“You… you… you faggot!”
The cafeteria gabble didn’t diminish despite the vehemence or volume of the oath. The sun still streamed into the large noisy hall, and lunch went on as usual. However, after a moment of stunned silence, the boys gathered at the table burst into loud guffaws.
“Do you even know what that means, Cabus?” one of them honked.
I didn’t. I was fifteen, the son of a Church of Christ minister and a Bible college professor, and I had just said my first curse word. And I didn’t even know what it meant. More importantly, I didn’t know I was one.
The boys cracked wise about my profanity for a few more minutes before moving on to another topic of conversation. Frankly, memory won’t allow me to recall what provoked my outburst or to whom it was directed, but I remember the moment and the callowness of the word. I had, in that instant, contributed to a complicity of homophobia and subjugation and didn’t even know it.
I’d certainly heard the word enough, but I didn’t learn it at home. I’d have fed on a diet of soap and water for a week had I ever repeated that around my folks. No, I’d heard it at school, mostly during P.E. when it was flung at me by the macho-shithead jocks I coveted and craved in the deepest reaches of my secret homo heart. (It would be another ten years before I came to myself, to forgive and love myself for who and what I am.) There was an acknowledgment on my part to its hatefulness and oppression, but I had no idea what “faggot” actually meant. My guess is neither did most of the boys who threw it at me. Not really.
But I’ll bet the coaches at our high school did. I heard a couple of them-not all-use the word on more than one occasion, usually with the intention of shaming a boy into a better performance on the field or on the court or in the gym. Granted, it was the Seventies and little, if nothing, had been done to raise the consciousness of educators, of anyone, to avoid derogatory speech in the classroom, but those men sanctioned the use of that word-and others, making it acceptable, even honorable.
It’s obvious where I got it.
Now a lot can be forgiven of a small town boy when it comes to casting aspersions toward others. Naiveté and repression pardons a number of sins. But what if it’s an adult with the responsibility and instruction to guide the minds, hearts and bodies of similar young men? What if it’s a coach, a teacher, a mentor, commissioned to steer the burgeoning careers and educations of students under his or her guidance? (My thoughts return to a previous Naked Pages article and smug Indiana Special Ed teacher Diana Medley, who, as a councilor for students at Sullivan High School, says she finds homosexuality “offensive”.) The woeful fact of open-faced bigotry in our public schools is both inexcusable and heartbreaking.
This past week, Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice shocked the country when ESPN aired a videotape of him bullying and physically abusing the players in his charge. Calling them “faggot” and “pussy”, throwing basketballs at their heads and kicking them in the shins is only what we witnessed, who knows what else the man did or said? What we saw was enough to cause outrage and force the university to discharge him. The only thing worse was how long this despicable behavior had been tolerated by both the players-who for fear of their own skins and scholarships remained understandably quiet (“I can’t say anything,” claimed one Rutgers’ athlete. “But I can throw a basketball in your face!”)-and the Rutgers’ administration.
Disapproval for Rice’s actions was-for the most part-across the board. Even NBA star LeBron James condemned the coach’s behavior by way of Twitter:
“If my son played for Rutgers or a coach like that he would have some real explaining to do and I’m still gone whoop on him afterwards! C’mon.”
Once the news was out, and the heat was on, however, the university was “quick to act“. Perhaps learning a valuable lesson from the Penn State debacle over Jerry Sandusky’s pedophilic dalliances and Joe Paterno’s blindness to them, Rutgers swiftly fired both Rice and its athletic director Tim Pernetti, who admitted to having seen the videotaped evidence four months earlier and did no more than scold Rice for his conduct. Both men received high-priced severance packages but were shown the door.
This maneuver, however, led some to decry Rutgers’ weakness for caving to popular demand. Fox News commentator Eric Bolling, a 22nd round Pirates draft pick in 1984, called the move “the wussification of American men.”
In a classic display of male posturing, he fumed,
“We’re in the midst of political correctness crushing our ability to teach kids, to discipline kids, to disagree with people or one another or kids… Our culture is in decline, and this is an example of our culture in free fall- and I’m saying this because he got fired, not because of what he did.”
But when, Mr. Bolling, was kicking and screaming deemed appropriate methods for adults to “teach” or to “discipline”? That kind of behavior was usually what most of us were disciplined against.
But he wasn’t the only one. The blogosphere blew up with red-blooded male swagger. Fans protested the university’s administration lack of testicular fortitude. One rabid supporter boasted-in a comment that has since been deleted-that his daughter’s soccer coach was tougher on her team than Rice was on his. Even Junior Wally Judge on the Rutgers basketball team, who transferred from Kansas State, remarked that Wildcats coach Frank Martin’s practices were harder and worse than Rice’s.
All this is to say, we have come so far to be so far behind. There is never a time when hate and fear is an acceptable tactic for success. There is never a time when vilifying anyone in any situation is defensible. There is never a time when coercing and tyrannizing anyone can be justified, even with the promise of progressed performance. It’s odious to even suggest it. There is never a time when terminating a coach or teacher’s contract because they fail in their duty to enrich and enlighten their players or students in the ways of respect and discipline should be questioned, much less maligned.
American men aren’t ‘wussified’ when they show restraint and poise under pressure, or because they punish those that don’t. This is, in fact, the very pinnacle of manhood, to stand up against intimidation and accusation and do the Right Thing. My father, in all the years he managed his congregation as a minister or his employees and residents as the administrator of a retirement community, never once used threats or slander to achieve results. He exuded patience and even temperedness, and people loved and admired him for it.
But if that example isn’t good enough for you, what about basketball great John Wooden, the ten time NCAA national championship coach at UCLA? Wooden’s leadership and decency are verified in record and in his praised Pyramid of Success, which singles out Self-Control, Poise and Cooperation as essential tenets of any position of influence. His Number Two out of 12 Lessons in Leadership is “Love is the most powerful four-letter word” (#4 is “Emotion is your enemy.”).
Hatred and fear are learned responses. So is violence. We don’t come into this world with an instinct for these reactions. Instead, someone who learned them from another drills them into us. We’ve got to be taught to think in these terms.
Mike Rice wasn’t born an abusive homophobe. He was taught. And if he wants it, he can unlearn. There’s an inkling in his public apology that, perhaps, seeing himself reflected in the eyes of his family-his parents, his wife, his children-that he saw what they saw and was deeply troubled by it. We can only hope.
And what of those young Rutgers basketball players? What of them? What have they learned, and what will they pass on? To their girlfriends, their wives, their children? They are safe if, and only if, they are rigorous in their need to curb such outbursts. Self-control, patience, empathy, and acceptance are learned responses too.
But more importantly, what of our college and university athletic programs? Between Rutgers and Penn State, the past year has revealed them to be rife with corruption and greed. What is really being taught in our Halls of Higher Learning when hate and fear are given a pass in favor of revenue and PR? Where there is still an awestruck love of sports and fair play among student athletes, there is rapacity and fraudulence in the adults of the administration and staff. This can be turned around too, but not when uncompromising fans are willing to collude with school directors and their schemes for the sake of a chance at a bowl game and protracted earnings.
You don’t have to be an old musical comedy queen to be reminded of the lyrics from one particular South Pacific song:
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
All this learned behavior can be unlearned. We can rethink how we handle ourselves with our students, our players, our teammates, our neighbors, families, and friends. No matter how riled we may get, no matter how vigorously others may try our patience, we can choose to keep our cool and not hurl basketballs or fists or dirty oaths at each other. We can choose to be better.
Coach Wooden once said,
“There is nothing stronger than gentleness.”
Right on, coach.
Thus ends my catechism.