Rough, manly sport

On the first day of school my eighth grade year, instead of having each of us go to our final period class at the end of the day, they had all the girls go to the library for an “assembly,” while all the football players went to the gym for a pre-practice meeting. And they told the boys not going out for football to report to the math teacher’s room.

It was a small town middle school: sixth, seventh, and eighth grade totaling a bit less than 200 kids, about half of them boys. There were only eight boys out of that 100 who were not going out for football. So the eight of us sat in the room, not sure exactly why we were there, or what we were supposed to do.

And then the principal walked in.

We had a new principal that year. I don’t recall his name. He was promoted from somewhere else in the small school district. The previous principal had been an extremely elderly man, who happened to own the only movie theatre in town, the weekly newspaper, and about half the commercial real estate. He was infamous for being drunk on the job. We all saw him every day, because he was the person who “punched” our lunch tickets when we lined up in the cafeteria each noon. I remember in an early grade some of the older guys had some kind of bet about whether his breath would smell like whisky or rum when you got up to him in line.

But he was gone, and we had this new guy. Some of my friends knew him. I think he’d been a teacher at the elementary school some years earlier (when I had been living in yet another small town). He was middle-aged, with no-nonsense glasses and a nicely pressed suit.

He sat down behind the teacher’s desk at the front of the room, announced that this was the meeting for the boys not in football, just in case we didn’t know. He introduced himself, then he pointed to one of the guys sitting at the front of the room. “Tell me your name. And then tell me why you aren’t playing football.”

He went around the room like that, arguing with each of us about our reasons for not playing football.

I don’t remember what I said in answer to the principal’s question. I just remember feeling awkward and humiliated. If there had been any doubt in my mind before about whether I was a “normal guy,” that meeting would have removed all remaining doubt.

I do remember that the longest argument was with one of my best friends, Pat. Unlike most of us in the room, Pat was not obviously a misfit. He played starting guard on the basketball team. He had won ribbons in track. He had golden blond hair and he dated a cheerleader. He also had an older brother (in college at the time) who had been a star on the high school football team. So the principal’s opening gambit was, “Aren’t you so-and-so’s younger brother? He’s a great player. Don’t you want to be like him?”

Until that moment, Pat had been his usual, smiling self. Normally, Pat was really good at charming people—even the most unfriendly teachers would often respond to that smile. But when the principal asked why he didn’t want to be like his brother, Pat went completely stone-faced, his voice was flat, his speech clipped. “I’m not my brother” was the longest sentence the principal could get out of him. And the principal really tried.

They had 90-some guys on the team! Only eleven can be on the field at any one time. How many did they need? Okay, the 6th-graders played on a separate team from the 7th- and 8th-graders, so we’re talking about 60-ish guys. And while at upper levels of competition players tend to specialize, playing only offense or defense (let’s leave special teams out, to keep the math simple), in theory at the middle school level players are supposed to spend some time playing lots of positions, as they and the coaches figure out where they best fit. Sixty players gives you enough people for a full first string and second string, plus nearly a third string to spare!

And let’s be honest, most of us in that room would not have been contributing much to the game if we had been out there. Yes, I ran track and competed on the wrestling team, but I wasn’t terribly good at either. Pat would have probably been awesome at football if he wanted to be, but clearly his talents weren’t being wasted in other sports.

But then, none of the other sports got this kind of treatment. No one gathered the guys who didn’t go out for basketball, wrestling, or track into a classroom and demand they explain why they weren’t competing. I don’t remember the whole school schedule ever being changed to allow those of us on the other teams to have a pre-practice meeting.

This was Football. In many communities, football is treated as being more important to life than oxygen. They won’t say it’s more important than church and believing in god, but the way many of them act, you know that’s how they feel.

So I understand why, at Penn State, some of the teaching assistants and students who became aware that assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, was sexually molesting boys, felt that the appropriate authority to report such suspicions to was the legendary head coach, Joe Paterno. In the hearts and minds of a true Penn State fan, Coach Paterno outranked any police office you could find, or the state governor. In their worldview, there was no power on earth that outranked Paterno. If he said he’d handle it, then it would be handled!

