published Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

Cook: (Don't) be a man, (Don't) get tough

A new season of rec league basketball started Saturday for kids in our neighborhood.

There were more highlights than a Miami salon. Owen on their team ties it with seconds to play, then Owen on our team nearly drains a 3 to win. Then the benches cleared, as moms and dads start hugging their kiddos, who then start begging to go out for Mexican.

Vitale would have loved it.

Sure, there were air balls and a couple of kids traveled more than Gulliver. But our boys were learning how to play the game, which meant they were learning how to grow up.

One crucial moment came in the second quarter, when this fuzzy-haired kid went down. Hard. His head hit -- no, it rebounded wham! -- off the gym floor. The coach looked at me, and we both thought the same thing.

Concussion.

"At least we know what to do," the coach said.

This year, state law requires every coach in every sport -- from rec leagues to public and private schools -- to know the ins and outs of concussion symptoms. In our league, coaches had to watch a 30-minute video, then pass a quiz. My son and I had to read and sign a 10-point fact sheet before the game began.

"A concussion is a brain injury," we read together.

"OK," he said.

"You see a lot of it in Washington," I whispered.

The law is great. Sure, it may be half-rooted in liability-fear, but who cares. Youth brains are a terrible thing to waste, and this law demands that all coaches, parents and athletes on tiny teams to big ones take head injuries seriously.

More importantly, the law does something else.

It weakens Get-Tough culture.

Inside every American boy is a man trying to get out. It is a journey both perilous and wonderful, one guided by the all-important question: what does it mean to be a man?

For so long, sports have provided an answer. Discipline. Team work. Sweat ethics. Ask many men about the most influential figure in their life, and they won't say a poet or artist. They'll say: a coach.

Yet often, like a monster under the bed, sports sneak in this secondary message of masculine toughness -- that boys are supposed to get tough. To suck it up. To man up.

You ignore pain. You ignore injury. You ignore the very human experience of being weak and powerless.

Hurt? Dizzy? Need to heal or rest or even weep? Well, there's no crying in baseball. There's no crying in masculinity.

Be a man.

"The three most destructive words that every man receives when he's a boy is when he's told to be a man," says former NFL player and national figure Joe Ehrmann.

Ehrmann is part of a new film "The Mask You Live In" that is created by the Representation Project: a group that seeks to dismantle false narratives about what it means to be male and female in America.

"As a society, how are we failing our boys?" the film asks.

We fail through the lies we tell our boys about how to become men. A suck-it-up code of masculinity silences the natural and beautiful part of boys that are empathetic, caring and sensitive.

Most, if not all, men have tasted this moment. It a death of sorts, the feeling that comes when a boy's tenderness is crucified in the name of toughness. We men ingest this, and it has produced all sorts of craziness: male violence, sexism, homophobia, shame, an inability to appear weak.

This code frequently plays out on the athletic fields, most frequently in football, where collision is encouraged and weakness forbidden. There is a dominant strain of hyper-masculinity within football, and if the sport is to survive -- some say it won't -- then it must reconcile its physicality with its propensity towards violence.

That's why paying attention to concussions is so transformative. Not only for physical reasons, but because the brain is the locus of nonphysical power: thought, speech, imagination. By honoring and keeping safe the brains of our children, we are cherishing their future as creative, learned and articulate men.

When coaches and parents and teammates take concussions seriously, a shift occurs.

The message comes: It's OK to be hurt. This then means: It's OK to hurt.

And yes -- triple yes -- there are legions of coaches and parents who already understand this. Know one? Hug their neck. Thank them. Sneak up and dump the Gatorade jug on them -- win or lose -- because of what they offer your kid.

At the end of our game Saturday, one boy began to cry. He was exhausted, probably half-sick, and he'd just played his heart out.

His teammates? They loved on him. Coach? High-fived him. Said he played great. His dad? Scooped him up like Baskin-Robbins.

Because that's what it means to be a man.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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