Football, Masculinity and Mental Health

Neil Rockey, Contributing Writer

Football: “the last bastion of hope for toughness in America in men,” according to Michigan Wolverines head coach and recent Big 10 Champion Jim Harbaugh. The very nature of the sport, in its inherent brutality, creates a culture where virility, toughness, and violence is not just encouraged but the price of admission. For those who love the game, the results have been a source of pride, glory and revenue, even as the sport has yielded catastrophic consequences on the emotional, physical, and mental health of those who play it.

The tragic story of Aaron Hernandez is just one of many examples. The surface-level facts are well-known: a star tight end with innumerable concussions killed his friend and then himself. Diagnosed with stage 3 CTE after his death, Hernandez’ demise has served as a cautionary tale, evidence of the danger in football’s inherent brutality. However, many aren’t aware of his comorbid mental health issues. The culture of the NFL does not tolerate any deviation from standard heteronormative notions of masculinity, and as a gay athlete, Hernandez dealt with intense self-hatred and internalized homophobia for all his life. As CTE ravaged his mind, the inner torment he experienced also played a role in his undoing, though the latter is rarely talked about.

This stigma is ubiquitous across all levels of the game – Michael Sam, an all-American defensive end at the University of Missouri came out in 2013, and he was met with waves of protests and criticism from fans, other players, and even coaches such as Raider’s head coach Jon Gruden, who said in a recently leaked email that Roger Goodell, the NFL’s commissioner, shouldn’t have pressured the Rams to select gay players in that year’s NFL draft.

Attitudes like Gruden’s are not rar in the NFL. They manifest in the asinine, such as 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver threatening to kick gay players out of the lockerroom to the frothing and homicidal, as when former Vikings coach Mike Priefer wanted to “put all the gays on an island and nuke it until it glows.” In my own experience with football, homophobia and misogyny run equally rampant, part of the dominant lexicon. If you can’t lift a certain amount of weight on a bar or complete a workout, you open the door to any number of challenges to your masculinity.

This culture has a body count. The examples are too numerous to mention, though most egregiously there’s the case of Jordan McNair, a freshman at UMD who had a seizure and died of heat stroke after collapsing during team sprints. One of his teammates later remarked to the Huffington Post that “Jordan knew that if he stopped, the team would challenge his manhood and he would be targeted. He had to go until he couldn’t.”

Football is a brutal sport. The case of Jordan McNair is not just an example of the effects this culture can have on the health of players but also a microcosm of the game, as played, as a whole; the attitude of “going until you can’t”, putting your body on the line and enduring perpetual violence for the sake of glory and entertainment is also unique to football as an aspiration.

What can change? The NFL needs to implement both protocols that effectively diagnose CTE and more stringent helmet regulations so players aren’t allowed to wear what are basically equivalent to bike helmets. Coaching staffs need to work to create cultures that uplift players instead of demeaning them when their bodies give out. Fans need to be understanding of players making decisions that might take them out of the game but will ultimately be better for their physical and mental health. The violence inherent to the sport might persist but the culture that allows this violence to have the profound effects that it does doesn’t have to.