In Response to Charles Oakley
This past weekend, while speaking at Michael Rapaport's live event in Dallas, former NBA player Oakley said today's NBA players are "sensitive" and that some "should wear dresses," according to BallsLife's David Astramskas.
Whether Oakley was referring to entitlement or softness of play, his choice of words and flippant sexism have created a much larger modeling issue than many old school athletes would choose to admit. Let's think about the sports culture back in the 80s. When men were "real men." Outwardly, they may not have appeared "soft" or 'sensitive," but inwardly they had to uphold a pretty toxic view of masculinity - and it was acted out in unhealthy ways.
I know, spare us the gender bending, psycho babble. But think about it. What have we taught men about emotion and sensitivity (effeminate!) and where did it come from?
I have a four-year old son. I also have a 16-year old son. My four-year old gives me fits. What I have been working on with him lately is empathy. It's accessing feelings and emotions. He has no words for them and doesn't understand how to process them, so I have to work with him to identify and name them. Otherwise, he acts out - and it's ugly. It's mean and violent. It's his stage of development and it's normal. But I need to help him develop empathy and his emotional understanding so that he isn't stunted in this stage of development.
He's going through a difficult time. His dad and I are going through a divorce and he has witnessed and been part of some ugly things. He doesn't have the ability to process it and work through his feelings and how they affect him - he can hardly name a feeling. He only knows to impulsively lash out - to hit, to scream, to say hurtful things, and then, once he realizes what he has done, to deal with the consequences. And he knows to cry (which I let him freely do), because he doesn't understand why he did what he did but someone told him it was wrong. And he's 4.
And I think about the athletes I have worked with over time. The minor leaguers, the major leaguers, the pro and college ball players and even those in high school. There are those who talk to me after all the guys have left - and cry - about difficult experiences they witnessed or played a role in and how it continues to affect them. They sat in a group of peers and held all their emotions in - until the teammates left and it was safe. Someone taught them it's not normal to have these feelings; that it's not manly to show feelings or emotions. To demonstrate sensitivity towards pretty serious issues means you'll be ostracized and maybe told to put on a dress. You need to be in control. You need to handle your business - privately and independently.
What results is that these bastions of manhood struggle with how to process difficult issues and emotional topics because they compartmentalize. Those hurts and pains are not to be experienced, they are to be suppressed. You aren't supposed to work them out - that's for an ankle sprain or physical therapy after ACL surgery. No, instead, you show you're a real man and suppress feelings. And if the situation really makes you mad, or someone else triggers it, you fight it out. You get aggressive. You explode in anger.
We, as a society, always reward the person who did it on their own. Who played through the pain. Who conquered great heights alone. We even express that behind every great man, there's a great woman. The man, again, on his own with the help of his trusty steed, I mean wife.
I asked the minor league team how much of their game is mental. They said all of it. I nodded in agreement. Then I asked what they do when they are going through something difficult - maybe something back home, a family issue, a girlfriend issue - they were silent. Then, a 22-year old minor leaguer in the back of the room explained to me that they compartmentalize issues. They don't take their problems to the field. It sounded plausible until I asked them to define a slump.
When I visited a top Division I athletic department, I was shown the offices of two of the sports psychologists that they have on staff. I asked if they were busy. He said, "Very." I said, "Who uses them?" He replied, "Mostly the female athletes."
The "sensitive" ones, according to Oakley. The ones in dresses. But you see, females have been taught to process emotions. To try to understand them. To work through them. Of course, the male athletes call this "emotional" and attach a pejorative inference. But when we really discover positive coping mechanisms and being able to work through and process different emotions, we realize that we have better control over them and can rationally deal with issues that will inevitably show up. And women, for the most part, work through it with others by talking it out, writing it out and dealing with it. And we've been told, shown and modeled that it was ok to do that. Men, for the most part, haven't.
In a few weeks, I will be launching an initiative called The WeLEAD Project. It will use influential athletes in communities across the US to work with youth sports athletes to help prevent future violence by athletes. Mentors in high school, college and professional sports, will teach youth athletes about feelings, leadership, communication, healthy relationships, healthy conflict and other areas in order to ensure that the next generation of athletes are better equipped to deal with the underlying issues of violence against women and become leaders and role models in their high school, college and professional community.
And maybe, just maybe, I will encounter an athlete who will tell me a story about the rape of his sister or how he watched his mother being brutalized by a boyfriend, and this time, he will have the strength to cry in front of his teammates. Maybe.
Learn. Love. Lead.