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Macho Madness

In the run-up to the Super Bowl, the Jay Cutler incident said it all.

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For those of you who haven't heard or read it by now, injured Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is a big wimp for sitting out the second half of his team's 21-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game weekend before last.  

Or, at least, that's the storyline that was peddled in the immediate aftermath of the game and that has since been debated endlessly in the sports world. Comments questioning Cutler's courage and manliness were commonplace, mostly in the form of disparaging posts on Twitter from current and former players. 

However, what I find most interesting are the reasons why Cutler being sidelined drew such heated criticisms. It seems that the Cutler incident is just the latest manifestation of what I would call the "American football culture" — a culture that values and glorifies unapologetic machismo and homophobia. I am familiar with this not only because I am an avid football fan but because I used to be a part of this culture myself.

I began playing football in seventh grade and continued to play throughout high school. I then decided to attend Rhodes College to continue my football career as a wide receiver for their NCAA Division III program. Although I'd previously experienced much of the aforementioned culture, nowhere was it more ridiculously evident than in my experience playing at Rhodes.  

My teammates and I were referred to daily as "pussies," "bitches," and the like by our coaches. The name-calling never really bothered me, because, just as you become indoctrinated in the ways of any culture, you get used to the vernacular.  

The most interesting lingo, though, was the term "school fag." In the Rhodes football program, this term was used to describe a male student who isn't "man enough" to play a sport and has instead opted to dedicate his life to homosexual endeavors. Like, you know, schoolwork.  

Coaches would taunt players daily with this term. ("Oh, you're missing the first half-hour of practice to go to an academic lecture? What are you, a school fag?") And they would use it to refer to non-athletes at Rhodes. Nor was it just the coaches. The term was also used by the players amongst themselves as a way to police and maintain the ways of the culture. I only played one season at Rhodes due to back problems, so I, too, succumbed to a life of school-faggotry. Luckily for me, this was prior to the advent of Twitter.

One has merely to turn on ESPN any given day during football season to witness evidence of this hyper-masculine culture. Just last month, headlines were made when a player from Utah publicly referred to the Boise State football team as "Girlsie State" prior to their meeting in the Maaco Bowl. 

But it's not so much these chest-thumping comments from players that truly illustrate the problems with this culture. Rather, it is the acceptance of the rest of the sports world — the pundits and the fans — that perpetuates and even rewards this line of thinking. 

Sports commentators do indeed opine on how silly statements like these are overly-macho rhetoric. Thus, instead of debating the merits of attacking Cutler in terms that question his "manliness," most of the commentary I've witnessed has merely been directed at whether or not it was fair to criticize him at all.

While this is a valid approach, it fails to acknowledge that the true problem is the culture that fostered such a response in the first place. Cutler wasn't criticized because those in the sports world think he let down his team. He was criticized because his inability to get out on the field despite a severe injury ran contrary to what the culture dictates. 

Those of us in the sports world need to undergo a drastic paradigm shift in which we simply reject the hyper-masculinity and anti-gay rhetoric that permeates the American football culture.

Paul Daugherty has written an excellent piece for Sports Illustrated on this line of thinking in football and how it relates to the Cutler story. He writes that the criticisms of Cutler "reflect ... a culture that hasn't progressed with the same speed as the science that surrounds it. In fact, it hasn't progressed at all."  

Pshht, science — that's the stuff of school fags.

Kyle Ference is a graduate of Rhodes College in political science and philosophy and has recently moved from Atlanta to Memphis.

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