How ‘Locker Room Behavior’ Hurts Us All

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I believe that you can win a football game without being racist, sexist, and homophobic. I believe that you can be great without demeaning and subjugating others. But we all have to believe that.

Sports are a hot mess right now. In the last three months, we’ve seen at least two incidents of a white male football player screaming anti-black racial epithets and the run to shield such behavior from public criticism. In one such recent event, former Dolphins lineman Lydon Murtha defended Richie Incognito, now infamous for harassing his teammate, Jonathan Martin, by threatening to gang-rape his sister and referring to him as a “half-nigger.” Murtha’s explanation of such behavior: Football is about being men.

“This is a game of high testosterone, with men hammering their bodies on a daily basis. You are taught to be an aggressive person, and you typically do not make it to the NFL if you are a passive person. There are a few, but it’s very hard. Playing football is a man’s job, and if there’s any weak link, it gets weeded out. It’s the leaders’ job on the team to take care of it.”

Now, in a white, male-supremacist society, calling someone a “nigger” and being physically aggressive somehow makes you a super-Man, with a capital M. In a society largely controlled by property-owning, land-stealing, vote-wielding, and law-making white men, we’ve shaped our culture to revere brutal and subjugating behavior, especially when it comes from white guys. There’s a long, bloody history to that, which most of us can easily recall.

I’m not as much invested in theorizing why men “behave badly,” whatever the hell that means, as I am in thinking critically about why we don’t care that they do. Or, at the very least, understanding why we seem to balk at holding them accountable for such behavior. In a world where men—mostly white men—make the rules, they don’t seem to play by them very much.

In arenas dominated by white men, we’ve come to expect lewdness, sexual objectification, and unprofessionalism to be the norm. We even give it an affectionate, harmless sounding label: “locker room behavior.” As if there should be any space, private or public, that allows for the unapologetic demeaning or abuse of any oppressed group or marginalized person.

Our language makes room for sexism, bends over backward to allow for racism, and steps out of the way for domination. We’ve come to believe that being thoughtful, caring, compassionate, intelligent, informed, and respectful is just a façade that covers the brute inside—we strip these things away, we get raw power unbridled. We get to win. And this is especially (and almost singularly true) for white guys.

In the media, the arrogant, unthinking, cruel, detached, but super competent and better-than-everyone-else-so-his-behavior-is accepted white man has become an entire television genre (think House, Lie to Me, Elementary, CSI, NCIS, and many, many more). You’re allowed to be an awful, uncaring person as long as you’re good at something (well, as long as you’re not good at being good). In some sort of reverse social-contract, we’ve allowed callousness and innate superiority to mark our anti-hero (but really, hero). Because, as much as we pretend to like the rules, we like cowboys even more.

And this locker room mentality reverberates far outside of football fields and TV screens. What am I talking about? I’m talking about the rigorous physical exams for police and firefighters that mostly function as entry barriers against women (since these tests aren’t required to stay on duty), or intelligence tests that actually ban high-scorers. I’m talking about the high-powered bankers at Goldman Sachs sexually assaulting female co-workers and making fun of Asians in work e-mails. Or politicians who visit strip joints on fundraising outings, use profanity and name-calling when dealing with female co-workers (including the First Lady), and even our own President who only invites men to chummy pick-up basketball games at the White House. I’m talking about officials regularly covering up drunken police shooting incidents or sexual and physical assaults, and firemen still refusing to hire blacks. We stick up for rapists in Steubenville and demonize rape victims in Maryland. We honor President Bill Clinton and force Monica Lewinsky into hiding. And we leave little boys to defend themselves against the likes of Jerry Sandusky. This is not just some sort of frivolous boys’ club—it’s a boys’ nation.

But I’m over this “boys will be boys” shit. Men, in every profession, should be expected to operate off of more than emotions and instincts. They should be expected to be professionals.

These moments of scandal around race and gender remind us just how seductive and internalized racism and sexism are in our everyday lives. On an unconscious level, we understand that using racial and sexual epithets signals power and domination, but we have yet to figure out how to separate one from the other. We pretend that we don’t understand the violence of “locker room” spaces and the exclusions they reproduce, but we’re also convinced that you can’t succeed without these versions of “brotherhood.”

Multi-billion dollar franchises are built on the idea that masculinity, with all of its pretensions, is key to victory. And as citizens, we model these values with policies that attack women, starve the poor, neglect children, and protect abusers. America’s history is built on the destruction and exploitation of others. It makes sense that America’s children only understand this form of power as a way of life.

But, at some point, we have to believe that the brute doesn’t always win and that the weak don’t need to be crushed in order for others to get ahead. And then we have to build a society that reflects those values. I believe that you can win a football game without being racist, sexist, and homophobic. I believe that you can be great without demeaning and subjugating others. But we all have to believe that.

Some folks might say “but he was only joking about raping his sister,” or think the word “nigger” is harmless. “These were only jokes between friends,” they might point out. Indeed, humor is as much about context as it is about words. But what is behind these jokes? What makes them so appealing?

Scholars have long pointed out that a funny joke requires a structure, a pattern that is recognizable. Often jokes use someone else’s pain as a source of bemusement, while at the same time distancing that person as real or their suffering as important. Jokes minimize, trivialize, and generalize, and often rely on superiority, aggression, and incongruity. They are at their best when they are subversive, exposing the systems that constrict and limit us (as women, as people of color, as immigrants, as disabled people, etc.). But jokes are at their worst when their humor just reiterates and reproduces the hatefulness and ugliness of those very systems. Jokes are, indeed, a part of our cultural fabric, but they’re never “just jokes.”

What’s happening in sports—and all the excuses about the ways in which men act as men behind closed doors—mirrors our societal values and the passive ways we allow for oppression to continue as the status quo. Because, for many of us, America without white supremacy, patriarchy, and heterosexism doesn’t sound like any America we recognize.

But defining strength and weakness along lines of gender, sexuality, and race just puts us all into little boxes—ones that make it impossible for some folks to see that you can be both tough and female, masculine and compassionate, weak and strong.

Football might be just a sport, but how we play it (both on and off the field) says a lot about who we are.

Khadijah Costley White is a faculty member in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.

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