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Brandon Marshall & NFL Culture’s “Vicious Cycle”

In the wake of Junior Seau’s (left) tragic death, WR Brandon Marshall wrote a thought-provoking article on the culture of the NFL. How does it contribute to the precarious predicaments of a life after football?

It has been two weeks, and we are still searching for answers, over the tragic death of Junior Seau. While we are all now well aware that the future Hall of Fame LB – formerly of the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots – took his own life on May 2, the biggest question remains:

“Why?”

What could bring a man who had so much going for him, in the prime of his life, to a decision to end it all? It has been a sensitive, yet important, subject for many around the NFL, and around a sport-loving society that covets the violent game of football.

With the loss of other notable former NFL players like Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling – each, equally as tragic, by their own hand – some have looked into the detrimental effects of repeated blows to the head during a player’s NFL career as a significant factor. In particular, chronic traumatic encephalopathy – better known as CTE, or “punch drunk syndrome” – has been seen in a number of deceased former athletes of high-impact sports like football, hockey and boxing.

Others, however, have pondered what Steve Wyche of NFL.com called “the terrifying prospect” of life after football. The game that they had dedicated their lives to keeps on without them; the end of an NFL career can bring with it many drastic, and detrimental, lifestyle changes, not the least of which is the crippling sense of non-fulfillment, without the adulation and accomplishment of professional football. Retirement is retirement, after all, and one at such an early age is liable to make one feel, in a word, useless.

But, there is another side to the story that society at large has seemingly ignored. And it is a side that current Chicago Bears WR Brandon Marshall was willing to bring to the forefront.

On ESPN’s First Take this morning, the embattled Marshall – who recently was cleared of charges stemming from a nightclub incident in March – briefly discussed an article he wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this month. In it, he eloquently explored the connection between CTE, the culture of the NFL, and the sexual politics that start from the youngest of ages in our society:

The cycle starts when we are young boys and girls. […] Li’l Johnny is outside playing and falls. His dad tells him to get up and be strong, to stop crying because men don’t cry. […] We are teaching our boys not to show weakness or share any feelings or emotions, other than to be strong and tough […] What do we do when Li’l Susie falls? We say: ‘‘It’s OK. I’m here. Let me pick you up.’’ […] it’s teaching our girls that expressing emotions is OK.

Marshall goes on to say that, because of this perpetuation of the masculine image – that, above all else, a man must look tough, act tough and be tough – it puts men in a position that provides them with no recourse when they need help the most. When taken to the level of a hyper-masculine culture like professional football, that stigma, and the pressure that comes with it, is magnified to the nth degree.

Couple all of that with the debilitating effects of CTE, and the problems after a life of football get that much tougher. The stigma gets that much heavier. And life, perhaps, gets that much more unbearable.

Imagine a man who, for most of his adult life, was encouraged to act out his aggressions – in the most brutal and efficient form possible – on the field of sport. Then, after a number of years – either expectedly, with old age and the loss of peak ability, or unexpectedly, with an untimely injury or condition – you are expected to re-enter a society where the skills acquired in a violent sport like football are not only useless, but debilitating to everyday life. With the prospect of seeking professional help unthinkable for the “hyper-masculinized” individual, one could easily feel helpless to his own plight.

So, what then? What of all the current and future football players, who will, one day, retire and potentially find themselves in the same precarious position? Perhaps Marshall has come up with a viable solution:

We can … start today by treating the living. Treatments that helped me – but that I think we all can benefit from – are dialectical behavior therapy and metallization therapy. […] I think our focus should be more on why the transition seems to be so hard after football. We must break the cycle, and that starts with prayer and by seeking help.

It is a solution that he sought out to bring himself from the brink of catastrophe. After all, with the legal and domestic troubles he had experienced throughout his life, he was lucky enough to see the signs of destruction, and actively seek help – a simple act he could bring himself to do, where those in the same situation, and less fortunate, ultimately could not.

Furthermore, there must come a time where the gendered politics of hyper-masculinity in the realm of sport can no longer define the male athlete. There must come a time where it is implicitly okay to say, as a man, that you need help – not only on the field, in times of injury, but off the field, in times where one can be the most vulnerable.

The stigma of an “emasculated” male should no longer apply here, nor anywhere else. The image of toughness, as it applies to the male identity, needs to be redefined, especially in the realm of the NFL, if there is to be any sort of change to the image the NFL has cultivated in the past half-century – an image that may not only be damaging to the masculine identity, but perhaps be outright sadistic.

I thoroughly applaud Brandon Marshall for bringing this issue to the attention of the public, and I encourage readers to read his account. It is most definitely eye-opening, and, perhaps most importantly, it will make us all rethink the image of the “macho” football player.

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