Sports & Hypermasculinity
Just two weeks before the Newtown massacre, another high-profile murder-suicide dominated the 24/7 news cycle and—briefly—captured the public’s imagination. On December 1 last year the news broke that 25-year-old Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher had murdered his 22-year-old girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, and then drove to Arrowhead Stadium where he committed suicide in front of his coach and other Chiefs staff. Until Newtown pushed that story off the front pages, there had been an outpouring of commentary from people in the gender violence prevention field, sports journalism, and the cultural mainstream.
Much of the conversation revolved around men’s violence against women as an ongoing national tragedy, and the specific aspects of professional football culture and its unique and often combustible mixture of hypermasculinity, bodily self-sacrifice, and misogyny, along with the stark reality that the players—many of them young African-American men—are under intense pressure to perform in an industry where they can become famous and make a lot of money, but where their physical and emotional health takes a backseat to the demands of the business.
In the wake of this tragedy, many people in the gender violence prevention field called on officials of the National Football League to respond by increasing their efforts to provide counseling services to players and their families in need, as well as to provide training for team personnel in how to detect and intervene in potentially volatile situations, and to implement violence prevention programming league-wide.
The Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) Program, which I cofounded in 1993 at Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, has worked extensively with college and professional football players, coaches, and administrators for two decades. In addition, over the past decade MVP has also been called in to work with professional sports organizations after high-profile domestic violence, sexual assault, and sexual harassment incidents. Focused workshops at such “teachable moments” can help make future incidents less likely if the participants—individuals and organizations—are willing to forthrightly address some of the underlying causes.
Jovan Belcher’s murderous actions formed one of those teachable moments. Since then, countless people inside and outside sports culture have been talking about domestic violence and asking: what can we do? To provide some badly needed context for the national conversation sparked by the Kansas City tragedy, Voice Male agreed to provide a forum for me to engage in a dialogue with my friend and MVP colleague Daryl Fort. Fort has long been among the most senior trainers with MVP, and is one of the most experienced male gender violence prevention educators in the world. He has worked extensively with NFL players, coaches, and front office staff since 2006. A former senior adviser to the governor of Maine, Fort is a 1992 graduate of the University of Maine, where he played on the football team.
JACKSON KATZ: You’re a graduate of the same college football program as Jovan Belcher, although you’re almost a generation older. That must have hit closer to home for you than it did for most of us. Can you talk about your initial thoughts and feelings when you heard that he had murdered his girlfriend and then took his own life?
DARYL FORT: Like many people around our former collegiate program and among his NFL peers, I felt a deep sadness. Personally, it struck a nerve that was already close to the surface because a couple of weeks earlier, a former high school classmate of mine here in Maine had murdered his wife and committed suicide. On an almost annual basis, the majority of all homicides in this state (as in so many others) are domestic violence related. And almost all of those murders are perpetrated by men against women. It is always disturbing when a man decides to externalize his own pain by lethally assaulting someone he purports to love and care about.
JK: There are hundreds of domestic violence murder-suicides in our society every year. But because this one was perpetrated by a professional athlete, people want to talk about how male sports culture—especially football culture—might be implicated. But as someone who has worked extensively in gender violence prevention with men inside and outside of sports, I was wondering if you could offer any observations about whether football players react similarly to or differently from other men with whom you’ve worked on these issues.
DF: The fact that an NFL player killed his intimate partner is why so many people are talking about this issue now. It’s why many people want to read about it. What makes this a potentially important moment to talk more about these issues is that we know so much about the dynamics involved in the overwhelming majority of DV homicides, as well as the violent and abusive behaviors of many, many perpetrators. We need much more serious dialogue, asking some important questions such as: Why do many men use violence or the threat of violence to gain or maintain control within their intimate relationships? Why do so many people—from professional athletes to, say, mortgage brokers—choose not to “get involved” in the face of this abuse?
JK: It’s important for people to know that in Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), or other programs that utilize the bystander approach, the kinds of abuses we talk about are generally not the sensational murders that happen periodically. Sexist attitudes and behaviors occur along a continuum, and MVP encourages men to interrupt and challenge each other in a range of ways. It’s not just about helping guys know how to detect or what to do when their teammates or friends might be on the verge of killing someone.
DF: No question. At the end of the day, we’re trying to get people to consider the connection between disrespectful, harassing, abusive attitudes and language and the violence and abuse most everyone agrees is unacceptable. We’re looking at rape, murder, and domestic battering at the top of a pyramid of very destructive behavior. At the bottom of that pyramid lies the foundation for those almost universally denounced crimes, things like sexually bigoted “humor,” sexist language, and objectification.
