When President Trump took to the podium last month to castigate protesters in the NFL, he sparked a conversation on the role of privilege, patriotism, and protest in the United States. By calling protesters “sons of bitches,” he also offered perhaps the most scathing and crass analysis by the White House of a public figure since President Obama called Kanye West a “jackass” in 2009. And although his comments may have lifted the national dialogue around free speech above its recent low point (“Nazi Demonstrators: Are They Fine People?”), they also distracted from equally troubling remarks made in the same speech: that football in the NFL is “not the same game anymore” and that “they’re ruining the game” by reducing the sport’s physicality. While a cynic might recognize an obvious attempt to rally Trump’s base around a decline in perceived toughness, these comments underscore a real problem with America’s celebration of violent culture and toxic masculinity.
In the last few years, as the list of prematurely retiring NFL players has grown, it has become clear that some of the most invested participants in the game have not been aware of its risks. And as we learn more about the devastating, sometimes fatal consequences of traumatic brain injuries – most commonly CTE – it is harder to accept from fans that a game is “ruined,” as Trump put it, because of efforts to preserve human life. Such casual, flippant language suggests these men are afraid of bruises, or taking a few extra Advil in their 50s, rather than forgetting their kids’ names or literally forgetting why they walked into a room by their 40s. This isn’t asking men to toughen up to endure a bum knee in a championship game, it’s demanding they be grateful for the opportunity to forget they even played in games by the time they are at an age when most of us are living our prime years – and that’s if their story doesn’t end even more tragically. All of this is under the pretense that their value as gladiatorial combatants is the greatest gift they have to offer society, and that it’s in their very nature to inflict pain (“That’s what they want to do,” Trump said, as if football players were wild animals being unfairly housebroken. “They want to hit”).
And yet, that only scratches the surface of how Trump’s comments dangerously underscore a toxic culture in America – after all, the President was only able to utilize a perceived decline of the NFL’s physicality as a rallying cry because it strikes a nerve with a sizeable percentage of the public. But when we weigh human value, especially that of men, by physical strength and savagery, we continue to lay the foundation for a perpetually violent, downward spiraling society. In the very same remarks mentioned above, Trump imagines the game being ruined not only by men afraid to give and take hits, but by referees playing to the cameras: “… his wife is sitting at home, she’s so proud of him. They’re ruining the game.” In this culture, not only are less-violent men an inferior product, but those who are valued by women are to be shunned, ridiculed, and used as bait for raging culture wars that reduce an individual human life to how effectively it can be used to smack around another human life.
We are a society already hopelessly deadlocked in struggles over other issues tangential to this toxic culture, from our military-industrial complex, to our fight over gun use, to Hollywood’s celebration of violence. We cannot afford to have the conversation shift further from rationality, to a place where men who put their well being before their access to fame are reduced to pariahs by hyper-masculine fringes. And when this behavior is not only reinforced, but embraced by a sitting president, it takes on a weight and danger we should not accept.