The invisible bullying, hazing and machismo that envelops so many sports teams’ locker rooms are a virus. It’s not just Richie Incognito. Every American male who has spent time as a teenager on a sports team knows something of the toxic atmosphere that has been made temporarily visible by the situation Jonathan Martin faced for the last two years. Some locker rooms are exceptional and are safe spaces for their inhabitants, a temporary refuge from a difficult family life, or a place of bonding in an otherwise isolated existence. So many, however, are places of insecurity, constant harassment, minimizing of individuality and insane emphasis on conformity and hetero-normative attitudes on gender. A boy is supposed to “man up,” instead of mature. Pain is secondary. Emotional pain? What’s that? Recovering from an injury? Your body is healed and that’s all that matters.
I played team sports throughout my childhood. My mom signed me up for Pop Warner Football, recreational basketball, Little League baseball, soccer teams, and countless summer youth programs and summer camps (usually hoops) in which I sweated and competed and learned what being a teammate was. On the positive side, I learned how to persevere, not quit teams I didn’t want to play on, learned how to compete, play fair, get over the anxiety of being on a stage, whether it was on the pitcher’s mound, the point guard dribbling at the top of the key on a basketball court, or serving on a tennis court. I learned how to bullshit, laugh, make friends, get along, and deal with people and situations that made me uncomfortable.
I also learned how/what not to be: don’t be a Jew, don’t talk about your feelings, don’t be honest with people when they say things that upset you, don’t stand out, don’t be last in any drill and don’t push back when you’re bullied (especially when you’re smaller than most of your teammates). Also: don’t be mediocre. Don’t be the worst player on a team at anything. Your self-confidence is tested every time you have the ball in your hands. Thankfully, most of the time, I made it. Until I decided the game was losing out to the atmosphere around the game. The identity that I was developing didn’t fit with the identity that team sports demanded of me after the age of 15.
To read the rest of my piece at Splice Today, click here: http://www.splicetoday.com/sports/i-was-a-teenage-athlete