by Mindy Fried
I was a high school cheerleader. Whew – I’ve gotten the confessional part of this post out of the way. In all honesty, I hated football, and didn’t know anything about the game. I had discovered ballet and modern dance at age seven, and very soon was taking lessons four times a week. Dance was my life. This was an era when girls were often discouraged or excluded from playing sports, before the passage of Title IX. When I reached Riverside High School (RHS) in Buffalo, New York, the only dance-like option available for athletic girls was cheerleading. So another dancer friend and I plunged into the world of rah-rah, feeling like outsiders even though we were viewed as football-loving cheerleaders. Perhaps more importantly, we were also considered “popular girls”, with status that was derived from our official role in supporting the football players, “our men”, who represented the epitome of masculinity.
Like most occupations that are female-dominated, our all-female cheerleading team was a vehicle through which we were able to bond. Our coach was the first lesbian I ever met, closeted of course in those days, who supported us in our prominent role, despite the fact that it was a gendered role. Our job was quite simple. We were to rev up the audience so that they could rev up the players. We cheerleaders – dressed in our short skirts and lettered sweaters – were happy to cheer and leap with chronically fixed smiles, as we performed to an appreciative crowd. Although unlike me, most of my “sisters” really meant it when they cheered for the players. Here was one of our popular chants, which I loved not because of the words, which glorified the heroes of the game, but because of the athletic moves that accompanied them:
“They always call him Mr. Touchdown
They always call him Mr. T.
He can run and and kick and throw
Give him the ball and just look at him go
Hip, hip, hooray for Mister Touch-down
He’s gonna beat ‘em today
So give a great big cheer (WOO! – cheers the crowd ) for the hero of the year,
Mister Touchdown, RHS (Riverside High School)”
The real hero of the RHS team was Joe Ehrmann, a star football player with a solid frame, wide, powerful neck, and muscles that popped out of his uniform. Unlike most other girls in school, I was not interested in football players, including Joe. I presumed – right or wrong – that if you were a football player, you probably had an inflated ego and you were short on smarts.
That said, it was clear that Joe was different than the other ball players. He was funny and clever, and a “mensch” – aka a really sweet guy. I remember his performance in an all-school “assembly” when Joe got up in front of the whole school and danced in a hula skirt. At the time, this was hysterical and unheard of – a popular football player cross-dressing for laughs. He wasn’t afraid to be outrageous, and perhaps understood that a hulk of a man displaying so-called femininity was discordant and therefore, funny.
No surprise that Joe and I didn’t see each other after high school, but we both attended Syracuse University. He went on to become a star player on SU’s football team, and I went on to become an anti-war activist and aspiring feminist. When Joe graduated from SU, he was immediately drafted to play defensive tackle in the NFL for the Baltimore Colts. Given my disconnect from the world of football – in my mind, a violent sport that typifies our “masculinist” culture – I knew nothing about Joe and his success over the next four decades. That is, until I began to teach courses on gender and workplace issues, and lo and behold, I discovered that Joe and I had a lot in common. Over the years, Joe had become a minister and popular motivational speaker who chose sports as his bully pulpit to preach all over the country about the damaging social construct of what it means “to be a man”.
In his blog, Joe writes about 10 lessons he’s learning about sports in America. Lesson # 7 says:
At the core of much of America’s social chaos – from boys with guns, to girls with babies, immorality in board rooms and the beat down women take– is the socialization of boys into men. Violence, a sense of superiority over women, and emotional disconnectedness are not inherent to masculinity – they are the results of societal messages that define and dictate American masculinity.
Speaking like a feminist sociologist, Joe says that “America is increasingly becoming a toxic environment for the development of boys into men”…which “disconnects a boy’s heart from his head (and) contributes to a culture of violence, emotional invulnerability, toughness and stoicism (that) perpetuates the challenge of helping boys become loving, contributing and productive citizens”.
I wouldn’t have found Joe, had I not become aware of a controversy around a couple of macho sportscasters who run a morning radio show on WFAN in New York City, called Boomer and Carton, followed by a social critique from my old classmate, Joe. The “Boomer and Carton” show began with Carton ranting about a New York Mets player, Daniel Murphy, who took two days of paternity leave, or as they called it a two-game paternity leave, to be with his wife as she was birthing their baby. He said that he could understand why a man would be with his wife while she’s HAVING the baby,
But to ME, and this is MY sensibility – Assuming the birth went well; assuming your wife is fine; assuming the baby is fine – (then he should take off) 24 hours! Baby’s good; you stay there; you have a good support system for the mom and the baby. (Then) you get your ass back to the team and you play baseball! That’s my take on it.
As Carton finishes these last words, he knocks his fist on the table, agitated, and then continues: “What do you need to do anyway? You’re not breastfeeding the kid!…I got four of these little rug rats! There’s nothing to do!”
Initially, Boomer counters by saying that Daniel Murphy has the legal right to be with the mom and his newborn, but when pressed by his co-host, Carton, about what HE would have done, Boomer backs off and says:
Quite frankly I would’ve said (to my wife), C-section before the season starts. I need to be at opening day. I’m sorry, this is what makes our money. This is how we’re going to live our life. This is going to give my child every opportunity to be a success in life. I’ll be able to afford any college I want to send my kid to because I’m a baseball player.
So here we have two sportscasters telling us that a) “real” men have no responsibility, nor should they have an interest in being an involved father; and b) “real” men should tell their wives that this is how it’s going to be: You wrap your birthing around my work schedule, and then when you’re done popping out the baby, I’m outa’ here because I’m making money to send this kid to college, and that’s more important.
This is where former NFL player Joe Ehrmann chimed in.
I think these comments are pretty shortsighted and reflect old school thinking about masculinity and fatherhood. Paternity leave is critical in helping dads create life-long bonding and sharing in the responsibilities of raising emotionally healthy children. To miss the life altering experience of ‘co-laboring’ in a delivery room due to nonessential work-related responsibilities is to create false values.
Take that, Boomer and Carton!
In the background throughout all this hub-bub was Daniel Murphy who, without any fanfare, commented that he did hear about the controversy around his leave-taking, but he didn’t care. “That’s the awesome part about being blessed, about being a parent, is you get that choice. My wife and I discussed it, and we felt the best thing for our family was for me to try to stay for an extra day – that being Wednesday, due to the fact that she can’t travel for two weeks”.
Instead of cow-towing to the traditional view that men – in particular, high-priced athletes – should put work over family, Murphy exhibited compassion for his wife and a desire to be an involved dad. “It’s going to be tough for her to get up to New York for a month. I can only speak from my experience – a father seeing his wife – she was completely finished. I mean, she was done. She had surgery and she was wiped. Having me there helped a lot, and vice versa, to take some of the load off. … It felt, for us, like the right decision to make.”
Okay, Murphy defended his right to take a measly two days off from work. This isn’t so different from thousands of men around the nation, as the range of men’s use of parental leave goes somewhere from a couple days to a couple of weeks. And that time is generally taken as vacation time, which disassociates it from the act of involved fathering. But still, the public face of this story elevates the importance of father involvement in child caring and co-parenting, with Murphy as the protagonist, and my old classmate, Joe, the advocate who understands and has a lot of important things to say about it.
Joe continues to give inspirational talks around the country, where he questions how men begin to understand themselves and connect more deeply to others. “It’s a long term process but it starts with the idea that you can’t keep hiding and protecting yourself. You’ve got to be able to let people in. Then you have a chance to be truly loved and to be love.”
Check out Joe Ehrmann’s TedX Baltimore talk called “Be a Man” here.