Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Myth of "Toughness"

On Sunday I watched the NFC Championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears.  Jay Cutler, the Bears starting Quarterback was pulled out early in the second half in favor of first, Tod Collins and next, Caleb Hanie.  This did not surprise me.  Cutler was clearly injured.  Blood from his throwing arm was staining his uniform, after all.  It turned out, however, that the bigger issue was his knee.  He tore his right MCL and could no longer plant his leg effectively to throw.

You would have thought, to hear the commentators and fans (and later current and former players), that instead of being injured in a football game, he had committed an unforgivable sin.  He had "quit" on his team.  He had failed to show "leadership" by not playing until he was "carted off the field".  More sports cliches were used to similar effect.  Poor confused Brett Favre was brough up someone worthy of emulation (!).  I, for one, cannot see what the big deal is.

Look, I watch a lot of football.  I like a good game, but I, at least, don't see how it helps anyone to permanently injure a player merely to prove that that person has "toughness".  Professional sports--honestly--were they to disappear tomorrow would have absolutely no effect on the rest of the world.  It is entertainment, we would find other things to do.  The response from the players was particularly disturbing in light of the their union's current and much publicized concerns about injury.  Football is a dangerous game.  The union--representing the interests of the players who put themselves at risk--is trying to create a safer work environment.  Why generate gallons of peer pressure to make it more dangerous?  Why make the goal of safety harder to attain?

The real culprit here is the myth of toughness.  As kids we are trained by our parents to value this aspect of ourselves.  I don't have to tell you the social hierarchy of America's school system.  We all, dear reader, had a place in it at some point or other.  The "tough" varsity athletes reside at or near the top to the unending pride of parents and teachers.  The less "tough" make a place for themselves on the science and theater clubs or the debate team.  So given this culture and background, why, in that moment of manufactured drama known as "NFL Championship Sunday" wouldn't we seek out a villain? 

Incidentally, now people are blaming Cutler's personality for the situation.  Turns out he doesn't "let people (meaning the press) in".  Hmmm...I wonder why?  Is "letting people in" part of his contract?

I see two conflicting desires on the part of the media and the fans here.  On the one hand, we want these sports figures to be "role models".  We worry about this a lot.  We don't ask this from our artists, of course. I was big fan of Metallica and the Who as a kid and no one thought I would follow their lifestyles.  We do not (though we reall, really, should) even consistently ask it of ourselves as parents.  We assign that task, apparently, to physically gifted strangers.

We get all upset about steroids and other drugs (and yes, we should).  However, have we really considered the reason they are a constant issue in sports?  We tell the pros that they must be held to a "higher standard" than we hold ourselves to.  Yet we also perpetuate the "toughness" myth that makes it so hard for them to succeed.  Did Lance Armstrong "dope" during his remarkable run of Tour De France victories?  Honestly I would be surprised if he didn't.  The Tour--like a lot of other competative venues--is an OSHA violation in progress all because we want to see the "toughest Tour yet".  Lance was told to be "tough".   He was told to be a role model.  The requirement for role models in our world is simple...winning.

This is what we teach our children when we let them to play hurt--and many of us do.  It is what we tell them when we fill their free time with parent-run competitive pursuits--and many, many of us do.  This is what we tell ourselves when we push ourselves too far and wind up on crutches. 

This myth pervades our culture, not just in sports but everywhere.  We want to appear tough, we want to be seen as competitive at work and among our friends, with our neighbors at home and with Iraq and Afganistan abroad.  We swagger as much as we walk in our relationships. We don't want to collaborate or solve problems, we want to win.  How is that workin' for ya?

Perhaps we could try something out as a society.  Instead of raising up toughness as a great an necessary attribute, why don't we replace it with empathy?  What if our role models were people who could listen to others and make sound decisions?  Why don't we encourage each other to care?  Perhaps we should  be in touch with each other and with our own needs and feelings.  What if we praised Jay Cutler for knowing that his injury wouldn't make him the best option for the game?  Maybe the world would be just a bit nicer to live in.  Perhaps we could do with a little less toughness.

Here are a couple of links to stories about the Cutler situation.

This one is by Solomon Wilcots

and one by Frank Tadych

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff, Adam. This "toughness" is of one cloth as faith-based healing and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, no matter how visibly bare your feet. It's a way for hoarders of social assets -- money, leisure, education, medical care, business authority -- to bully instead of sharing.