In a larger culture where sexist behavior and sexist media are considered edgy, marketable, and cool, it’s a process to get guys to look past what feels normal and harmless to see the potential harm. Even for guys who are willing to recognize a lot of what they see and hear as abusive and disrespectful, it still takes courage to step into the social backlash they’re likely to get from peers, teammates, and colleagues who are likely to tell them to lighten up for saying, “hey man, why you gotta call women bitches all the time?”.
But with the challenge there also lies an opportunity, when we’re talking about engaging high-level athletes. On the one hand, we’re talking about guys who in many ways are supposed to represent the edgiest, the coolest, and the most “manly.” For them, there is some pressure to go along and uphold rather than buck that system. On the other hand, we are also talking about guys who stand on a cultural platform because of their status. For the many guys who take that responsibility seriously, it’s about leaning hard into that desire to want to do the right thing by shifting the conversation about what “the right thing” is and challenging them to have the courage to take action.
JK: In the Belcher case, many people focus on the violent nature of football, or speculate about physiological factors that might have arisen from head injuries he sustained. I think it’s comforting for many people to think that in cases of horrific violence, “something must have snapped.” But in MVP sessions with men, we talk a lot about manhood and social norms, both in the larger society and in various subcultures. How do you see men responding to that discussion?
DF: Men’s responses are basically the same whether we’re working with college or professional football players, athletes of other sports, military personnel, or corporate professionals. There is almost always a cross-section of responses within football and non-football peer groups; some guys are reluctant—the discussion is especially challenging because of the degree to which some of them have invested in the gender stereotypes of how they are supposed to relate to one another as well as women. We offer an opportunity to have an unvarnished dialogue about these subjects, and guys are often quick and eager to engage.
Men who are reluctant participants at the outset often become the most enthusiastic proponents of taking positive action. For example, at the beginning of an MVP training on one of the largest military bases in the world, a master sergeant with 19 years’ service in the Marine Corps made it clear that he had much more important things to do than talking about sexual violence and how to prevent it. He made everyone in the training aware that he was there because it was required. But by the second day, some junior noncommissioned officers were expressing doubts that they could leave the space and challenge their peers about abusive behavior toward women. The master sergeant firmly told them he didn’t think they had the right attitude, and that he expected more of them.
JK: Many people imagine that football players—because they occupy such a hypermasculine and privileged space—would be particularly resistant to this kind of introspection about men’s violence against women. Do you think that’s the case?
DF: No. I find men want the opportunity to talk about relationships and the challenges that often surround navigating the expectations that the culture can impose on men—expectations to behave in certain ways and represent dominant, in-control roles in their relationships. Elite football players have many of the same issues about masculinity and relationships—and some of the same anxieties—as other guys. But many people see them as “alpha males” who have it all figured out. I believe some of the assumptions other people make about who we are and can be as men trouble NFL players as much as they do regular guys on the street. I’ve had many, many of these guys eager to talk about those pressures when they feel there is a safe environment to do so. Facilitating that space is a big part of my job. It can help when you’re sitting in a locker room or meeting space that some of these guys spend more time in than they do their own homes. It’s literally meeting them where they are.
JK: Some men can get very defensive when you try to strip away the tough exterior.
DF: Often we see an initial defensiveness regarding the subject; I once had a young college basketball player from a Division II school ask me before a session, “I’m from the Bronx, what can you teach me about violence?” Of course he was flexing a little bit, trying to let me know a classroom couldn’t teach him anything of value about life “on the street.” It’s still a surprise to many who work with us that the “teaching and learning” isn’t some kind of PowerPoint lecture. We want to have a conversation – one that is structured, yet, open, honest and frequently raw – and, hopefully, come to some often difficult and also empowering conclusions about our responsibilities as men hold ourselves and each other accountable with courage and compassion.
Another assumption a lot of these guys make coming in is that we’re going to point fingers at them and treat them all as potential perpetrators. For some, that has been their experience. For many others, it is a taught reflex in the wake of the media stereotype of “athletes behaving badly.” Of course, a big part of the real message is that men’s violence against women affects all of us one way or another. What can we do as men, as brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins, teammates, friends, to be part of the solution? Once these guys see they have an opportunity to participate in an honest dialogue, to speak their minds, the introspection, the curiosity about one another’s perspective, and their personal desire to talk about personal wants, needs, and challenges often takes over. Don’t get me wrong—not everyone feels comfortable with the content of these conversations. Far from it. Especially since we focus on their responsibility to address these issues within their peer cultures and interrupt their teammates’ or friend’s sexist behaviors. For a lot of people that’s anxiety-producing. Think about it: How do I tell my friend that taking that drunk woman home to try and have sex with her is a bad idea for him and her, when before we went out, his game plan was to get laid? How do I talk to my boss about how inappropriate and uncomfortable I think sexist banter around the office is when he/she’s one of the participants? When we bring it down to those types of authentic and difficult circumstances, you can see the wheels turning in people’s minds because many of them have encountered those very situations. In terms of inspiring leadership, finger wagging won’t get it done. But in a team/peer group concept we don’t necessarily have to go it alone – we can “have each others back.” That’s also part of the message.
