In wake of Ooltewah incident, former NFL star points to three lies boys are taught about masculinity

photo Joe Ehrmann
photo Baltimore Colts defensive tackle Joe Ehrmann (76) is pictured in this Aug. 1973 file photo.

By the definition he knew, 29-year-old Joe Ehrmann was a man.

A six-year veteran of the National Football League with deep pockets and an ability to attract women, he was doing well by common societal standards.

But when his younger brother was diagnosed with a rare form of fatal cancer, it sent Ehrmann on an intellectual journey, one that culminated in a changed definition of what it truly means to be a man.

"I recognized at that moment that I was this socialized male," Ehrmann told a community forum at Redemption Point Church on Thursday night. "I had separated my heart from my head at a very early age. I didn't have the vocabulary to express my love and appreciation of my brother."

In his message, "Masculinity 2.0," Ehrmann said he traced nearly every problem in society back to three lies about masculinity boys are taught. Those lies, he said, are that masculinity is associated with athletic ability, sexual conquest and economic status, and those ideas have created a crisis about what it means to be a man in America.

Ehrmann's talk was hosted by the National Center for Development of Boys in conjunction with McCallie School. It comes in the wake of December's highly publicized alleged rape involving the Ooltewah High School basketball team.

"We thought we could be a resource to bring in someone like Joe with a great message about what it means to be a man and what it doesn't," McCallie headmaster Lee Burns said. "If you have a healthy definition of masculinity and manhood, I think you're less likely to make some of the choices that young people and men make."

Ehrmann, 66, played 13 seasons of professional football, making his message especially relevant to a sanctuary filled with local high school athletes and coaches, who seemed to hang on Ehrmann's words.

The three footprints Ehrmann sees stemming from the lies about masculinity are isolation from authentic relationships, substance abuse and violence.

He called on the coaches and educational leaders in the room to evaluate their own life's narrative and definitions of masculinity as they address those issues with youth.

"Every thought you have about yourself about how lovable, unlovable, worthy, unworthy, competent, incompetent you are, every thought about yourself you have acquired. And all that information has come from outside of yourself."

He said the two primary sources that dictate self-understanding are the messages culture sends about a "false, toxic masculinity" and through the style of childhood nurturing imparted by parents and others with authority.

But, Ehrmann said, in the end, there are two things that define not only what it means to be a man, but what it means to be a woman, and to be a human being.

Those things, he said, are the relationships forged and the legacy you leave behind in the lives of others, in the community and in the culture that sells a false definition of masculinity

"To all of you that came tonight," Ehrmann said, "you're signs of hope in a world where a tremendous number of people need to know they live in a world where tomorrow can be different than today."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at or 423-757-6249.

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