First off, let me just say straight up that I have no idea what the heck was going on in the Miami Dolphins locker room. I also am willing to admit that an NFL locker room is an environment that is, and should be, different from the typical workplace. Most of us are not being asked to do what professional football players are asked to do every day. That’s why I haven’t really had much to say about it.
But reading Brian Phillips piece on “warrior culture”, suddenly the story became something I feel very strongly about. That is the mental health angle to this story. Because when you look at the responses from within the NFL and the media, there is far too much “toughness” and not nearly enough understanding that mental health problems are real and need to be dealt with.
Because this — this idea that Jonathan Martin is a weakling for seeking emotional help — this is some room-temperature faux-macho alpha-pansy nonsense, and I am here to beat it bloody and leave it on the ground. Every writer who’s spreading this around, directly or by implication; every player who’s reaction-bragging about his own phenomenal hardness; every pundit in a square suit who’s braying about the unwritten code of the locker room — every one of these guys should be ashamed of himself, and that’s it, and it’s not a complicated story.
When we talk about reasons why it’s so difficult for men and boys to seek help for depression or other mental health issues, this story provides us with a crystal clear example. “Real men” don’t go running for help, they stand up and fight, they go down swinging, they take care of their business. This is just plain stupid.
The brain is a part of the body. It’s an organ. It’s a physical thing. Sometimes it breaks. Sometimes it breaks because you beat it against the inside of your skull so hard playing football,1 and sometimes — because it’s unimaginably intricate, the brain, way more intricate than even a modified read-option — it breaks for reasons that are harder to see. Your ability to chortle “boys will be boys” doesn’t mean that psychological abuse of the sort that Martin apparently endured can’t widen that kind of fracture. But then, does the cause even matter?
Look at it this way: No one thought Joe Theismann was soft for leaving the game when his leg was hanging sideways. Sometimes the brain goes sideways, and when that happens, “brave” or “cowardly” shouldn’t even come into it. Seeking help is just the practical thing to do.
Of course, this is not the message that is sent to young men. The message is that seeking help is something weaklings and women do, not real men. Real men face their problems with toughness and, if necessary, violence. Better to go down swinging and be remembered for how hard you were than to admit to having a problem you need help with.
This is the sort of logic that leads to angry young men who beat their partners, commit suicide or walk into a mall and start shooting. If being tough means standing up for yourself and never asking for help, then it’s only natural to rage against anything that interferes with you. Unfortunately, it’s your own brain that is often interfering with you and there’s no amount of fake toughness that is going to make it stop. Only the real toughness that is willing to buck the message and get help.