Let me clarify: that explains why someone in that world, upon becoming suspicious or otherwise finding evidence that pointed in that direction would report it to the coach rather than the police. It doesn’t explain why a person who walked in on Sandusky and a 10-year-old engaged in an unmistakeable sexual act wouldn’t at the very least step in and ask, “What are you doing?!”

And it isn’t sufficient to explain why (as we now know) Coach Paterno and various university officials, when confronted with evidence of this ongoing crime again and again, chose to cover it up.

In order to explain that you have to go deeper. You have to drill down to the culture of exaggerated and brutal machismo that underpins football (and, to be fair, many other institutions). There are two hints of this in the story of my first day of eighth grade. They didn’t simply separate the football players from the non-players. They separated and isolated the boys who were non-football players. Among the girls there was no division of, say, the cheerleaders, girls basketball, and track players from the other girls. They were all sent off to their assembly together. There was no one demanding that the girls who weren’t involved in one of those activities to explain why.

In that hyper-masculine culture, manhood is all that matters. And football equals masculinity. The better you are at football, the more of a man you are. Winners are men, and losers are… less than men. And women, obviously don’t even come into the equation. There’s a reason why, even in the 21st century, the very worst insult anyone can hurl in the locker room or on the field, is to call a man a faggot. There’s a reason why in many languages one of the nastiest things you can say to someone is “f— you” or “get f—ed!” Which, if you think about it on one level, makes no sense. “I’m so angry at you, I hope you have sexual intercourse!”

But it does make sense in the hyper-masculine culture, where “get f—ed” means to be on the receiving end of a sexual act, which means you’re “not the man” in said sexual act. And therefore, a loser, pariah, et cetera. Similarly, “f— you” often means, “if I beat you on the field, especially if I do it repeatedly and decisively, it is the equivalent of raping you.” Another is, “if you keep putting yourself in the position of losing to me, that’s the equivalent of asking me to rape you.”

Sadly, this same logic is what leads this culture to see all women—even wives and girlfriends—as objects to be conquered and used. It’s also why that culture is so hostile to gays and lesbians, because our existence messes up their paradigm.

I’m not saying that these folks had a conscious train of thought, “oh, he must have bested that boy in some form of physical competition, and now he is simply symbolically acting out their relative status on the masculinity spectrum.” But the dysfunctional logic which equates athletic prowess with masculinity, and further equates masculinity with superiority, and reduces all relationships to conqueror and conquered, is very alive and well in their hearts.

That’s how you have an otherwise normal appearing adult admit to police, years later, “Yes, I walked in and saw a 50-some-year-old man f—ing a 10-year-old boy in the locker room shower. And I backed away and hurried out without saying anything, because I wasn’t certain whether I was interrupting a consensual relationship.”

See, a real man, even a 10-year-old boy, would never be in that position unless they had asked for it, or been beaten “fair and square.” When the person in the “conqueror’s” position is someone who has achieved greatness in football, rising all the way to assistant coach of a major college football program, well, he must have a good reason for doing that, right?

The other hint from my story comes in the argument between the principal and Pat. “Don’t you want to be like him?” It isn’t just younger brothers who get that. All boys are pressured to be “like him.” To be a team player, to conform, and not be an individual. Being a team player also means closing ranks when any team member is attacked; regardless of who is actually in the wrong, your teammate must always be defended. Anyone who accuses a teammate of anything is attacking the team, and must be treated as all enemies are treated.

The enemy must be conquered. The team must win. No matter how horrific the price.

“I am delighted to have you play football. I believe in rough, manly sports. But I do not believe in them if they degenerate into the sole end of any one’s existence. I don’t want you to sacrifice standing well in your studies to any over-athleticism; and I need not tell you that character counts for a great deal more than either intellect or body in winning success in life. Athletic proficiency is a mighty good servant, and like so many other good servants, a mighty bad master.”
Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children

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