A definition of ‘toxic masculinity’: The NFL


If you’d like a definition of the (largely misunderstood) phrase “toxic masculinity,” let me refer you to two stories from the last week about the NFL.

First, the retirement of Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten:

For 15 seasons, Witten gave everything he had, even his health. In 2012, he returned to play in the season opener despite a lacerated spleen suffered in a preseason game against the Oakland Raiders. Witten was under doctor’s orders to not really move for two weeks. He barely practiced leading up to the opener. He wasn’t cleared until a few hours before kickoff.

As a rookie, Witten suffered a broken jaw. He could not eat with his jaw wired shut, but he missed only one game — the only one of his career.

Bill Parcells told him that Mark Bavaro missed just one game with a broken jaw, almost daring Witten to be as tough. The Hall of Fame coach told Witten to eat baby food to keep his weight up. In order to play the following week, Witten needed to be at a certain weight. He stuffed rolls of quarters into his sweatpants to make it.

This is all reported as something to be admired.

Then, today at the New York Times:

When the Washington Redskins took their cheerleading squad to Costa Rica in 2013 for a calendar photo shoot, the first cause for concern among the cheerleaders came when Redskins officials collected their passports upon arrival at the resort, depriving them of their official identification.

For the photo shoot, at the adults-only Occidental Grand Papagayo resort on Culebra Bay, some of the cheerleaders said they were required to be topless, though the photographs used for the calendar would not show nudity. Others wore nothing but body paint. Given the resort’s secluded setting, such revealing poses would not have been a concern for the women — except that the Redskins had invited spectators.

A contingent of sponsors and FedExField suite holders — all men — were granted up-close access to the photo shoots.

One evening, at the end of a 14-hour day that included posing and dance practices, the squad’s director told nine of the 36 cheerleaders that their work was not done. They had a special assignment for the night. Some of the male sponsors had picked them to be personal escorts at a nightclub.

“So get back to your room and get ready,” the director told them. Several of them began to cry.

“They weren’t putting a gun to our heads, but it was mandatory for us to go,” one of the cheerleaders said. “We weren’t asked, we were told. Other girls were devastated because we knew exactly what she was doing.

A game that requires slow-motion suicide of its players while robbing women of their agency … yeah. I’d say that fits the idea of toxic masculinity pretty well.

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