Michael Vick’s Fifteen Months of Fame

Jeremy Sharp, PhDmen's issues, sport psychology Leave a Comment

I posted a couple of weeks ago on issues of masculinity in college football. Today’s post offers a follow-up to the previous one, this time looking at pro football and issues of masculinity. Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, Tipping Point, andOutliers, has a great article in the New Yorker this month (thanks, Lane). I won’t do an extensive commentary since there are numerous others on the web, but he explores the parallels between football and dogfighting (with Michael Vick being the convenient bridge between the two). Thankfully his article isn’t dealing with Vick’s adventures over the last couple of years. But he does bring up an interesting comparison between two sports that at first glance have little to do with one another. As far as I can tell, he makes a couple of points. The first is that debilitating injuries (specifically head injuries) may be as inherent in football as they are dogfighting – a sport that many abhor for its violence. But it’s the second that I’m more interested in – the idea that football players, like potential fighting dogs, are selected for their “gameness,” or willingness to persevere in the face of serious threat to self or body.

This idea of “gameness” is illustrated in the football players who sustain injuries of all sorts but won’t be kept out of the game. Here’s a quote from Kyle Turley, a former linebacker in the National Football League, describing a post-concussion experience:

“They cleared me for practice that Thursday. I probably shouldn’t have. I don’t know what damage I did from that, because my head was really hurting. But when you’re coming off an injury you’re frustrated. I wanted to play the next game. I was just so mad that this happened to me that I’m overdoing it. I was just going after guys in practice. I was really trying to use my head more, because I was so frustrated, and the coaches on the sidelines are, like, ‘Yeah. We’re going to win this game. He’s going to lead the team.’ That’s football. You’re told either that you’re hurt or that you’re injured. There is no middle ground. If you are hurt, you can play. If you are injured, you can’t, and the line is whether you can walk and if you can put on a helmet and pads.”

Scary. Even scarier when you read the rest of Gladwell’s article and see his calculation that pro football players may suffer up to 18,000 significant hits to the head over their career. Now – I’ll leave the exploration of these implications to Gladwell. But what really stand out to me (again) are the masculine norms at work here. Not only the playing through pain, but the idea of doing it alone, of being betrayed by coaches assumed to look out for these men’s best interest. Another quote from Turley describing his return after surgery for a herniated disc:

“They put me in full-contact practice from day one,” he said. “After the first day, I knew I wasn’t right. They told me, ‘You’ve had the surgery. You’re fine. You should just fight through it.’ It’s like you’re programmed. You’ve got to go without question—I’m a warrior. I can block that out of my mind. I go out, two days later. Full contact. Two-a-days. My back locks up again. I had re-herniated the same disk that got operated on four months ago, and bulged the disk above it.”

Gladwell talks about how former prize-fighting dogs must be rehabilitated socially rather than euthanized, so that they have a chance to repair the betrayal that occurred with originally owners who sent them into fights and expected them to fight to the death.  I wish that he would have elaborated on how this applies to football players as well. My experience as a clinicianleads me to believe that the same may be true for most men asked to “play through pain.” I think of all the men I’ve had in my office who unknowingly describe betrayals from parents and others who didn’t listen when they were in physical or emotional pain as children. Often it’s the relationship in therapy that provides a reparative experience – a chance for men to re-learn that it’s okay to be in pain and that someone will respect and honor these feelings, rather than “put them back in the game.”

If you have time, I do hope that you’ll take 20 minutes or so to read Gladwell’s article. Comments on it or anything else are welcome as always. Have a great weekend,


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