JK: What’s your strategy for motivating men as leaders in gender violence prevention?
DF: A way to do this is to get folks to see themselves as the friends, family, teammates, peers of both perpetrators and victims of abuse. We will ask directly what it might feel like to have a woman they care deeply about be the victim of violence or abuse. Too many don’t have to imagine it—they already know. Others find it upsetting and infuriating. An important dynamic to consider is to ask ourselves how we would feel about someone or a group of people who had the opportunity to do something about stopping that abuse. In the end, most of us want those bystanders to find a way to help, whether they know our loved one or not. The next step is to figure out how individually and collectively we can develop and nurture the tools to actually help. But the opportunity to step up and make courageous choices here comes, in part, from recognizing how much influence we have over our peers’ attitudes and behaviors on a daily basis already. We do it in positive ways and, unfortunately, in negatives ways as well. It is our choice to make.
JK: One particularly sensitive dimension of the Jovan Belcher case is his—and his victim’s—race. Belcher was African-American, as was Kasandra Perkins. I realize you did not know Belcher personally, and so you can’t presume to know the dynamic of his, or their, relationship struggles, and how race did or did not play a critical role. But as a black man yourself, and one who has facilitated countless dialogues with men and women of color, as well as white men and women, can you talk about how race—and racism—plays a role in workshops devoted to men’s violence against women? Do men ever talk openly about race?
DF: Like almost everywhere in our culture, it is often a challenge in MVP sessions to have a nuanced and honest discussion about the dynamics of race. It’s woven through the fabric of American life. One of the issues is an old one: guys in a room mixed along racial lines are usually unwilling to speak to any conflicts over race. Ironically, this is also true within sports and military cultures, where over the years great strides have been made in this country in the ways that people work together across racial lines. You might think some of those bonds help create an environment where enough trusts exist to have those difficult conversations. But as with gender, utopian dreams and some significant denial often overshadow our vision of reality.
Race is always a subtext to the work we do, but sometimes we make it visible and explicit. There may be 40 football players sitting in a stadium meeting room having a conversation and the split is 60/40 black-to-white. I’ve often asked a group of guys who have no issues referring to women as “bitches” how they would respond to a group of white guys using the term “niggers” to describe their teammates of color. Most groups consider the racially bigoted term unacceptable, because, they will say, the word has a history and current meaning that is derogatory. It’s degrading to black people. Well, doesn’t the “b-word” carry the same derogatory status, both historically and in current times? Half may look at me like I’m crazy. Another quarter of the group may take on a contemplative disposition. The other quarter of the group may nod in agreement and challenge the rest to see their point of view. The personal challenge we’re posing to each person in this instance is, “What is the difference between racial bigotry and gender bigotry—in principle? Just because we have normalized one form, does that make it right? And further, don’t we all still make the choice to participate in and/or condone the use of bigoted language?” To be clear, it’s not a magical spell that transforms everyone’s opinion. But people are always engaged and you can clearly see some attitudes change.
JK: In an interview the day after the murder-suicide, Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn said, “When it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently. When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it? When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you really telling the truth?” Quinn was expressing what many people around perpetrators—and victims—often feel. Could I have prevented something terrible from happening if I knew more, and was willing to act? In MVP trainings we encourage men to speak up and support their teammates and friends when it’s possible, or to interrupt their abusive behaviors—even if they merely suspect something might be going on. We make it clear that being an active bystander is an act not only of friendship but of leadership.
DF: This can feel like tricky and anxious territory for a lot of guys; how do I “get in his business,” meaning issues about a teammate/friend’s personal relationship or apparent depression. What it highlights is the limited emotional range of expression and means of support within which too many people—men in particular—operate. Sadly, in the sports culture, there seems to be even less. Think about what Brady Quinn was suggesting: locker room culture doesn’t allow its male inhabitants to ask for or offer certain types of emotional support. It’s the type of support that is labeled “feminine,” and that’s the last thing many men want to have associated with their reputation—especially among other men. My experience is that there is implicit pressure to limit your range of deeply expressed emotions to the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
But think about it: if your teammate is reluctant to share with you problems he’s having in his relationship for fear of being “clowned” as a punk or a “pussy,” can you really say you’ve got his back?