Monday, November 11, 2013

Cancerous Sub-cultures

“Hey Spiro, why don’t you come over to the [Delta Tau Delta] house on Saturday night.  We’re importing forty bush from Mills [College].”

It has been roughly 3 ½ decades since I heard that quotation, but I’ve never forgotten it.  I doubt I ever will.  It was in reference to the fraternity at Stanford known at the time as the “football frat,” though it was said by a resident of that house who was not on the football team.   He actually seemed to me to be  a pretty nice guy.   I suspect he wasn’t even a sexist, if by that term you mean someone who either looks down on or dislikes women.  He was simply speaking in the parlance of his subculture – for in certain fraternities at certain “elite schools,” when you bring in large numbers of women from lesser-known colleges, they are collectively known by words like “bush.”  All in fun, right?

A few years later, when I was attending Harvard Law School, I remember a group of guys getting together to form an organization known as the “Armadillo Club.”   The Club invited ladies from local women’s colleges to come and meet them – the thinking being that the women would hope that they could maybe snatch a Harvard Law Student, no pun intended, and persuade them to become their husband, whereas the men would take advantage of the opportunity and maybe “get lucky.”  While I never attended one of the Armadillo Club’s parties – just as I never joined a fraternity at Stanford -- my guess is that when the ladies walked into those affairs in droves, they were thought of as little more than potential sex objects.  All in fun, right?

It might be nice to get on one’s high horse and look down on such “animals” from above.  But the truth is that we all have an id, and some of us are just better able to sublimate it than others.  In my case, while I was never tempted to treat women the way they did at Delta Tau Delta or the Armadillo Club, I had no problem turning on a boxing match or a football game on TV and cheering on a devastating hit.  Clearly, there was something in my viscera that resonated with the violence I was watching, something that caused me to prefer those sports to more civilized alternatives, like golf, tennis or baseball. Taking extreme delight in watching a defensive end slam a quarterback to the ground isn’t exactly something that Mr. Spock would approve, but I know that emotion all too well.  I knew I had an issue when I felt that rush of pleasure in a situation where I didn’t even have a rooting interest in the game.  It is a purely animalistic feeling, but it is also an all-too-human feeling.  The last I checked, we are indeed very ape-like. 

I mention my own experience with the frat-boy subculture because that was what I was most reminded of when I first heard about the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito debacle a couple of weeks ago.  In case you aren’t familiar with the story, Martin and Incognito are two 300+ pound behemoths who, until very recently, started on the offensive line of the Miami Dolphins.  Incognito was presented in the media as the Cro-Magnon “bully,” whereas Martin was sometimes criticized as the “wuss” who couldn’t handle the bullying and ran to his parents … and his lawyer … for help.   I suppose that, like other scandals, we consumers of news are supposed to get on our high horse and look down on one or both of these men, and/or the “locker room culture” that spawned them.  But I was taking this scandal a bit more personally.   This time, part of me felt personally responsible for the scandal.

No, I haven’t engaged in the type of hazing that seemed to be at the root of this mess. But I am a loyal fan of the National Football League, and one might even say, I am a football addict who has stood by the league through thick and thin.  Until a few days ago, when I cancelled my subscription so as to avoid feeling any guiltier than I already felt, I had been paying hundreds of dollars a year to watch the “NFL Sunday Ticket,” a package that I’ve owned for 16 years.  I’ve also attended games and even a summer training camp, and have purchased several jerseys.  Ever since I was five years old, I’ve loved the sport and enjoyed watching it played at its highest level.  But after watching so many NFL players rush to the defense of the “bully” Incognito, I guess you can say I snapped.  I needed to do something to tell the league that I was sick of the culture of football, and that’s why I cancelled my subscription to the Sunday Ticket.  I had to at least make some kind of statement that enough is enough.

Do we really need locker room hazing – and I mean hazing of any kind, even the “harmless” variety where the rookies carry the veterans’ shoulder pads?   I think not.  We certainly don’t have that kind of junk in my law office.  It demeans people and there isn’t anything remotely funny about it. 
Nor is it funny when a veteran and team leader calls a relatively inexperienced player a “half n___er” and says that he is going to kill him and slap his mother.  And what truly isn’t funny is the number of players around the league who were quick to forgive that conduct and to condemn the recipient of that message because he didn’t keep his complaints “in house.”  When I watched these players interviewed, I realized that even though I too have an id, I couldn’t relate to their attitude.  Something is clearly profoundly wrong here, and it disgusted me to think that these problems might be swept under the rug.  

Of course, that is precisely what the NFL had been doing for years.  For this is the league that would tell players who had been pounded in the head to get back out on the playing field.  “He just had his bell rung,” was what the announcers would say.   And it was all in fun – until it was revealed that one former player after another after another … were coming down with serious brain injuries that either ended or at least ruined their lives.   What did the NFL know and when did it know it?  I couldn’t tell you, for the geniuses in the league office figured out a way to keep the problem “in house.”

What they couldn’t keep bottled up quite so easily was the evidence of all the players who had trouble walking without a limp because of all the abuse their bodies took, or the evidence of all the violent crimes that these players committed.   I had been hearing these stories for decades, but recently, the problems seem to be even harder to ignore.   In the words of a recent Thomas Boswell column in the Washington Post, “The NFL is now the league of murder charges against Aaron Hernandez – gang execution style.   The NFL is the league of murder, then suicide, with Jovan Belcher killing his girlfriend and then shooting himself in the head in a parking lot by his stadium as his coach and his general manager watched.   … The NFL is the league of chronic degenerative injuries and grotesquely crippled stars. …   The NFL is the league where famous teams and coaches … are fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for cheating, where a Super Bowl winning coach … is suspended for a year because his assistants offered cash bounties to injure opposing players (more if they are carried off the field).  It’s the league that suspends and fines [a player] for intentional hits to the head only to have him respond that he’ll just switch to ‘ending careers’ with hits to the knee. … The NFL is the league where star quarterbacks face sexual harassment or rape charges and a hero of the last Super Bowl has beaten a murder rap.”

I could go on for a while listing all of the things that shame football fanatics like me, and indeed, Boswell did just that.  But I think you get the point.  The Incognito/Martin mess was just another brick in the wall, as Pink Floyd might say.   It surely packed a stronger punch for me because Martin was a Stanford grad who came from a Harvard family, but I’d like to think that no matter where he attended school, I would have been sickened by the event … just as I have been sickened by so many other NFL stories that I have been reading about for years.  

When I called up Direct TV last week and told them that I had to suspend my subscription to the Sunday Ticket, I admitted that I loved football and could well resume my subscription next year but couldn’t in good conscience continue it for the present.  What I was thinking when I sent that message was that I couldn’t allow myself to watch grown men act with the stupidity of that kid who was psyched to see all those “bush” enter into his fraternity.  And yes, I see what is happening in the locker rooms of the NFL as part and parcel of the same attitude that I witnessed in college fraternities, and that is likely at the root of the dozens of thousands of sexual assaults in the military that purportedly go unpunished every year. 
We all have our ids.  But can’t we at least keep them to ourselves?  Do we have to reinforce each other’s animalistic sides, and then complain when one of our fellow animals doesn’t keep the problem “in house”?  

Some of the talking heads on TV like to differentiate between “harmless hazing” and conduct like Incognito’s that went “too far.”  But when it comes to demeaning other human beings – men or women, All-American football players or anonymous “bush” – what do you say we just put an end to it.  I mean all of it.  If that threatens to take away the locker room humor, I suggest that these football players might want to try making puns instead.  They are, after all, college boys, aren’t they?   Maybe it’s time that they put those “scholarships” to good use. 

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