The stories keep coming, one after another after another, like cars entering a busy intersection, at the crossroads where sports and society meet.
The latest involves the troubling situation in Miami, where Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito was suspended this week for allegedly bullying teammate and fellow lineman Jonathan Martin. Incognito appears to have pressured Martin financially and made phone calls and sent text messages laced with racial slurs and threats of violence. The final straw for Martin came last week, when he left the Dolphins after a lunchroom encounter with Incognito at the team's training facility.
While the details are still coming to light, there is already a common thread connecting Incognito and Martin to a spate of other headline-grabbing stories that have preoccupied the sports world over the past year: How we talk about masculinity.
The hot buttons are everywhere. Last April, a video surfaced showing Rutgers men's basketball coach Mike Rice hurling balls and vulgar language at his players during practice. (Rice was subsequently fired.) Meanwhile, the issue of anti-gay bigotry has become a familiar topic, most notably when San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver made derogatory comments before last season's Super Bowl. Then, there is the sad stream of sexual assault cases involving high school football players, like the ones in Steubenville, Ohio, and Maryville, Mo. And let's not forget the issue of concussions within the NFL, no doubt exacerbated by a culture that convinces players they must push through debilitating pain and injury, because their manhood (and livelihood) seems to depend on how quickly they get back on the field.
There is no shortage of moral indignation fueling the dialogue around these stories, and rightfully so. But in the same way we have become vigilant about eliminating racial and homophobic slurs from the public discourse, we need to do a better job of flagging the language that reinforces distorted notions of masculinity.
In sports, especially in the NFL, being a man -- a man's man, a real man, a manly man -- all too often means projecting an air of invincibility, a willingness to absorb pain at all costs, an expectation that even the most vicious insults can do no harm. Vulnerability is seen as weakness.
It is hardly surprising that some NFL executives (unnamed, of course) have said that Martin is a "coward" who "told like a kid" because he "didn't handle it like a man."
Giants safety Antrel Rolle expressed a fairly common sentiment among NFL players when he told WFAN radio, "At this level, you're a man. You're not a little boy. You're not a freshman in college. You're a man ... You need to stand up for yourself."
The implication is clear: If you're bullied and you walk away, you're weak. And how can a 300-pound NFL lineman be weak? The thinking seems to be that Martin should have somehow retaliated against Incognito, threatening violence with violence, because that's how real men handle these things. Real men escalate the situation and don't ask for help. Real men don't walk away.
In recent years, society has taken important steps (see here and here) to confront the epidemic of bullying in our schools, and the teen suicides that occur when it goes unchecked. And yet when bullying happens in sports, we engage in a dangerous game of semantics. We call it hazing, and talk about "the code" that requires athletes to handle things internally, to police themselves within the vaunted space of the locker room. We often call it by any other name than what it is -- institutionalized bullying.
How can we possibly expect to eradicate it in our schools if we insist on treating it differently at the highest level of sports? The old lessons of manhood spill downward much faster than new ones sprout up.
By many accounts, the extremity of the situation between Incognito and Martin is an anomaly in NFL locker rooms, with current and former players around the league painting Incognito as an outlier, an enforcer gone rogue. But the culture that allegedly allowed the harassment to happen (one report suggests that Dolphins coaches told Incognito to "toughen up" Martin) is the larger issue. It's a culture stained by the persistent belief that a man's worth is defined in large part by how he dominates other men (and, too often, women).
What does it mean to be a real man? Well, for starters, it means that more men in sports -- players, coaches, executives, TV personalities -- need to step forward and say, "Let's have a real conversation about this."
Until that happens, too few people will see and appreciate the real men in our midst, the ones who refuse to perpetuate this toxic brand of masculinity.
Men like Jonathan Martin.