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Ex-NFL Lineman Tackles Issue Of Masculinity

Joe Ehrmann speaks at TEDxBaltimore on Jan. 25, 2013.
TEDxBaltimore via Flickr

Joe Ehrmann, a minister and retired professional football lineman, says many of society’s problems can be traced back to three words.

“The three scariest words every boy receives is when he’s young and told ‘Be a man,’” Ehrmann told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh this week. “That’s always in the context of stop acting that way, stop with the tears, stop with the emotions, don’t be a mama’s boy. At a very early age, boys start to separate their hearts from their head(s).”

Ehrmann, who frequently speaks about masculinity and sports, was recently part of an “All Things Considered” series on men in America. He was in St. Louis on Monday to speak to students and faculty at Saint Louis University.  

“The confusion about masculinity in this country, and I don’t care whether it’s boys with guns, girls with babies, immorality in boardrooms or the beat-down women take, it comes back to this core issue of we’ve got to do a better job helping boys understand what it means — truly means — to be a man,” Ehrmann said.

Ehrmann said boys are repeatedly told three lies. The first is about the importance of athletic ability.

“We associate masculinity with size or strength or some kind of skillset that allows you to compete on the playground and win,” Ehrmann said. “What I want to say is that is an absolute lie. Being a man doesn’t have a single thing to do with size, strength, capacity to compete and win.”

The second: The importance of winning.

“We have to redefine competition,” Ehrmann said. “Competition doesn’t have to mean I win, you lose. It’s about a mutual quest for excellence. You can win with humility and you can lose with honor.”

The third ties sports to character.

“The great myth in sports today is that sports build character,” Ehrmann said. “That’s not true today in a win-at-all-costs mentality. Sports doesn’t build character unless some coach intentionally teaches it, models it and nurtures it in their players.”

Ehrmann said his “dysfunctional” relationship with his father forced him to look elsewhere to define masculinity.

“I learned more about being a man from my wife than any other person in my life,” he said. “Moms have way more capacity to build into the masculine souls of their sons than they’ve ever been led to believe.”

Sports And Violence

An All-American football player at Syracuse University, Ehrmann was a first-round draft pick in 1973, playing with the Baltimore Colts for eight years and finishing his NFL career with the Detroit Lions. As his football career wound down, he attended seminary classes and was ordained in 1985.

Ehrmann said a need for validation drove his football career.

“It was a deep pathological drive for me, always trying to validate my manhood, my personhood,” he said.

The National Football League has been embroiled in controversy recently.

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was indefinitely suspended in September soon after a video was released showing Rice hitting his then-fiancee in the head.

When Rice was arrested on domestic abuse charges in February, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced Rice would be suspended without pay for two games and fined, which many criticized as being too lenient of a punishment. A video was released after his arrest, but it showed Rice dragging his fiancee from an elevator; it didn’t show the blow that Rice delivered.

In August, Goodell announced a new league-wide penalty for domestic violence and sexual assault incidents. First-time offenders face a six-game suspension; a second offense results in banishment from the NFL. A few days later, the second Rice video was made public and Rice was suspended.

Also in September, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was charged with child abuse for using a wooden switch to punish his 4-year-old son. Peterson plead no contest earlier this week.

Ehrmann said he doesn’t believe that violent sports, like football, make for violent people.

“The NFL has issues, but it’s not disproportionate, per se, to the rest of the general population,” he said. “I think America is so uninformed and miseducated on this issue, and that was the difference between the first Ray Rice video and the second. People don’t want to know, they don’t want to come out of their comfort zones to deal with some of the toughest issues there.”

Ehrmann continues to work with the NFL, recently leading player conduct sessions, some of which deal with domestic violence. He also has developed a program to help high school and college football coaches talk about domestic violence and related issues.

Sports And Education

“I think you gotta remember when you talk about sports, you have to separate professional sports from collegiate and scholastic sports,” Ehrmann said. “You look at the NFL today, that’s not really a sport. That’s a business.”

For students, Ehrmann said sports should be approached as a cocurricular activity.

“They’re not extracurricular,” he said. “That’s not something that begins at the end of the educational day. Sports ought to be seen as the last classroom of the day. There are things you can learn on that athletic arena that you can’t learn in math class, and vice versa.”

Ehrmann also said good coaches can play significant roles in children’s lives.

“There are two kinds of coaches in America: There are transactional coaches, that basically use young people for their own validation, their own identity, own means; or you’re transformational,” Ehrmann said. “As a coach, you understand the power of the platform, the position, and you’re going to use that to change the arc of every young person’s life.”

Ehrmann also stressed the importance of education.

“Every ethnic group that’s ever been ghettoized in America, sports has created a pathway out,” he said. “The problem is it’s always been a pathway out, but now it’s a containment for too many kids where you’re looking at sports without looking at the education, the academic piece. And that’s a critical piece today.”

Sports And Safety

Brain trauma in football is “a tremendous crisis,” Ehrmann said.

More than 4,500 former players have filed suit against the NFL, accusing the league of fraud for its handling of concussions. At one point a $765 million settlement was announced, only to be rejected by a federal judge a few months later because she said she feared it wouldn’t be enough to cover the players. The NFL has an annual revenue of $9 billion.

“The amount of dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease is just off the charts,” Ehrmann said. “I’ve seen a lot of guys die, teammates and friends of mine, from these injuries, so I want to get it correct. And if they need to change the game to protect young players, then we need to do that. We can’t be throwing kids into situations that (are) not healthy for them.”

In December, an Indiana University School of Medicine study found that hits too small to cause a concussion also can affect the brains of student athletes. The study used sensors inside the helmets of Dartmouth University varsity football and hockey players to measure when and how hard they were hit over the course of a season.

“I think every mom in America ought to be reconsidering about her child whether to play (sports) or not,” Ehrmann said. “There needs to be some conclusive evidence what’s causing these brain injuries.”

Sports And Rights

“Sports, historically, have always been a metaphor for social change in this country,” Ehrmann said. “When you talk about civil rights, women’s rights, human rights, you think of the role that sports and athletes have played in bringing some of those issues into mainstream political consciousness. To me, that’s always been the role of sports. It’s not about winning and losing. It’s about social change.”

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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