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NFL Players Confronted With the Question ‘What Makes a Man’?


What “makes a man”? The Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin “bullying” saga is forcing NFL players to ask themselves that very question. The traditional “man code” in the NFL is that your manhood is defined by your ability to inflict violence on others and deny the presence of pain—particularly mental or psychological pain—in yourself. It is also of course loudly, proudly and aggressively heterosexual, with women existing only as extensions of desires for either sex or violence. This “man code” is not only organically tied to the violence of the sport itself but also has a tremendous influence on the broader society.

Yet while the NFL, the most popular entertainment in the United States, shapes our world, it also reflects a society steeped in sexism, violence against women and an ethos that reveres physical domination of others, all while affecting that “stiff upper lip.” We all suffer for this state of affairs: the bullies and the bullied, the abusers and the abused. Men commit suicide in the United States at rates three to four times that of women. Men are far more likely to be alcoholics and abusers. Taking your own life or obliterating your brain is seen as preferable to the simple act of asking for help. There are, of course, myriad reasons for this. One root cause, as basketball player and mental health advocate Royce White put it, is “a subtle war—in America, and in the world—between business and health. It’s no secret that two percent of the human population controls all the wealth and the resources, and the other 98 percent struggle their whole life to try and attain it. Right? And what ends up happening is that the two percent leave the 98 percent to struggle and struggle and struggle, and they eventually build up these stresses and conditions.”

As true as this undoubtedly is, if young men just felt like it was permissible to be vulnerable, it would save a lot of lives and keep a lot of families’ hearts from being broken. On the many fronts that this fight needs to be fought, one is in challenging the rigid expectations rooted in whether you are born a boy or girl. These ideas of “what makes a real man” and “what makes a real women” serve far more often than not to marginalize, disrespect and even destroy those who don’t meet those expectations. I would make the case that the first step toward reaching that point is redefining what we mean when we talk about “manhood” and femininity and what actually makes a “real man” or “real woman.” If there is anything positive that is arising from this Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying/harassment imbroglio is that it is forcing some NFL players to confront this question perhaps for the first time in their lives, on the highest possible platform with the potential to create a much needed national discussion.

What “makes a man”? Is it being a “tough as nails” bar-fighting, woman-groping, n-bomb dropping gem like Richie Incognito and his coterie of defenders, or is it being like Jonathan Martin, who had the guts to break the locker room code of silence and after “endur[ing] a malicious physical attack on him by a teammate,” and having his sister threatened, said he could not take it anymore?

Here are two profoundly different answers to that question. Chris Johnson, the pro bowl running back of the Tennessee Titans, said this week that he would never want Martin as a teammate, saying, “It would be kind of hard to put my trust in a guy to go out there every Sunday and hold his own…. the end of the day you have to step up and be a man and handle your own.”

But for Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the 24-year-old said, “I hope that we see Martin playing again soon—I’ve watched some tape of him, he’s a good player. Hats off to him for standing up and being a man.”

I give a lot of credit to Terrelle Pryor, Brandon Marshall, and others siding with Martin, because the reality is that on far too many franchises, the ability to live up to this “code” can determine whether or not you are still employed. I hope people are listening to the “man code dissenters.” We need to get to a point where this entire vocabulary about what makes a “real man” dies for our collective health. Maybe this begins by our saying loudly and proudly that “real men” stand up to the Richie Incognitos of this world and “real men” have the courage to, heaven forbid, ask for help. 

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