What Football Means, Cont.


Brandon Marshall, who's had his own mental health troubles, pivots off of Junior Seau's death to offer some candid words on the price of male toughness:


The cycle starts when we are young boys and girls. Let me illustrate it for you: Li'l Johnny is outside playing and falls. His dad tells him to get up and be strong, to stop crying because men don't cry. So even from the age of 2, our belief system begins to form this picture. We are teaching our boys not to show weakness or share any feelings or emotions, other than to be strong and tough. Is that ''validating''? 

What do we do when Li'l Susie falls? We say: ''It's OK. I'm here. Let me pick you up.'' That's very validating, and it's teaching our girls that expressing emotions is OK. We wonder why it's so hard to bridge the communication gap between men and women. 

This presented itself clearly when I was going through group therapy and was the only man in my groups. Better yet, I was there for three months, and there was only one other guy in the program. In therapy, I learned how to express my emotions and talk about my problems, then apply it to my real life. I had to work through my entire belief system, train myself how to think, not what to think, and let go of the things that had me in bondage. I had to bridge the gap. It wasn't going to do it on its own. It's a cycle. 

Can you imagine how this presents itself even more so in football players? Junior Seau, Kenny McKinley, Dave Duerson, Brandon Marshall, etc. I am the only one in that group who is living because I got help before it was too late. In sports, those who show they are hurt or have mental weakness or pain are told: ''You're not tough. You're not a man. That's not how the players before you did it.''

Great points in here. I think the hard thing is that some of us very much value "toughness." I certainly do and have tried to instill it in my son, if not by the methods Marshall describes. I loved the NFL because it exemplified that value. Probably my favorite play ever--which I have posted here ad nauseum--comes from the 1998 playoffs. A young Terrell Owens was having a horrible game--I think he'd drop two or three passes. But he caught the game-winner from Steve Young in the end zone taking a big and holding on to the ball.

He cried like a baby walking off the field. And I saw "toughness" in him holding on to the ball. I've thought about that play at least once a week for the rest of my life. (Vernon Davis damn near mirrored the same scene last season. Something in the water.) It exemplifies something about my own values, about my own life. I have seen so much failure and yet also have seen how, by the rigorous application of a principal, a sweet success, dwarfing all your failures, can be yours.

I see that play and I just get chills--even now. But I'm a humanist too. As evidenced on this blog, I believe in sharing emotion. I detest bullying those who are seen as "weak." I think a lot about how to transfer those twin values to my son. Empathy and toughness. Rigor and flexibility. They aren't necessarily opposed. But it takes some doing to transmit both at the same time.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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