Rob and I watched the scrimmage from the sidelines, helmets off. We weren’t getting any playing time, so why bother paying attention? I heard the whiz of a football and then a thud as it hit Rob in the back of the head. Rob flinched like he had been stung by a swarm of bees. His forearms clasped the sides of his head and he shook, trying to hold back tears. I turned around and saw John, the senior placekicker—the kicker!—laughing at us.
“Get your head in the game, frosh!” he said.
Later, after practice, Mike, a vicious pit bull of a linebacker, waved a silver tablespoon at us freshmen in the locker room. “See this, frosh? It’s going up your ass! Might be today, might be in a week, you never know.” Mike had vacant black eyes and a mouth that hung slightly agape, giving him the aura of a sociopath in training. He chuckled through his threats.
A trio of seniors led by Mike pinned a freshman—we’ll call him Josh—to a bench. I looked on in horror as one of them waved the tablespoon in the air while the others struggled to get Josh into position. An assistant coach walked in before they could get his pants down. In the presence of a coach, the bullying subsided to innocent teasing. The coach told us we were all “family.” We had to have each other’s backs through two-a-days because we were going to war in class 2A Oklahoma football.
Mike never got the spoon up Josh’s ass, but he did manage to cram him into a locker and padlock it from the outside. He was discovered hours later by the baseball coach. This was, of course, all in the name of toughening Josh up, making a man out of him. In fact, it did the opposite. Josh turned into a freakish mess of anxiety, petulance, and rage for the next few years. We had been friends, but even I began to avoid him.
After the tablespoon incident, I went home and told my mom I was quitting football. This was quite a revelation, since I had been a relentless and dedicated defensive end, once labeled a “fucking devastator” by my best friend’s father-in-law. My mom took me to see one of the school administrators, a middle-aged priest with a perfect helmet of black hair and thick silver-rimmed glasses. “You never want to be known as a quitter,” Father McMurray said. “If you leave the team, that’s what you’ll be. Is that how you want to go through life—as a quitter?”
“No, Father,” I said, staring at the ground. On at least one occasion, Father McMurray had punched a student in the hallway for mocking him.
I thought about the priest’s proposition for a while. Go back to Mike and the crew, whose idea of fun was anally assaulting freshmen, or be a quitter for the rest of my life. Even to a confused 15-year-old, it seemed like a false dichotomy. I decided to stick to my decision, but not reveal the real reason why I left the football team. I deflected any questions about it by saying I wanted to focus on basketball, which I played all four years. In fact, I’ve never mentioned the episode of Mike and the tablespoon publicly until now.
I went to a Catholic school in Oklahoma 20 years ago; my story of powerful males bullying weaker males seems, in this universe, a law of nature or part of the Great Chain of Being.
* * *
Some people see the Richie Incognito–Jonathan Martin controversy as a purely NFL scandal. I see it as symptomatic of a subculture (football in general) that has lost touch with the basics of human compassion. Incognito, a veteran guard for the Miami Dolphins, bullied Martin, a second-year tackle, relentlessly, calling him a “half-nigger” and threatening to “shit in [his] fucking mouth.” Incognito had a long rap sheet of dirty play (apparently gouging eyes of opposing players) and borderline criminal behavior off the field (he allegedly sexually assaulted a female volunteer with a golf club).
Andrew Sharp of Grantland.com recently wrote about a chasm between mainstream culture and the NFL. “There’s a disconnect between people who play professional sports and people who watch them,” Sharp wrote, “and that gulf is probably a lot wider than we realize. Even if a world full of all-access shows and instant information allows us to know more about athletes and locker rooms than ever before, we may never actually understand any of this.”
Many NFL players themselves think that it’s the insular nature of the professional locker-room that separates the sport from us mere mortals. Former Dolphins running back Ricky Williams, for example, said: “The NFL, it’s really like a closed fraternity. I don’t think the media, I don’t think fans, I don’t think anyone outside is really in a position to really fully understand what occurs inside of a locker room and inside of a football team.” When I look at the face of Richie Incognito, though, I see Mike waving that silver tablespoon. When I consider how the Miami Dolphins organization—the coach and the GM—could be so ignorant of the reality of the locker room, I think of our coach insisting we were a “family.” When I see Incognito’s smirk, I think of Mike and his buds, their disdain for the weak—the eggheads, faggots, the pussies—who can’t handle it, who can’t man up.
Football is supposedly a “warrior culture,” but what war is it fighting? What is the noble cause?
Maybe you’ve had a Richie Incognito or a Mike in your life: a supervisor who made you redo a meaningless task just because he could; a teacher who humiliated you in front of the class; a co-worker who sent you threatening emails and then claimed it was all a joke. In most walks of life, this sort of behavior isn’t tolerated, and it’s a matter of time before the bully gets his just desserts.
But in football—and only in football—this sort of behavior is seen as “tough”; it’s part of the warrior code of manliness.
Actual warriors, though, have given up on hazing. “Hazing doesn’t make you tough,” one Marine sergeant said recently. “It makes you stupid.” Marines have been court-martialed for hazing, which is strictly forbidden in the Armed Forces. Forty-nine states have laws against bullying and/or hazing; California even made hazing a felony.
