My partner and I are white gay dads with two amazing sons, both of whom are African-American. This season we finally gave in to their many years of begging to be allowed to play tackle football. We'd previously refused, thinking them too young. We were concerned about not only the possibility of physical injury to the boys but the enormous time commitment it would take. Now that they're 10 and 12 years old, respectively, we decided that the time was right and finally acquiesced. What we failed to consider, however, was how our unique family structure might factor into the dynamics of such a macho team sport, and the potential for consequent emotional injury. The kids have practiced the last several weeks, loving and hating every grueling moment, but Thursday night found one son's team on the field, in the middle of a drill, when one of the assistant coaches yelled, "What are you? A bunch of pansies?"
I heard his words, echoing across the grass, and felt like I'd been punched in the gut. All those taunts through the years stay with you, even if you've risen above them. I immediately walked over, called my son off the field, and told the coach we were done. We were going to switch teams. And he let us go.
As my other son's team finished their practice, I sat with my 10-year-old, explaining why I'd taken such action. We talked about what the word meant, how it is used, and why such words can be damaging. We talked about how such taunts, even if in jest, can haunt a person and make them feel less-than. Finally, we talked about African Americans, the struggles for equality that they've faced, and how one single word can sear your soul. He seemed to understand.
Following practice, we received apologies from both the assistant coach and the head coach. Bafflingly, the assistant coach didn't seem to understand how the word "pansy" could be offensive. I shared that I was gay and found the word personally offensive, and also how that word and other similar terms had driven kids to suicide. He promised to never again use the word.
Bullying doesn't just happen in classrooms or playgrounds; it occurs on football fields, too. There are other ways to motivate athletes, which can both strengthen and toughen them but still preserve their fighting instincts. Too often, however, the negative terms are casually tossed about, and those hurtful expressions lodge deep within, slowly affecting one's sense of self and, I would argue, one's confidence on the field, as well.
After posting about this incident on Facebook, I received much praise and support for my decision to pull my son off the field. Indeed, I was the only parent to do so. But I was surprised by one friend's comment, which essentially said that I'd overreacted. Such roughness was part of the sport, he stated, and should be tolerated. While his comment in and of itself wasn't surprising, I found it odd that this comment actually came from a gay man who had experienced his share of bullying as a youth.
I've always believed in living authentically and helping to create a better, more loving world, and I can't understand how calling someone a derogatory term can possibly help anyone. Have we gotten past the point where such words hurt? Does a comment such as that belong on the sports field? Am I being overly sensitive?
What do you think? Is it ever OK to call someone a "pansy"?