Brian Phillips has written a terrific essay for Grantland on the culture of ritualized pain and intimidation in football, and the ways that sports fans share, enable, embrace, and vicariously live out fantasies through it. It’s called “Man Up: Declaring a war on warrior culture in the wake of the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal.”
I love football — it’s so much fun, it’s beautiful, it’s thrilling, it’s an excuse to drunk-tweet in the mid-afternoon — but it has also become the major theater of American masculine crackup. It’s as if we’re a nation of gentle accountants and customer-service reps who’ve retained this one venue where we can air-guitar the berserk discourse of a warrior race. We’re Klingons, but only on Sundays. The Marines have a strict anti-hazing policy, but we need our fantasy warrior-avatars to be unrestrained and indestructible. We demand that they comply with an increasingly shrill and dehumanizing value set that we communicate by yelling PLAY THROUGH PAIN and THAT GUY IS A SOLDIER and THE TRENCHES and GO TO WAR WITH THESE GUYS and NEVER BACK DOWN. We love coaches who never sleep, stars who live to win, transition graphics that take out the electrical grid in Kandahar. We love pregame flyovers that culminate in actual airstrikes.
And of course this affects the players. Locker-room guy-culture is one thing; the idea that any form of perceived vulnerability is a Marxist shadow plot is something else. It’s a human inevitability that when you assemble a group of hypercompetitive young men some of them will go too far, or will get off on torturing the others — which is why it’s maybe a good idea, cf. the real-life military, to have a system in place to keep this in check. What we have instead is a cynical set of institutional fetishes that rewards unhealthy behavior. The same 110-percent-never-give-an-inch rhetoric that makes concussed players feign health on game day encourages hazing creep after practice. Don’t believe that? I’ve got a helmet-to-helmet hit here for you, and that’ll be $15,000, petunia.
This of course reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s amazing essay on pro tennis, “The String Theory” (which I riffed on with respect to broader athlete culture during a guest stint at Kottke.)
But it also resonated with this story Adam Rothstein pointed me to today, about the culture of police officers and police encounters. It’s called “An Ex-Cop’s Guide To Not Getting Arrested.“
Every interaction with a police officer entails two contests: One for “psychological dominance” and one for “custody of your body.” Carson advises giving in on the first contest in order to win the second. Is that belittling? Of course. “Being questioned by police is insulting,” Carson writes. “It is, however, less insulting than being arrested. What I’m advising you to do when questioned by police is pocket the insult. This is difficult and emotionally painful.”
Make eye contact, but don’t smile. “Cops don’t like smiles.”
Winning the psychological battle requires you to be honest with cops, polite, respectful, and resistant to incitement. “If cops lean into your space and blast you with coffee-and-stale-donut breath, ignore it,” Carson writes. Same goes for if they poke you in the chest or use racial slurs. “If you react, you’ll get busted.” Make eye contact, but don’t smile. “Cops don’t like smiles.” Always tell the truth. “Lying is complicated, telling the truth is simple.”
He also says you should be dignified — unless it looks like you’re about to lose both the psychological contest and the one for custody of your body. In which case, you should be strategically pitiful.
I want to be clear — this is insane. This is all some real PTSD shit. These are mechanisms that make a bit of strategic sense in dealing with an abusive parent, or surviving in the Jim Crow South. They are not and must not be tools for dealing with civil servants upholding law and order, in playing a game, or dealing with your colleagues in the workplace. (Always remember, pro sports are both of the latter.)
I mean, maybe we are all suffering with a form of PTSD, after centuries of patriarchy, racial violence, labor violence, and warfare whose legitimacy suddenly (from the long view of eternity) seems suspect. And if PTSD is the wrong acronym, let’s borrow the new term of art football has made famous. What we have is chronic traumatic masculinity syndrome.
Just like NFL players suffer long-term brain damage from both hitting with and suffering damage to their heads, we as a culture are suffering from long-term damage both from and to an parodic and extremely pathological image of masculinity.
As it’s being chased out of places where it used to be welcomed — the household, the workplace, even the military — this strain of CTM pops up in a concentrated form, like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, in a handful of spaces. Pro sports. The police. Wall Street. Rap music. Reddit threads. (NB: I like all of these things, at least MINUS the bullshit masculinity people feel the need to display there.)
It’s a toxic expression of our long-toxic history, that not only subjects, objectifies, and physically and emotionally abuses women, but stops seeing men as people with feelings, with internal organs other than the ones they use to hit each other, but as generators of violence, and statistics.
“Law enforcement officers now are part of the revenue gathering system,” Carson tells me in a phone interview. “The ranks of cops are young and competitive, they’re in competition with one another and intra-departmentally. It becomes a game. Policing isn’t about keeping streets safe, it’s about statistical success. The question for them is, Who can put the most people in jail?”
CTM has no easy solutions or easy cure. But just like in football, the activism will have to start from within. And we’d better find a way to get real with the story, pronto.