Looking for the Real Men

–—Neal Lemery

It is football season, but instead of team rankings and excited discussions about last night’s game, we are talking about domestic violence and criminal charges filed against macho guys who are supposed to be the big stars, the tough heroes of the very essence of he-man professional sports in this country.

There are public expressions of outrage and deep discussions are happening. Advertisers and sponsors are flexing their own muscles, not wanting to be seen as paying athletes who are violent, even criminal. How should we respond when the strong, he-men heroes of the gridiron are caught on tape beating their lovers unconscious with their fists, or leaving bloody wounds after beating their four year old sons with sticks and whips in the name of “family discipline”?

What does it mean to be a man in our society? Who should we look to for role models on how to be a healthy American man? For once, the answer to that doesn’t seem to come from the gridiron on a Sunday afternoon. It’s not about scoring the winning touchdown anymore, but how are you supposed to behave with your wife, how are you supposed to raise your child and guide them lovingly through childhood, teaching them about a father’s love?

But isn’t a man supposed to be strong, to be the winner, not showing any weakness, any sensitivity? Isn’t that the message we hear when we watch the “big game”? Aren’t those guys the heroes we seem to want to have to look up to?

“I have to remain strong,” a friend told me this week, as we talked about manhood and love, how we are supposed to act in this society.

Yet, strong isn’t necessarily tough. Strong isn’t what we need now in this country as the mantra of a good, healthy American man. At least, that kind of “strong” that we’ve been seeing in that videotape of the famous, and highly overpaid football player, punching his girlfriend into unconsciousness. And, it’s not the “strong” kind of abuse that another pro football player is trying to somehow explain to us, after he’s been indicted for assaulting his four year old son with a stick, bloodying the child as a way of expressing “discipline” and “love”.

“That’s how I was raised,” he says, as if that somehow makes violence and the teaching of fear acceptable parenting.

After all, it was a “good whupping”, about teaching his son to “behave”.

No, the “strong” man has other ways of expressing love, of raising a child, or supporting his girlfriend in their relationship, of truly being a partner, and not an abuser, a real domestic terrorist.

Isn’t the real domestic terrorism in this country the plague of domestic violence? Isn’t domestic violence and the terror it produces the real public health crisis in this country, the real warfare that is tearing apart families, and instilling fear and chaos?

Isn’t it time we said enough is enough, that we redefine what it means to be a real man in this country? To be a real hero?

It’s OK to cry, to cry about love and grief, and family. It’s OK to show love and emotion, to be open about how we feel, about how we care about the people we love, people that we hold close to ourselves, people who are family.

Maybe, just maybe, if good, big hearted men cried in public, and cried in front of their loved ones, we’d be better men; we’d have a gentler, safer world to live in.

In showing that compassion, that willingness to be honest and open about how we really are, how we really feel, we are truly being men, men who are healthy, men of integrity, men of moral character. Isn’t that part of being a good parent, being open and honest about how we feel, about how we care, about how we love? Don’t we want to teach our kids those values?

Yes, we can be good role models to our family, to our community. Maybe professional football players can be sensitive, caring, understanding men, men who model good child rearing, good partnering, good husband-ship. With all their money and prestige, and powerful influence on millions of people in this country who look up to their strength and athletic abilities as symbols of leadership and character, maybe these athletes can respond to the calling of being healthy, good men, true men who are the essence of healthy masculinity.


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