Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Watching Football with The Boy

This past weekend all four of us started watching the Jets-Steelers game. The Wife and The Girl peeled off early, but The Boy stuck with me for almost the entire first half.

(I rarely watch football, other than the Super Bowl. This was unusual for us.)

I didn’t have a strong rooting interest going in. My pro football universe consists of the Forces of Light (Buffalo), almost everyone else, and the Forces of Darkness (Dallas). Admittedly, the Forces of Light have had a rough decade, but these things happen. Since both the Jets and the Steelers fall into the middle category, I wasn’t terribly invested. I’ve rooted for the Steelers before, since I like any team that routinely makes the Cowboys’ lives miserable. And I’ve rooted for the Jets before, just because I dimly recall that they once had a quarterback for about ten minutes who was named after Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which struck me as cool. (Browning Nagle -- look it up!) But neither could be called fandom.

This time around, though, it was all Jets. Explaining that to The Boy was tricky.

Although I have nothing against the Steelers as a team, I couldn’t abide Ben Roethlisberger’s sexual assault case. Though never convicted, what he did was apparently bad enough that the league suspended him for four games. I’m no expert on the case; my impression was that it amounted to rape. (I’m at a loss to explain why raping a woman leads to a lighter punishment than staging dogfights does, but I’m no expert on football.) I don’t ask athletes to be role models in all aspects of their lives, but sexual assault was a bit much.

I just wasn’t sure how much to share with TB.

This may all sound trivial, but football is one of those iconically masculine touchpoints in American culture. TB is curious about what it means to be a man, and I’m acutely aware that he sees me every single day. He hasn’t yet hit the age at which I turn stupid; in his eyes, I’m still a pretty smart guy. He wanted to watch the game with me not because he particularly cares about football -- he doesn’t -- but because it was the kind of thing that boys do with their Dads. He wants to be part of the club, and he looks to me to teach him the rules of the club.

So I told him that I was rooting for the Jets because the Steelers’ quarterback attacked a woman, and that that is not how a real man treats women. I told him that a man who treats women that way is not worthy of respect. He seemed to accept that.

Later, after he went to bed, I thought about it some more. He’s not some androgynous cipher, or a tabula rasa. He’s a specific, three-dimensional boy. He’s tall for his age, and well on his way to being tall for any age. He plays basketball and builds sculptures and wants to go to M.I.T. In a few years, the hormones will kick in, and he’ll have to find his way through the sheer hell of adolescence.

He needs a model of manhood that he can actually use. Asking him to transcend gender right before junior high would be stupid, if not insane. He will want to be part of the club, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t.

For all the gender theory I waded through -- and yes, dear readers, I did -- the on-the-ground version of masculinity that I keep coming back to as a regulative ideal is something like a gentleman. Not a Sensitive New Age Guy, since that always struck me as creepily passive-aggressive, and certainly not a frat guy. Something more like a self-possessed, confident man who thinks enough of himself to treat others with respect. Not a saint or a martyr, but a decent man who understands, even if imperfectly, that his actions affect other people. My grandfather was like that, even if he would never use terms like these.

There’s no reason that a good man couldn’t watch, play, and enjoy sports. TB loves playing basketball, and we’ve even made the pilgrimage to the Basketball Hall of Fame. (I can’t wait to make the trek to Cooperstown for the baseball version.) It’s great that he gets exercise and plays with other kids. It’s fun to win, and healthy to learn how to lose. And as he gets older, he’ll find that some level of basic fluency in high-profile sports is a valuable cross-class and cross-race topic of conversation with other men. In some settings, opting out of that would be conspicuous, and even costly in certain ways.

I just don’t want him to have to buy into macho-jock-asshole culture to do it. I want him to understand that there’s a difference between being a man and joining the He-Man Woman Hater’s Club.

Teaching a thoughtful boy is a challenge in this culture. One of his friends at school told him about watching games at a Hooters restaurant with his Dad; I had to explain, carefully, why we don’t and won’t go there. Boys in groups can get carried away -- being in the group while maintaining your own sense of boundaries can be hard even for adults. And if I hear about one more kid at school whose parents let him have a tv in his room...

The Steelers won the game, so we’ll be cheeseheads for the Super Bowl. I’ll explain why again. The game will be fun, we’ll have snacks, and we’ll do a running commentary on the ads. Maybe, if I’m really lucky, he’ll carry some emotional memory of that with him in a few years when the hormones kick in and Dad is suddenly, inexplicably dumb. We’re not quite there yet; he can still hear me. I hope he hears the right things. Roethlisberger may be a great quarterback, but TB has a shot at being a good man.

It's impressive to hear you articulate these issues with raising your son. I have no children (and no brothers) so the issue of how boys grow up is something distant from my life. But the oppressive sexist "jock" attitude is one I am well aware of (Oppressive not just to women, but to the male culture at large).

As has a sister, surely that might help? (as you point out, you will "become stupid" in his eyes but she might not).

