I was 14 years old. I lived in Los Angeles. I had to attend summer school. I am not sure if it was mandatory or obligatory. I think it was my father’s way of keeping me out of trouble.
That summer I attended summer school and then rode my bike to the high school I would attend in order to participate in conditioning drills to prepare my 14-year-old body for the competitive rigors of high school football.
I was tall and still carried baby fat on my hormone exploding body. I wore my hair in a neatly coiffed flattop. I sported a tan. I was a willing and eager participant in whatever I had to do to please my father.
For as long as I can remember it was my dream to play on the offensive line of the University of Southern California. A dream also shared (perhaps seeded) by my father. There was no greater glory than a W for ol’ SC. Weekend rituals revolved around cheering on this West Coast Ivy League School in the middle of poverty.
I would bask in the joy and pleasure of my father’s ritual of adoration in hopes of gleaning a bit of attention. If SC won perhaps I would receive some affection. If SC lost I still may get the attention but it was certainly not all that joyful.
I was a slight, even skinny child in my early years. It was not until I was 12 that I got “big.” In one summer I grew a few inches and put on about 30 pounds. I became a “big guy” and the world was never the same.
The funny thing about being a big guy is that your heart and soul doesn’t always grow along with your body. I most certainly wore my heart on my sleeve and became a target for abuse because of it. Football was a place of intense masculinity. There was no room for wimps, pussies, or f-gs. Football was American and a place where men became men as we manned up to play this tradition-filled game.
The first few weeks of conditioning destroyed me. I was almost brought to tears on several occasions. I would have never cried and given them that satisfaction. I held the hurt in. I ran harder. I lifted heavier. I let my anger stew and diligently worked on become a jock.
In the process of this I worked so hard on the field that I puked almost daily. With unfettered pride I abstained from water breaks. I took on the ledged of Lott, Youngblood, Singletary, Otto, Webster, Lambert, and Butkus. I admired the manliness of these fellas. I aspired to be like them. Pain was weakness leaving the body. Concussions were not even on the radar. We were little men getting trained to become “real” men.
I endured weeks of punishment. I was not vocal like others. I was still feeling this whole thing out. I was isolated, guarded, and very unsure of myself. I was still sensitive and was not responding to the aggression and tough love like other teammates were. We were encouraged to get angry and fight each other on the field of battle. War language delivered us to frenzy. The longer this went on, the further I withdrew from it all.
I wrestled with the insidious nature of violence in the game. I lacked a killer instinct that others had. The coaches sought to fire me up by grabbing my facemask and yelling/spiting into it until they were satisfied that I heard what it was they wanted me to hear. When that did not sufficiently inspire me I would get a clipboard broken across my helmet and yelled at. As a last resort the coach would smack the ear holes on my helmet and stun me as he viciously shook my mask to make his point.
The violence and machismo did not stop there. The players self-regulated each other. A more accurate description was that hazing happened. I eagerly took part in this. I heard from old teammates, “This is what happened to me. It made me part of the team.” So, I endured the harassment. Name calling. The binge drinking at parties. The public humiliation. Then there was the “taking of donuts.” This was simulated rape. If you were lucky you were fully clothed when a group of teammates ascended upon you to simulate a sexual assault in public. You could be in line waiting for lunch and be attacked. You could be waiting for a ride home. You could be on your way to class. Your teammates would corner you and laugh as they passed you around and simulated having their way with you. Many of them joining in, in the hopes that they would avoid having their donuts taking or exacting revenge for having their donut taken.
It was worse if you were in the locker room showering or trying to change. This could happen to you whilst you where naked. This particular action was most feared. It was the kind of fear that is conjured up when thinking about being raped in prison. The younger teammates were always on watch of this attack in the locker room. This egregious endeavor was reserved for those deemed easy marks. Those that were deemed to be wimps, pussies, or f-gs got the worst of it. We learned to be tough and to keep our heads on the swivel.
It took me weeks after my donut was taken in line at lunch to build the courage up to quit. I could no longer endure the harassment. I was not willing to be macho according to their standards. I went to the coach to quit and he refused to listen.
“You got a lot of talent and a big body. Don’t you want to play in college or the pros one day?”
I guess, I said.
I hung my head in shame and agreed to talk to my father before I quit. That night I tried to talk to him and he gave me more of the same shame and regret line that the coach gave me. It ended with me agreeing to stay on for the rest of the year and fulfill my obligation to the team.
I am thankful that the coach did not tell the team I had wanted to quit. That would have exasperated everything. I endured the inspiring techniques of the coaching staff. The name calling. The macho shaming. My soul died inside. I became depressed. I could not quit. The game I had once loved no longer brought me joy. The big body I was blessed with was a prison of performance in a sport I no longer cared about.
I sought a way out. My first thought was to get injured. If I was injured I did not have to play and could bow out gracefully with all the honors of a fallen comrade. So, during practice I tried to break a leg or something. I once dipped my head to get a defender to hit my neck that I might be injured and not ever able to play again.
I slowly fell deeper in to depression. Then I found my answer in an unrequited high school love. When our little romance went sour, my grades suffered and I became academically ineligible to play. The label of dummy was far easier to wear then the label of quitter.
I read about this unfolding incident between Jonathan Martin and Ritchie Incognito I am not surprised or shocked. The behavior exhibited by Incognito and endured by Martin is a staple of professional football on down to the high school level.
I do not have much faith in the NFL and other organizations that support and affirm the sport of football in moving to change. Football is no longer a sport as much as it is a business. If tolerance and an affirmation of diversity in expression, orientation, disposition, ethnicity, or other differing human characteristics is to be received in football there needs to be big and dramatic shifts in the culture of masculinity that pervades the business-sport. If the NFL wants to clean up the league in light of the actions of Incognito then they ought to begin with changing the Washington DC football team name. Then the business of football needs to be done with the understanding that the human cost is real and that the facade of masculinity is damaging some as it gives legal geography for sociopaths and hurting people to victimize others. The fans watching and supporting their teams need to support the change. They need to demand the same kind of dignity in their lives and employers, corporations, governments, neighbors, and citizens all need to value the dignity and humanity of each other. If we want change beyond names and to end the exploitative systems that gnaw at the root of this Nation we need to embrace the fullness of humanity in us all.
I learned to harass, bully, and rib others. It was not something I was born with. Change is possible. I hope we are serious about it.