Emily Bazelon’s recent book Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy cites statistics showing that high school bullies are much more likely to end up as criminals and addicts than the rest of us.They suffer disproportionately from mental illness. The victims of bullies are prone to suicide and depression. Victims of bullying often repeat the cycle by becoming bullies themselves. Far from toughening up its victims, locker room bullying creates another generation of sociopaths who think the way to improve performance on the field is to scream at and humiliate a young person.
Football is supposedly a “warrior culture,” but what war is it fighting? What is the noble cause? Some vague notion of tradition or manliness moored to an atavistic worldview, one the rest of society left behind decades ago? When it’s a spectacle on television, it’s just another show with violence, athleticism, and ego on full display. But when its realities—brain damage, bullying, mental illness, suicide— come home to roost, how can we go on watching?
Flag football, for me, was a tease. The most seductive thing about football was the full-bore crunch of a hit delivered on a player with a ball cradled in his arm.
Even though I made the decision to quit high school football, the sport pulled me back in for the better part of a year. In 2003, I went to Paris on a teacher exchange program. Not knowing anyone, I started reading an English-language newspaper and discovered a group of Parisians who played American flag football.
Flag football, for me, was a tease. The most seductive thing about football was the full-bore crunch of a hit delivered on a player with a ball cradled in his arm. (I never really cared for offense.) The guy who managed the flag-football league noticed my over-zealous flag-pulling and told me that he might be able to sponsor me to play on his full-contact team—the Corsaires d’Évry.
I showed up a week later and experienced a Proustian moment as the smell of sweaty shoulder pads and the sound of helmets cracking brought back crisp Oklahoma fall days. I forgot about Mike and his tablespoon. All I remembered was the thrill of sprinting down the field in eighth grade and obliterating some kick returner, jarring the ball loose, and then pouncing on it.
I was put under the tutelage of J.P., the defensive coordinator for Corsaires, a semi-pro team that played in France’s only American football league. I made the cut as one of only two Americans on the team, but our first road trip brought out the whack jobs. On the way back to Paris from a game in the south of France, one of the rookies was de-pantsed as he slept on the bus. Two guys held him down and another rubbed IcyHot on his testicles. He screamed and, freeing himself from the grips of his tormentors, jumped around the bus, his balls on icy fire.
Most of the team tried to ignore the scene, but the bullies (studies show that it’s usually a minority who wields power over the weakest members) laughed and mocked the rookie’s pain. I kept my head down, but then one pointed at me. I was to be next on their list. They were going to devise a special torture session for me, l ’américain.
That’s when I quit football for the second time.
* * *
OK, OK, some people say. Sure, some of this is a bit harsh, but you turned out fine, right? In the end, can’t we laugh at the hijinks as stupid pranks. Wasn’t Incognito just joking?
Believe me, I would like to laugh it off. I would like nothing more than to crack open a cold one and plop down on the La-Z-Boy and watch some hittin’ on the TV. Come this weekend, I might just do that.
I just can’t do so with a clear conscience anymore. Even if football locker rooms suddenly became Oprah book clubs, there’s still the mounting evidence that the sport itself is becoming a major public health crisis. 
But these guys are paid handsomely to play a sport they love, you say. It’s their choice! The nanny state shouldn’t be telling grown-ass men what to do with their bodies! Indeed. If I want to go smash heads with someone, that’s my right—just as it’s my right to smoke cigarettes and risk lung cancer.
Let’s think about an uncomfortable truth for a moment, however: Why is the NFL the richest sport in America? Because of the brutal hits, something viewers demand and young players want to imitate. These repeated hits lead to CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a disease that, in turn, leads to depression, rage, suicide, and/or dementia.
The growing list of players diagnosed with CTE symptoms now includes college and high school players, not just NFL veterans. There’s a legitimate debate whether CTE is directly caused by football concussions, or whether there’s a combination of hits, bad genes, and/or other lifestyle issues, but the booming number of football players diagnosed with CTE has become impossible to ignore. Even the NFL finally backed down after years of denying there was any connection.
So, maybe instead of relying on the morally lazy argument that football players make the choice to play, we should try to figure out why we want to watch this train wreck of concussions, corruption, and macho bullshit.
Does football have to be this way? I don’t know. I hope not. Safer tackling techniques, greater awareness of CTE, and less “suck it up” ignorance would all help. The Seattle Seahawks have apparently overhauled the entire culture of a typical NFL team. They practice meditation and yoga. There is a staff psychotherapist who encourages players to talk about their anxieties and frustrations. Instead of humiliating players who drop a pass or miss a blocking assignment, the coaching staff works through the problem in a rational way, trying to improve a player’s performance. All this seems like a step in the right direction. Not only is it sensible, it’s also effective—the Seahawks are now at the top of their division.
Seattle is a long way from Oklahoma, where I hear from mutual acquaintances that Mike has established himself as a very successful businessman. I bet he’s probably forgotten about Josh and the tablespoon. But I haven’t—and we can thank Richie Incognito for that.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 23. Dec. 1, 2013.