Buy him a copy of Catcher in the Rye and hope for the best?
Why, DD, it sounds like you're channelling Harvey Mansfield, not Foucault. Are you turning over a new leaf here?

If it helps, you could tell TB that when Roethlisberger student taught my daughter's PE class, he wasn't a very good teacher. You might also look on the web for a funny set of interviews with players from Iowa (the only team to beat him his senior year) talking about him on ESPN.

Go Packers!
"I’m at a loss to explain why raping a woman leads to a lighter punishment than staging dogfights does, but I’m no expert on football."

Because sexual assault, in all its forms, is endemic to professional and Division I collegiate sports, and the media, legal system, and sports establishment are well-used to looking the other way. Dogfighting was out of the ordinary.
Because sexual assault, in all its forms, is endemic to professional and Division I collegiate sports

Or because convicted =/= not convicted. Except to academics like the Duke 88 whose ideology tells them all they need to know.
Your son will learn far more from what you do than what you say when it comes to being the man you are trying to raise him into. That being said, "train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it." Wise words that certainly served my parents well.
Tell him you are rooting for the Packers because, in the finest tradition of progressive capitalism, the team is owned by its fans.
rape allegations are tough. i had a good friend in high school who told us another friend had raped her at a party (that i was at as well), and we ostracized him. she never went to the police, and later told us that it was consensual. she knew it would ruin their friendship, was upset, & didn't want people to think she was easy. i felt bad for the guy; we ruined high school for him.

my brother had a friend who was accused/arrested of being a member of a gang rape in high school. fortunately for one of the boys, one of them recorded the incident on his cell phone (for bragging rights), and it showed that the encounter was obviously consensual. if that cell phone had not been on, a couple of kids would have went to prison and had their lives ruined.

my point is, that is an insanely tough subject, and it is a two way street. my parents always taught me to be mindful of my situation, so that i could never be accused of such things. while i went to parties and whatnot in high school & college, i was very aware of what i was doing, and never put myself in a situation where i could be questioned. i will have the same discussion with my own son.

while i could care less about either team, i think you should do a little more research before you create your bias.

mark sanchez (jets QB) also had rape allegations brought upon him while he was at USC, but they were dismissed in the same way ben's were (lack of evidence).

there was also that little incident regarding Brett Favre, a few text messages, and a Jets employee; an incident the Jets very much want to dismiss and sweep under the rug.

then there was the incident early this season about a hispanic reporter getting cat-called in the Jets locker room, and the Jets dismissed it as jocular behavior (i don't think women should be allowed in the locker room, and interviews should not be conducted in there).

there was also the Jets coach who tripped an opposing team member during the middle of the play (happened late in the season).

in September, the Jets' star receiver Braylon Edwards was given a DUI.

then there is antonio cromarte (Jets safety), who has 8 different kids from 7 different women, and who had to get the Jets to front him $500k so he could pay his child support. great role model! at least he is paying!

cheering for an NFL team based upon ethical taboo is a slippery slope. chances are, there are guys on the other team who are just as bad.

NFL football is human cockfighting. it's sure fun, but idolizing any of it is bad.
Your son is probably too young for this right now, and maybe the cut and dry "he did it, and what he did was wrong, and NO means NO" story is the right one to tell. On the other hand, perhaps to be saved for another day, there's a more complicated story to tell both a son and a daughter -- and no, it in no way exonerates Roethlisberger. In all likelihood, he's guilty and criminally liable. Still, it's a story of stupidity, bad decisions, wrong messages sent in the wrong place at the wrong time and in the wrong, umm, state of mind.

Rape charges *are* hard to prove. According to the smoking gun article on the subject, investigators were only able to retrieve trace amounts of male DNA. "Because she said so" after the fact should not ever meet the "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" standard.

The lessons for this kids are:

TG: Don't put yourself in a position where things like that can happen to her.

TB: Don't put yourself in a position where girls can make allegations like that.
Way, way too touchy feely. When I watch with my son I talk about strategy, 3-4 vs 4-3, what the penalties are, and just enjoy the quality play. Often while hoisting a cold one. Man up, DD, and enjoy the game, you are thinking WAY too much.
Anonymous @7:20:

I predict that your kid will grow up to be one of those men who can't talk for more than 30 seconds on any subject other than sports. I pity the boy.
Or because convicted =/= not convicted.

Yes, thank you. I'm in no way defending Roethlisberger, who is a dunderheaded moron in about a dozen different ways, but I do think that it's important to distinguish between someone who was CONVICTED of a crime, and someone who was ACCUSED, but never actually charged with anything.

Did Roethlisberger probably do something incredibly stupid? Absolutely. Possibly criminal? It would not surprise me in the least. But he was never charged or convicted of anything. That does matter, although probably not to a little kid, of course.
Hi Shane! Thanks so much for the comments! Actually, both boys are straight "A" students. And we talk quite openly of the dangers of sexual harassment and of consequences for bad choices.
Is it fair to dislike a team because of the off the field actions of a single player? For that matter, how would one weigh Roethlisberger's actions with those of Jet’s receiver Braylon Edwards, whose decision to drive while under the influence of alcohol put lives in needless danger?

