On May 29th, 2018 at approximately 6 PM, a 911 call went out about a dying, young African-American male. Another promising talent, dedicated son, accomplished student, and valuable life were all quickly wasted. His name was Jordan McNair, and he died from a very odd cause: toxic masculinity. In reality, McNair died from complications while recovering from an acute heatstroke, but the events leading to his untimely death all point to an unfortunate trend in men’s athletics.
The general concept of toxic masculinity is that traditional stereotypes, displays, and perceptions of what it means to be masculine are projected on others who identify with masculinity. This discourages true expression of self, creates internal dichotomies within male identities, ethics, and stereotypes, and negatively impacts more of our society than just athletics. Furthermore, some of these traditional stereotypes promote unfortunate, oppressive, and harmful behavior — like the need to dominate, whether emotionally, socially, or physically. It explains many of the social movements and issues plaguing our society today, including unequal pay, lack of diversity, mansplaining, and other prejudices. But how did such an abstract and seemingly unrelated social concept as toxic masculinity cause McNair’s literal death?
McNair was a first-year offensive lineman on the University of Maryland football team, excited to contribute to a top Division 1 program. That day, McNair and his teammates were participating in “a basic conditioning test,” when McNair began to experience extreme fatigue, loss of motor control, and other textbook symptoms of overheating, according to the university. The conditions worsened and university staff called the ambulance, which brought McNair to the hospital with an extremely high body temperature of 106o Fahrenheit. McNair remained in the hospital for two more weeks before passing away at the age of 19.
What is more significant, however, is how university administration, football staff, McNair’s teammates, and even McNair himself allowed the situation to escalate as far as it did. According to one teammate, McNair believed that “if he stopped, they would challenge his manhood; he would be targeted.” The strength and conditioning coach present at the workout added to the hostile environment, saying, “drag his sorry ass off the field,” as McNair’s teammates hauled his unconscious body toward the sidelines. The irresponsible coach was ultimately suspended. Further controversy arose after the fact, as numerous parties disputed the university’s response time and argued that both football and athletics department staff alike did not recognize the gravity of the situation. In both cases, the responsible party seemed to assume that McNair’s masculinity would defy any evident physical weakness and that his issues should not be taken seriously. These actions then qualify as a manifestation of toxic masculinity, because they inherently assume the definition, appearance, and characteristics of masculine identity from traditional stereotypes and in the process, cause serious harm — in this case, physically.
None of the various parties in this situation intentionally caused McNair’s death, but their unknowing acceptance of toxic masculinity and its stereotypes still created clearly detrimental consequences. And while this example is admittedly extreme, instances of similar behavior occur daily in men’s athletics at all levels and with consequences of varying severity. Even thinking about the stereotypical “jock” image, sports and masculinity have gone hand in hand for years, producing a dangerous association between sports and the most pertinent issues around gender identity and relations. Both the National Football League and Major League Baseball have long histories of players with charges of domestic violence against women. Each year it seems like a new hazing incident of a different men’s sports team comes out, in which physical, sexual, and emotional abuse become acceptable for the sake of “teamwork”. Even the most basic expectation of men at a young age seems to be that they participate in sports, and such pressure can have lasting effects on people for years. No matter how severe, in all cases, the actions of involved individuals reflect an acceptance of incorrect perceptions of masculine identity.
As student-athletes, the emphasis should be placed on the student aspect without as much pressure to perform and with a focus on the long-term welfare of the individual. This issue continues to plague collegiate athletics as the topic of adequate compensation for players is in hot debate and the definition of what it means to play athletics in college evolves. This topic naturally brings up the inherent racial implications at play, especially considering the current controversy around the NCAA’s potential exploitation of largely African-American athletes for financial gain. Sure, the athletes receive an education, but the quality of that education is often questionable with rampant cheating, over-assistance, and underperformance. Meanwhile, the NCAA makes billions of dollars in the process. Now, this exploitation has gone too far and caused the death of someone because of the immense pressure for all parties to succeed. It has pushed coaches to adopt extreme habits and has degraded the quality of the game itself.
Perhaps it is because I play collegiate baseball, which is not a contact sport, or perhaps it is because I play at Swarthmore, which has a lower level of competition, but there seems in my mind to be no justification for such extreme measures in any level of athletics. I completely understand the need for team bonding experience and certainly value the memories I will have with my baseball brothers for life, but these are built off of enjoyable experiences, as opposed to adverse ones. My most fond memory of running cross-country in high school was running up Mount Mansfield in Vermont, one of the tallest mountains on the East Coast. However, the process of pushing each other to persevere and the ability to find internal motivation made the experience far more rewarding. Instead of having a coach force me up that mountain, that sense of accomplishment from within made the experience more valuable. We accomplished the same physical strain, mental drive, and creation of teamwork without the negative influence of a harsher coaching style. It is that model that should create motivation and comradery instead.
If such extreme measures are taken for the sake of teamwork, then there are simply more ethical and effective means to the same end. The logic is that creating both physical and mental adversity, competition, and stress facilitates the development of teamwork and comradery. It attempts to recreate an archaic, warlike, testosterone-dominated environment that fuels the competition further, like two stags fighting in the woods. However, implying that men feed off of each other’s aggression and that male physicality somehow validates borderline torture is ludicrous. It is one thing to train an athlete or build a team, but there is a distinct threshold at which the training becomes counterproductive.
On our baseball team, teamwork is built on a foundation of mutual respect. We all recognize, as do our coaches and administration, that becoming a collegiate athlete is an accomplishment reflecting years of hard work and sweat. Add on the constant balancing act between academics, athletics, extracurriculars, a social life, and all of the other components of a balanced lifestyle and it is easy to see why we are treated as adults and professionals. The internal motivation to succeed drives us, as opposed to a malevolent competition from the pressure to succeed and our mutual respect coagulates us into a cohesive group. These attitudes have lead to a recent run of unprecedented success.
In order to best prevent situations like McNair’s death from happening again in the future, coaches, players, and administration alike share a responsibility to cease from promoting traditional masculine stereotypes and conflating them with athletic prowess. Men’s athletics must attempt to dissociate from and actively discourage the negative images that surround every sport to this day. The athletes themselves must support and look out for each other’s well-being — physical, mental, and otherwise. That is a better way to build a team.