Months after I left Wesleyan University to go back to my New Jersey “nest,” our nation’s attention shifted from World Cup football back to our favorite flavor of football. I do not hail from an area where the gridiron is as holy as God and guns, but one where it nonetheless holds a significant sway on our culture. My father is a fan of the ever-hapless Jets, so I had to prepare for his boundless pre-game excitement turning into disappointment. Every single week.
To many ardent football fans, this point of the season marks the beginning of the exciting part, where the race to the Super Bowl begins. To me, the season ended a month ago. The whole league lost.
The recent off-field scandals trump any on-field action in importance. The national football system has already triggered too many flags for unsportsmanlike conduct, worse than the sort that warrants fifteen-yard penalties. That off-field scandals happen all too frequently is bad enough, but we have never seen such a spate of criminal actions.
Some of our beloved gladiators acted as if the violent zeitgeist of the gridiron were somehow acceptable off the field. That would be laughable but for the horrors of their actions. The cases of Ray Rice and Jonathan Dwyer – among others – shed light on our nation’s disturbing problem of domestic violence against women. Adrian Peterson’s case goes further by calling attention to domestic violence against children.
In my native New Jersey, a prominent high school football program was suspended over allegations that older members of the team hazed their younger peers. The superintendent of Sayreville, NJ made the bold move of cancelling the season in a town where football contributes heavily to civic pride. I hope that similar measures occur elsewhere.
But we have yet to see accountability in the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell’s reputation fell during the resurgent controversy over the name of the Washington team, but it slid further – and more steeply – after his league botched the domestic violence cases. Most notably, Goodell had to backtrack his two-game suspension for Rice. In trying to tackle his own league, Goodell has tackled himself.
All of this adds to a perfect storm that has removed some of the luster from sports, exacerbating a trend sparked by the steroids scandal. The few sportsmen who did it right, like baseball’s Derek Jeter, were never hailed as much as those who acted criminally.
For the men – the gender that is more associated with all areas of sports, from participation to viewership – this poses a headache. I cannot help but think about another bastion of male culture that has undergone a similar PR problem: the college fraternity.
I served on the Wesleyan Student Assembly when it held a strenuous and divisive debate over Wesleyan’s residential fraternities. The leaders of liberal faction – of a left-leaning student body, mind you – pointed to the role that fraternity spaces play in the disturbing uptick in sexual assaults on campus. I agreed with their desire for expanded bystander intervention training for all brothers and prospective brothers, mandating Public Safety access to all spaces, enforcing fire code at parties, and ensuring that the fraternities would honor the Code of Non-Academic Conduct. Worried that the transition from fraternities to societies will be problematic, I did not advocate for Wesleyan’s co-education mandate as many of my peers did. Indeed, I expressed concern that the co-education mandate would create yet another unnecessary rift between parts of the Wesleyan community. The logistics could potentially be difficult, and it could take longer than three years for the two remaining residential fraternities to co-educate.
But Murtagh and Jarris’ gender-fueled perspective helped me realize a disturbing fact. I knew that the fraternities were unsafe once the crowds became messier than a dorm room, but in struggling to navigate party traffic, I did not realize how endangered too many women have felt in those spaces. Without the perspectives of student feminists, I (along with many other men) would not have known that my gender has put too many damsels in distress. Did pop culture teach us anything – like not to put them in distress? Apparently not with these fraternities.
After I read about Wesleyan’s decision to implement many Greek reforms including mandatory co-education, then I read news about reforms at Dartmouth, where the controversial “pledge term” was eliminated. Amherst, of course, doubled down on its 1984 ban by applying it to underground fraternities. And across the nation, many fraternities have rightly come under fire for a long national string of incidents involving sexual assault, alcohol abuse, and even death.
The college fraternity: another institution that young boys and men have looked up to, supposedly a paragon of leadership, tainted by criminal behavior among members.
With these two touchstones of American masculine culture ruined, I realize that this generation of boys and men faces a major challenge.
We are often told, ”Be a man!” and “Man up!” Not just to toughen up, but also to accept responsibility, to embrace challenges. To be a man rather than a boy. But, in an age where there exists a stereotype of the American “man-child,” how should boys become mature men?
We do not have many high-profile role models. Our athletes cheat. Our leaders do not command respect. Many of our dirty-mouthed pop idols spout lyrics as profane as their deeds – or perhaps the other way around?
Perhaps it is because our modern pop culture only values people and places of the moment. What we teach our boys can sometimes have many contradictions. For example, we somehow instill in our school-age boys that singing, dancing, and acting are more “girly” activities. Are they? Not if you have heard Frank Sinatra, seen Fred Astaire, or attended a school party. Ronald Reagan once said, “Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes, they just don’t know where to look.” We should encourage our boys – and even our men – to become lifelong students, to be more receptive to people and ideas from across history and around the world.
Maybe it is because we cannot always separate the good from the bad in this climate of consistent social media pressure. In many cases, this is for the best; the bad actions that our ‘heroes’ commit become cautionary tales. Wesleyan’s chapter of Beta Theta Pi may be rightfully suspended, but we can all promote the fraternity’s values – mutual assistance, intellectual growth, trust, responsible conduct, and integrity.
Whatever the reason, I believe that society is starting to challenge my gender to transform itself for the better. Betty Friedan wrote about The Feminine Mystique; we are now starting to apply to masculinity a form of analysis that we have seen feminists apply to femininity over the last half-century.
How will this trend pan out? Only time will tell. But we can learn much from the example of the ladies – who have incorporated nominally masculine traits like strength, courage, and the ability to command respect into modern femininity. Can the men do something similar? I think so – we can incorporate feminine traits like emotional honesty, compassion, and empathy into modern manhood. Those traits can also help us gain some of our lost confidence and courage.
This will allow society to promote the best aspects of the NFL, the college fraternity, and other masculine spheres. They have so much social capital that, when channeled correctly, it can inspire a new and better generation of boys and men.
The best way to “be a man,” it seems, is to embrace changing norms while channeling masculine energy in ways that can benefit all. We might have witnessed the fall of masculinity as we once knew it, or maybe there have been more changes in a short period of time than we could have anticipated. Either way, this generation of men wields a golden opportunity: to transform from a lost generation of men to a great one, and to beget even greater ones.