common sense being no match for stupidity, they actually called them “African American,” though they were almost certainly neither.

  9. Thanks Jim. I have been following this…can’t wait to read the “when it is all said and done” account of how it all got so far down this track….when dust completely settles.

  10. JP

    Well said.

    I have seen Richie I try to explain himself and other teammates defend him.

    Pathetic. But look at most of those guys in the NFL. They are not equipped to do anything else. It has become a blood sport and many of them (Favre, Dorsett) will pay for it the rest of their lives.

    Better to be in the Patriot League with no chance of playing after college, get a degree and learn something.

    Old fashioned thinking, I guess.

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