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The Truth About the Fact: An International Journal of Literary Nonfiction

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The Truth About the Fact: A Journal of Literary Nonfiction is an international journal committed to the idea that excellence in the art of letters can play a vital role in transforming the planet we share.

Monday, February 3, 2014

“A Problem with Sports Culture”

Last season, professional football player Brandon Jennings of the Chicago Bears said these words regarding Jonathan Martain’s situation, a player who left the Miami Dolphins because of emotional distress from alleged bullying.

“A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is ‘Get up. Shake it off. You will be OK. Don’t cry.’ When a little girl falls down, what do we say? ‘It’s going to be OK.’ We validate their feelings. So right there from that moment, we are teaching our men to mask their feelings, don’t show their emotions. It’s that times a hundred with football players. You can’t show that you’re hurt. You can’t show any pain. So, for a guy that comes into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, you know, that’s a problem. So that’s what I mean by ‘The Culture of the NFL,’ and that’s what we have to change.”

Jennings’ comments aren’t restricted to the culture of the NFL. His words reflect a deeper problem with sports that extends past the culture of the professional football.

I’ve been involved in competitive sports throughout the entirety of my adolescence, and I still am to this day.  Like most American kids, it all started on the baseball field. Going up to bat was one thing, but walking back into the dugout was the worst, since I usually didn’t get on base. “You play ball like a girl!” the all too lovable phrase from the movie The Sandlot was thrown around as normally as coaches calling plays in football. It was a motivational tool we would use that made more of an impact than just saying “you suck”.

Parallel to my short baseball career, I was swimming since age five.  My swimmer friends and I had to constantly defend our masculinity with quotes like “bro swimming gets you ripped, look at Micheal Phelps.” Yes, we actually said that.  The act of other athletes debasing my sport was to help them assert their sport was the least feminine. The fact that I was a contributor to a state championship team at a high school that valued sport accolades over all else certainly lessened my defensive nature, but didn’t stop what people said to me.

My sport was guilty of the same remarks that athletes of other sports had said to me my entire career.  We constantly described people as “yea he’s good, he’s got a lot of talent, but he’s just such a bitch. He always pusses out on workouts.”  Boys who showed emotion, which we saw as a feminine quality, or couldn’t get through a workout because they had reached their physical limit weren’t helped in anyway. We just told them to man-up.

Bradley Helt was one of the top backstrokers in the state of CT. Not only was he an incredible swimmer, but he was also one of the happiest people I have ever met in my life. He couldn’t have weighed more than 140 pounds and he had a lanky build of around 6 feet tall. People commonly described him as having this Jim Carry-esque personality —eccentric and always booming with energy and always making people laugh. He was truly one of the most cheerful people I knew…at least he appeared to be. Unknown to us, Bradley was suffering with extreme anxiety and depression. The marks that he had around his neck that we busted his chops about were not a couple of hickeys. They were marks from an attempt at suicide. 

Four months after his first attempt, and three weeks after the most successful swim season in my school’s sixty-year history, Bradley took his own life. What would happen if my swim team had offered a different environment? Not necessarily one that required boys to show emotion, but an environment that wouldn’t seek to exterminate any signs of it.  I can’t help but wonder if sports allowed for more emotion, if our team allowed for people to express signs of weakness and hardships, if Brad would still be alive today.

Like I said, I have played sports my entire life, they combine physical and mental discipline that prepares one for many situations beyond the game itself. But the reality of this is, as guys on sports teams, we are taught to be as stoic as a rock and to shut down any sign of emotions from our teammates. The problem is twofold. One is that guys who might be having emotional problems further suppress them since that shows a sign of weakness to the males on the team —its emotionally unhealthy.  That’s something that I have seen to an extreme first hand.

Furthermore, categorizing these emotional qualities as feminine and saying to each other not to be a girl on the field or in the pool is an assertion of male dominance.  Sports teams, and myself included, all too often fuel this phallocentric culture that won’t allow for any emotions to be shown —because that’s what girls do and we’re supposed to be “better” than them.   Whether its professional football or high school swimming, showing emotion isn’t a sign of weakness and sports teams need to realize this. By moving beyond things that cut people down, we can embrace the full potential of comradery that sports team offer people. Lets build people up with sports, not hit them down.

-Matt Connelly


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