Maybe it’s best to respect that NFL players are the best at their craft, which is a combination of more than a decade of hard work, God-given genetics, and crazy luck.
I also have a son but no brothers and worry more than a little about my bright little boy and what "boy culture" will do to his ability to express his intelligence without getting his ass kicked. Learning how to fly under the radar for boys is a survival skill but teaching him to do that will break my heart. At 4, my boy idolizes his older sister and wants to do everything she does, including wear a tiara and tutu during dress-up. He stuffs the Barbie car with dinosaurs and drives it around the house. He loves pink. He plays house. He asked me to teach him to knit and to sew. I haven’t the heart to stop him even though I know he’ll be given hell for doing any of those things once he gets to school. I hate the subtly misogynistic subtext that diverting him from “girlie” activities and “girl” colors delivers. I think you’re right DD, that teaching boys and girls to be honorable and gentle with the feelings and ideas of others is the way to go – but there’s no reward for decency other than your own feeling of satisfaction at being the kind of person you want to be. That’s hard to sell to kids at any age.
A couple things that helped me with this sort of thing:

1) Women, even girls, are people, and are therefore as different between each other as your male friends are between one another.

2) The only real yes is an enthusiastic yes.

There's a website devoted to exploring these issues called the Art of Manliness. It's a little raw, and it glosses over some stuff, but the essential ideal is a strong and self-reliant adult who is capable of comprehending his limited nature. Good for women, too, but especially good for men, who are taught that weakness is unacceptable and the only real definition of masculinity is dominance.
On a more frivolous note, there is another reason to root for the Packers. Aaron Rogers went to Butte Community College, a CC north of Sacramento, when he wasn't offered a scholarship. Although he transferred to Cal as a sophomore, he frequently wears a Butte shirt when interviewed.
It seems to me that TB learned that his Dad has principles and morals and practices them with his choice of football teams.

His Dad telling him what is "proper" and "improper" is how TB learns to handle life situations.

Reminds me of when I was a 6 year old girl and my mother told me that bright red lipstick should not be worn by married women, with that voice which she often used to voice disapproval of certain behavior. She didn't go into details, just one of those things like use a hanky to cover your nose when you sneeze.

I never wore bright red lipstick after I got married.
Thank you for this. I hope to remember it in a few years when my little guy starts asking about the game.

I myself am perfectly able to give up entirely on football- to write it off as a twisted machismo obsessed subculture. I'm not to sure there is a *morally correct* choice on who to cheer.
But I am not a boy, who will be judged by his adherence to these (silly) norms. I can be clever enough to have something other than sports (or religion or politics) to talk to people about.
Good for you, DD. Most dads would not think about this type of thing. The question of how to handle "boy culture" has been something I've been thinking about for a while. I don't have children, but I do have a half-brother who is considerably younger than I am. I'm not yet sure how to react, except to hope and pray that what I read in the media about casual high school oral sex is not actually true!
Great post. Very thoughtful and thought-provoking (Ummmm--are you sure you're a dean? I'm just kidding.).
We struggle with similar questions regarding our 10 yr old son. Organized sports like football--watching it, playing it--can be rough.
Beautifully written post about fatherhood. You're insightful to realize that TB will start to value your opinions less and less as he ages. But as a 24-year-old, let me reassure you by admitting that after my teenage rebellion was over, I went back to my dad routinely for guidance and advice and still do.

Instilling respect for women early on sounds like a good idea, especially if your son is heading down a life path replete with locker room camaraderie and hormone-addled cheerleaders.

Finally, I agree with your point about the modern gentleman, and I espouse a similar ideal for myself. It doesn't take aristocratic blood to make oneself noble; simply a consideration for others, as well as oneself.
Explaining that Roethlisberger did something not nice seems easy compared to explaining why you won't join his friend's dad at Hooters; after all your son doesn't have to interact with Roethlisberger.

What did you say then to get across the message that you didn't think the concept of Hooters was particularly moral, while not denigrating his friend's family?
Commenting on the Super Bowl ads should provide plenty of teaching moments. Last year's ads were particularly full of misogyny.
Such a thoughtful ode to parenting a boy. I enjoyed every word.

I struggle with the cultural influence of sports on the boys. It's the bread and butter of their peers as they move into the middle elementary grades, and I feel like I should be taking some sort of remedial hockey lessons so I can pass on some form of athletic crib notes to them -- a fake it 'til you make it sort of thing.

Raising gentlemen is exactly what I'm aspiring to -- though you'd never know it if you sat in on the average family dinner lately. *rolls eyes*

FWIW, I think that in the thinking about these things, and sharing your thoughts with him, you're more than halfway home.
Good luck on getting TB into MIT. I met my wife there 40 years ago. When our kids applied to colleges, the standards had apparently risen, and though the kids equalled or exceeded us in grades and SATs, none could gain admittance. MIT is greatly oversubscribed by top students.
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