Men and football go together like men and F-150 Fords. Most guys love the game. Those who don’t probably won’t advertise their dislike but may sit quietly eating Doritos and checking Facebook as their friends hoot and holler watching their team on the big screen. Why? Because football is the quintessential “tough guy” sport—only the burly, athletic, aggressive, and dominating men can play and excel. In fact, for many men, football is about life.
The rules that men live by — known as the “man-pact”—teach men that the world is best run with order, predictability, and lines of command in social hierarchies. It’s common to hear men lament the good ol’ days when students didn’t act up in class, athletes listened to coaches, and kids obeyed their parents because they knew the rules and the damning consequences of not following them.
Today, in a society that prizes egalitarianism rather than relying on social hierarchies, these same men lament that everything seems negotiable, murky, disordered, and yes …, unpredictable. Although the good ol’ days may have been complicated, at least there were the social rules and order such as patriarchy, corporal punishment, and authoritative liberties to manage the two-minute drill. It now seems to many men as if they’re standing on the field not knowing how many yards to a first down or whether the final touchdown wins the game or is negotiable. The old playbook is no longer relevant and they are unclear about the new rules of relationships and business.
They can, however, still find structure and familiarity in the resounding call of “Are you ready for some football?!!!!” There is a visceral release in the game’s aggressive and combative nature. But, men’s attraction to football goes beyond the tackles and touchdowns; it’s a game of dominance, aggression, and order. If the quarterback sustains injury during a brutal sack, it’s fair game, as long as the sack wasn’t “unnecessary roughness.” The same rules exist for men off the playing field.
Rules of the man-pack
Men will cope and tolerate pain, banter, and bullying amongst men as long as it follows the lines of command in the social order. For example, the foreman can yell and shame an assembly-line worker, but not the other way around. And although the assembly-line worker follows the rules by sucking it up and not fighting back, he carries his rage to other places in the line of command.
Men often fight and verbally joust for ranking in the “man-pack,” most likely the largest collective in the world to which every man belongs and organizes his beliefs and behaviors around. They will accept defeat in one interaction while staging for a win in the next. They learn from an early age that this is how life works; that real men know the rules and are in the game while “wimps” and “sissies” are on the sidelines. And because losing is not an option, real men don’t belly ache about it, but dust themselves off and get up to play another day. Rather than looking for opportunities for human connection and intimacy, they instead look for opportunities to win in bouts with “lesser” men (i.e. men of color, gay men, poor men, non-athletic men, etc.) and against the “weaker” team—women.
Football players and other men
Recent events of alleged domestic violence by NFL players have brought football and domestic violence to the forefront of national discourse. But, this is only a snapshot of what happens day-to-day on a wider scale. NFL players are only a fragment of the male population suffering from the fall-out of mascupathy, a socialized mental health condition in which so-called manly characteristics of control and insularity are exaggerated while qualities associated with the feminine such as conciliation and community are minimized.
When patriarchy — rather than egalitarianism — ruled households, men and women knew their placement in the social order. Chivalry—and its shadow side, misogyny—deemed women as weak and inferior and therefore in need of men’s protection or men’s contempt. Women were also expected to provide men with salve for their psyche wounds sustained in competition within the man-pack. This allowed men to restore their roar and get back in the game. No matter where these men found themselves in the man-pack, the good ol’ days provided them with the allegiance, support, and cheers of women.
Today, the game of love has new rules and the role-players and positions have changed on the family team. Women are less inclined to cheerleading on the sidelines and many make an equal, if not larger, contribution to the household finances. Most can choose to work in or outside of the home and are not tied to their husband and/or children for identity.
For mascupathic men, this development is threatening and foreboding. The man-pack hasn’t changed much in its sports mentality, and many men feel aggrieved for having yet another place of refuge—the arms and heart of a woman—taken from them. Their world seems more threatening and less safe; the rules less clear. They become angry and lonely. What their partners want to hear, these men won’t say, because they continue to operate from the rules of football—you don’t share your playbook with others; it will reveal your secrets and make you vulnerable to a loss. The best they can do is retreat to their man-caves where the call of “Are you ready for some football?!!!!” offers relief from change, vulnerability, and self-doubt.
NFL players as role models
Several NFL players accused of domestic violence have sought treatment and are on the road to recovery. One such player, Brandon Marshall, is mentioned in the book Mascupathy: Understanding and Healing the Malaise of American Manhood. A star wide receiver for the Chicago Bears, Marshall entered counseling after arrests for assault, domestic violence, and battery. Since his participation in treatment, he’s become a spokesperson for changing the bullying culture of pro sports. Aggression, dominance, and control belong on the field or the court, but not in the locker room and bed room. If NFL players can shake the bonds of mascupathy, there is hope for their fans as well.
There are men who find the evolution of gender roles liberating. They have evolved out of mascupathic ways and into a more whole-hearted masculinity. They want an intimate partner, not a cheerleader. They share power and vulnerability rather than clinging to the playbook of patriarchy. They know they are responsible to manage their emotions and respectfully negotiate needs, rather than run over family to finesse a personal win. They understand that in the end, the game of love isn’t really about providing money and protection, but intimacy and care. These are the men who can answer the call “Are you ready for some football?!!!!” with a resounding “yes!” and the understanding that it’s only a game and not real life.