I'm often fascinated by sports stories that drift into the news pages - especially in this weird, backlash-y moment where gender divisions seem somehow reduced, yet stark. Certainly the Penn State/child molesting scandal, or say Lance Armstrong. There's something in this extreme media environment of 24 semi-news that's made news out of stories that used to languish on the back pages and inner sections of papers; it's also true that there's a certain way of comprehending the world of straight men that can't happen without admitting the role of professional sports in those men's lives.
Not being one of those men, I kind of feel I have an odd perspective watching the Miami Dolphins bullying story play out - I think one has to care more about the socializing in a locker room than I ever do (homo-eroticism is not reality) to give these events a lot of thought. It's a thing about guys and team sports that generally, and genuinely, mystifies me: what would be remotely appealing about spending that much time with that many men? Maybe it's just groups - I'm not a joiner. But hanging out, gabbing with a bunch of women has always captured my interest more than just men.
Still, it's been fascinating to watch the discomfort, and dismay, of football fans trying to deal with the story that's dribbling out over Richie Incognito's behavior towards Jonathan Martin, and team dynamics generally where hazing, rites of passage, and bullying coalesce and converge. There's been that odd moment where the embarrassed sportsman submits to an uncomfortable, living room interview in ill-fitting dress clothes (it's not a great look on Incognito, that's for sure); there's been the still odder moment of listening to otherwise enlightened feminists (especially women of color) try to balance their feminist instincts against the tension of liking male-dominated sports. And there's the professional sprts industry, trying its best to shove the dirty laundry back into the closet before anyone looks too closely.
All of which, really, is about as instructive an object lesson about the realities of bullying, and how we often fail to confront it, in our culture as one could expect. What's so stunning, as someone among those who experience it, is how reports of bullying make people uncomfortable - so uncomfortable that rather than deal with it, we sort of turn away from it, and try to explain it away. "That's what the locker room is like." "It's different when we're talking about team sprts, especially at the level of professional football." And then there's "maybe he needed to be toughened up" which sounds like the bullied variation of "they were asking for it."
(By the way - yes, those are generally, if not verbatim, quotes of things I've actually heard the past few days)
Of course, the Dolphins have suspended Incognito, and launched an investigation, so officially, someone does seem to get that there's a problem here. But the larger question is really how we got here - how football got to a point where one player's career was apparently wrecked by mistreatment at the hands of his teammmates, to the point of a breakdown, and how was that remotely going on unnoticed or not addressed?
We're here, in part, because the NFL has been on a fairly relentless, very public, campaign to "enlarge its brand." In these modern media times where everything is a marketing campaign, sports branding, at a corporate level, has become the reason for everything. The NFL is trying to position itself versus Baseball here in the US, and internationally, against the juggernaut of soccer and teams like Manchester United. TV ratings have soared for professional football, now dominating Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights. The hottest teams have become even more dominant franchises. And star players are central to celebrity culture in a way that hasn't been seen in a good 30 years or so.
All of that attention has been carefully created and tended by professionals, but there's a point where all that attention leads to questions. For football, it started with reasonable, but difficult questions about padding and player safety (players are opting, mostly for optics, not to wear much more than shoulder and thigh pads, despite threat of injury). Those questions, in turn, led to revelations about long term head injuries and brain damage that football still can't shake. And the obscene amounts of profits have led to questions about team ownership, sweetheart deals, and a runaway discussion about money in college sports that's yet another can of worms. And now, into the morass of difficut press comes a messy discussion of player and locker room culture (and that, arguably, on top of loathsome behavior by players off the field).
One positive outcome to this may be that sports reporting - and treatment of sports coverage - is in some ways growing up. It's not enough, at this point, to simply throw these stories over to overgrown fanboys and cheerleaders from the sidelines. Sports reporting is, haltingly, trying to face up to the hard questions, and to at least try and fill in context around the good and the bad of these "brands." But in nearly every case, these stories have raced ahead of the sports departments, forcing many to play catch up. This bulying story is a good example of many sports reporters getting caught off guard about the public revelation of behavior they've seen for a long time. And what follows is a struggle to explain, mixed with a desire to explain away.
Like fraternity hazing, the worst of locker room culture is unlikely to survive public scrutiny. The familiar excuses of "boys will be boys" and qualifiers about how "it's so different when..." don't stand up well to stories of truly brutal, truly indefensible words and deeds. Some, including a number of admirable ex-players in the NFL, have pointed out that the sports world is our culture's last gasp of macho male behavior... and up to a point, I'll buy the idea that weekend sports watching serves as a sort of outlet. But like the other attempts to explain, this is really no answer at all. I don't think the fun in football is about blood sport, a new gladiator class we watch battle to the death (though there's a class element there that has a point). Competition, a game well played... these things do not have to leave the competitors maimed, damaged physically and psychically. If that's how to do it... we're doing it wrong.
Then, too, there's a flip side to the hand-wringing about bullying that's also key here, a lesson again about the turning away and the impotence of trying to "combat" bullying with reason and sense. I'm one of the gay men exasperated by the "It Gets Better" campaign (we are more than a few) because it has so little to do with the lived experience of bullying and surviving it. I'm not sure It Gets Better... what I'm sure of is I Got Better. Emotionally I got more resiliient. I learned not to tolerate or accept mistreatement. I foudn others who shared my sense of things. If Jonatahan Martin is struggling, I hope he can tap into that inner strength. Football may not get better.... but he can.
In all of this, I always wonder "where are the grown ups?" My personal experience of bullying at its worst - when I genuinely feared for my personal safety - was addressed by a caring, responsible adult who confronted the bully and took responsibility for making hiim stop. That's what it means, I still believe, to have authority and use it properly. What's worst about the times we live in, just now, is how we fail to have the common decency to protect those who need protecting, our empathy for the suffering, our responsibility to defend the defenseless. It will get better when we get better. And God knows, we're better than this.