I only watched it once, because it was too excruciating to view. That moment when Louisville guard Kevin Ware leaped, very high, to block a shot by Duke basketball player Tyler Thornton, and landed in a way that broke his right leg in two places. I turned my head in both agony and fear. Agony because as someone who has always played sports I've had my share of injuries (just a year ago I had a bad bicycle crash and dislocated a shoulder one block from my Brooklyn home). Fear because any person who has ever had a physical accident knows what is next: excruciating pain and shock. But what was equally breathtaking were the reactions of the Louisville players, who were crying and panting uncontrollably with looks of great sorrow tattooed across their faces as some covered their eyes while others either doubled over or laid flat on the court.
And the look that head coach Rick Pitino made spoke volumes: in that stunned gaze was not merely a traumatized coach but a father figure, a mentor, a human being who had never witnessed something so gruesome as that in his years of coaching. Somewhere in this terrible moment I thought about manhood, how it is often defined in our society. And how these players were openly rejecting what many of us had been taught since we were boys: That men do not cry. That men do not say we love each other (at least not heterosexual males, we are told). That manhood is about competition and ego and winning before anything else. Yet in that one shining moment between Ware's leap to contest that shot and his horrificly mangled leg near the Louisville bench both his team and Duke's showed something I have rarely seen in my multiple years of watching or playing sports, any sport: a very raw and genuine and collective vulnerability as males. A brotherhood that transcended time and space and sport. A glimpse of a possibility of what we men of all backgrounds could be, can be, if we were to bottle that moment, shake it up, and make it the norm for men and boys in our world.
But, sadly, that is not the case as we've witnessed these past few days with the matter of now former Rutgers head basketball coach Mike Rice. ESPN broke the story of video showing Rice cursing, belittling, and firing basketballs and homophobic venom at his players, during his tenure at RU. Rutgers happens to be where I attended college many years back. However, I am not bothered because the the school is in an ugly national spotlight. I am bothered because Rice exhibited behavior that I once exhibited in my own life: uncontrollable anger and rage, abusive antics that seek to hurt and destroy others, a great gulf between a public persona and what goes on behind closed doors.
But this is what dysfunctional and warped definitions of manhood will do to any one of us. Make us think this sort of thing is okay as you go from job to job, relationship to relationship, and scene to scene. Coach Rice is 44-years-old, a very grown man. But clearly what we witnessed in the video did not start at Rutgers. We are taught these things as boys, and we roll into manhood riding the wave where violence and anti-social behavior are typical, and in some scenarios expected of us. And we see it highlighted, even celebrated, in famous figures ranging from legendary Indiana head coach Bobby Knight to Charlie Sheen. But it is not okay.
I remember as a teen and younger man watching Bobby Knight's press conferences and games where he was obscene and foul, throwing things whenever he felt like it. I think of some of the coaches I had as a boy growing up, in track and in baseball, and cannot recall any of them behaving as Coach Rice did towards me or my teammates. But I know in my hometown of Jersey City there were coaches, in various sports, who practiced that "old-school style," as I witnessed it often with my own eyes: screaming, grabbing, pushing, even choking players who did not do what the coach wanted. These boys habitually told they were "dumb" or "stupid" for not quickly picking up a play or athletic skill. I wonder what ever became of some of these boys from my childhood.
There is something fundamentally wrong with any community when we think the way to teach a boy or young male to be a grown man is to destroy him and his self-esteem in the process. No, what it actually does is teach him that the only way to solve problems, to build anything, is by rage and abuse. Ultimately that boy will either become like the coach or teacher or father or father figure or mentor. Or he will become withdrawn, quiet, the condition of his psyche forever arrested with fear, doubt, and insecurities.
Now I know there are men out there who will argue that there is only one way to teach a boy or young male to be a man. I respectfully disagree. As someone who has been organizing and mentoring for nearly three decades -- with athletes, students of all ages, in prisons, and on the block in our communities -- I know there are other ways to teach manhood. Yes we should challenge and push our younger males to be excellent at whatever they do. But we must also look ourselves in the mirror and ask if we ourselves are practicing a definition of manhood that is healthy, whole, loving, supporting, nonviolent, accountable, respectful, and peaceful, to ourselves, and to any human being we come in contact with. A manhood that respects and honors women and girls as our equals, that frowns on and condemns sexual assault and domestic violence. Not easy and comfortable questions for any of us because much of the manhood we've been taught is about lying and pretending, not being who we truly are.
I know I stumbled many times in my past lives and have made a personal commitment to be what I described above in these times, and for the remainder of my life. It means I've also had to spend many years in therapy, in church, in spiritual and physical practices like yoga, in small groups talking with like-minded people, particularly men, about what it is to be a man. This is work, harder than anything any of us could ever do on a sports field or court, or in college, our communities, politics, or corporate America. But it must be down, for the sake of us, for the sake of the boys and men to come.
These days what I pride myself on is being brutally honest about where I am, and forever being self-corrective when necessary, and able to take constructive criticism and suggestions from those who truly love and know me. Because if you are not willing to do that, then the truth of who you are, as a man, will sooner or later be exposed for the world to see, as Coach Mike Rice learned this week. And it simply did not have to be that way. Nor should have Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti waited months to fire Rice, having seen the video last Fall. It brings back unpleasant memories of men covering up for each other in the Penn State sex-abuse scandal that took down legendary coach Joe Paterno.
We can debate nonstop who knew what and when in both these situations, but one thing is abundantly clear: some men did know about it and chose to say nothing, and the ones who did, in both instances, were alienated, shoved to the side, made invisible. When we continue to behave in this manner, as men, we do not realize we are further locking the prison doors of a kind of manhood that has nothing to do with sanity or reason. It becomes about power, prestige, influence, and the safety and wellness of others is unimportant to men who think like that.
The better way, the saner way, is what Kevin Ware and the Louisville players demonstrated, in a moment of great crisis. A coming together, a call to men which should be as natural to us as watching March Madness every year.
Kevin Ware says he is a quiet person, overwhelmed and humbled by the national attention. Whether he plays basketball again or not may not be the real question here, although I pray he will be fine. But I think it is how we can be like the Louisville players, in that instance, each and every day of our lives.