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Thanksgiving Day, 2013: Turkey, Football, and Life Lessons

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On Thursday, most Americans will come together to enjoy my favorite holiday - Thanksgiving. The greatest tradition associated with Thanksgiving, of course, is having a wonderful turkey dinner - wonderful, that is, for everyone but America's turkeys (and vegetarians). Families gather with none of the gifts or glitter that accompany Christmas, share a meal (then have seconds), and give thanks for our many blessings. Celebrations of Thanksgiving date back nearly 400 years - a very long time by US standards. Formal recognition was granted by President Washington, and it was made a national holiday by President Lincoln in 1863.

If there is a second tradition that is nearly as widely practiced on Thanksgiving Day, it would be football. Virtually every American high school from coast-to-coast plays its final regular season game on this day, most often against the school's major rival. These rivalries also date back a long way. My own alma mater's Thanksgiving football tradition, for example, began more than 100 years ago. Obviously for most of us, our involvement in the Thanksgiving football tradition will be more passive, we'll be watching from the stands or, more likely, our living room couches as professional football takes center stage.

This year, the National Football League (NFL) is operating under the cloud of a number of controversies. One involves the use of offensive names for teams. Most notable and objectionable is the Washington Redskins, a term which is widely accepted as a negative racial stereotype of Native-Americans. Another involves the growing body of evidence that the violent nature of the game has led to significant and widespread brain damage to its players. A recent Frontline documentary, League of Denial, makes the compelling case that a condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy has resulted from the repeated hits that players take over their football career and that, in spite of this knowledge, the leaders of the NFL spent years denying this connection existed. They were doing their best impression of the tobacco executives of two decades ago who denied that nicotine was addictive.

The third disturbing NFL controversy speaks to an issue near and dear to the Center for Work & Family and our research on the changing role of men and fathers. The eye of this storm is Miami where Dolphins player Jonathon Martin left the team last month in response to bullying and a hostile work environment which he claims was created by fellow Dolphin veteran offensive (you could take that descriptor as having a double meaning) lineman, Richie Incognito. Incognito had allegedly made life miserable for 2nd year player Martin, through outrageous demands, racial slurs, and threats targeted at Martin and his family.

While many see this "hazing" as part of the culture of football the NFL, most believe Incognito's behavior went beyond the pale. While in an interview with Fox Sports, Incognito confirmed that he had used racial epithets and other threatening sounding terms in his conversations with Martin, Incognito insists that it was little more than "how we communicate." Incognito goes on to suggest that his comments are coming from "a place of love" and refers to himself as Martin's best friend.

Incognito asks that he not be judged or labeled a racist based on "one word" or a bully based on his "knucklehead stuff" from the past. But his track record going back to his college playing days is riddled with fighting, suspensions, and highly inappropriate behavior, both on and off the field, including at one time being given the dubious honor of being named the "league's dirtiest player." This is far from an isolated incident. That said, many of Incognito's African-American Dolphin teammates rallied to his defense in the days following his suspension, which is scheduled to end this weekend.

Far beyond one player's egregious indiscretions lies a larger question which we have been exploring for the last five years: How do we measure manhood in America? NFL football is among the most macho of all professional endeavors. But does the extreme nature of the sport suggest that "real men" treat one another in the way Incognito seems to have treated Martin? Does this macho culture allow the franchises to keep injured players in harm's way for the sake of winning and financial gain? Does it define manhood based on how far we can push another person or how disrespectful we can be to a competitor or teammate? Can that possibly fit anyone's definition of what it means to be a man? If so, then we have failed to grasp not only the fundamental tenets of manhood, but of humanity as well.

Perhaps the NFL can take a page from a 5th grade football team named the Badgers from Bridgewater, Massachusetts. When they realized that their team's young water boy, Danny, who suffers from a speech impairment due to brain seizures, was facing bullying and teasing as a result of his speech and the way he dresses (he wears a tie and jacket every day), the boys decided to do something about it. Their response was to "dress like Danny" for the day and let the world know how much he was respected and loved by the team. In this touching video, we see a group of 10 year-old boys who understand full well what it means to be a man.

And for that we can all be hopeful ... and give thanks. Happy Thanksgiving!

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