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The Masks of Masculinity: Reflections on the NFL Bullying Controversy

Can you be a man if you don’t confront, but rather step away, if you admit that you are powerless, even if you have physical strength?

The Masks of Masculinity: Reflections on the NFL Bullying Controversy
by Ben Ringler, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Been watching some football this thanksgiving weekend???
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, where football is a familiar friend in millions of American homes, I want to reflect on the most recent National Football League controversy concerning bullying… a surprisingly powerful window into the evolving visions of what it means to be a man!
This event is shining a light on the inner conflicts men struggle with regarding their identity, masculinity and power, particularly in a realm where this is supposedly clearly defined.  I’ve been glued to this latest controversy, especially the myriad of responses made by other NFL players to this situation.
The controversy in a nutshell:  Jonathan Martin, an offensive lineman, left the Miami Dolphins in late October, citing bullying by his fellow offensive line teammate, Richie Incognito.  (Somehow this last name reeks of irony, but I’ll leave it to the reader to make the links, and feel free to comment below).
Since this initial report, the story has taken some wild twists and turns; there was the release of a racially (and otherwise) offensive text message, reports that the bullying might have been systematic and pervasive (that other teammates participated in it), that the coaching staff may have started this by urging Incognito to “toughen up” Martin, that the two were actually good friends.
Martin has been portrayed as a sensitive man and an intelligent (played at Stanford) and talented player.  It has been said that he has struggled with the brutality required to play the game, whereas Incognito is depicted as violent, aggressive, dirty, and sexually exploitative (there’s also a report of sexual misconduct that was swept under the rug by the team, which may be actually more disturbing than the bullying).  The drama has been compelling, a soap opera that men can follow with good conscience.
If you look deeper, however, you may see a common inner struggle of men:  can I be a man if I feel hurt, insecure, afraid, vulnerable? Must I only respond with anger, aggression, and violence to be a man?  What is a manly response to the world I interact with?
Some players on other teams have supported Martin, especially ex-college teammates, and defended his character and choice on how he has responded to the situation, whereas others have questioned Martin’s manhood, stating that a 6 foot, 300 plus pound man should be able to confront his abuser directly, punch him in the face (as the general manager of the team suggested), or, at least, talk to the coaching staff, not step outside and throw his teammate(s) under the bus. (Like the police, fraternities, military, there is a strict code that shall not be broken in the NFL, that you do not air your dirty laundry outside the inner circle).
One of the most fascinating responses to me came from Brandon Marshall (who has already broken the mold in the NFL by once admitting publicly that he was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder!), a star wide receiver on the Chicago Bears who offered the following:
Look at it from this standpoint… take a little boy and a little girl.  A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is ‘get up, shake it off. You’ll be OK Don’t cry.’  A little girl falls down…we validate their feelings.  So right there from that moment, we’re teaching our men to mask [SEE MY PREVIOUS POST!] their feelings, to not show their emotions.  And it’s that times 100 with football players.  You can’t show you’re hurt.  Can’t show any pain.  So for a guy to come into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, that’s a problem…that’s what I mean by the culture of the NFL.  And that’s what we have to change…
As a longtime NFL fan, I was blown away by this assessment, a sure sign that the apocalypse (which literally means “lifting of the veil”) is upon us:
In this quote is a clear recognition that men have feelings, a need to be validated, that men are vulnerable.  And we see from the varied responses by other players represent the inner wrestling (of both men and women) with how to deal with men’s vulnerability- is it ok?  Can you be a man if you don’t confront, but rather step away, if you admit that you are powerless, even if you have physical strength?
Where is the line where men are no longer men?
The truth is, men, like women, are vulnerable and CAN be hurt.  We can feel unsafe, scared, and powerless.  The denial of this is deadly: in the NFL, there are now more and more reports of ex-players losing their memory, an increase in deadly neurological diseases caused by concussions, an increase of suicide to high profile players.  And the NFL has tried in various ways to keep this information quiet (including efforts to have a film on NFL concussions remain off air) because it is a threat to both the product and the myth of the invulnerable man.
This is not meant as an indictment on the NFL, but rather an illustration of a MUCH larger problem.  It is time we ALL start supporting men by acknowledging that we have ALL contributed to this belief that men need to be strong and invulnerable.  We as a society are way out of alignment with this, and need to start by looking within at our assumptions and beliefs in order to make room for the collective male vulnerability that is required to help humanity cultivate peace and cooperation.
With you in mind and heart,
Ben Ringler

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Ben Ringler

Ben Ringler

Besides my general practices in Berkeley and San Francisco where I see adult men and women, couples and families, I help men find inner strength as they balance evolving visions of being a man, provider and father. By helping men find a more proper alignment, I address such out-of-balance symptoms as depression, anxiety, anger, and addiction.

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