These 5 NFL Players Are Changing What It Means to Be a Man in Football

Miami Dolphins lineman Jonathan Martin is not the only NFL player to challenge the league's bigotry and misogyny. These five men stand for a new kind of masculinity.
Penn football player

Earlier this month, Jonathan Martin, a lineman for the Miami Dolphins, took a tray of food to join his teammates at a meal. When he approached, everyone at the table stood up and left him to sit alone. Martin threw his tray to the ground, left the Dolphins facilities, and checked himself into the hospital for mental duress.

Football is a man’s game, this line of thinking goes, and if you can’t take the pressure, you don’t belong.

The story that unfolded from there is a disturbing one, featuring bullying, hazing, racism, and abuse, all directed at Jonathan Martin, who is African-American. Eventually, it seems Martin couldn’t take it any longer, and left.

The man behind much of this abuse now appears to be Richie Incognito, another (white) lineman on the team. The evidence began piling up with the release of a voicemail he left Martin, filled with racial abuse, mockery, and threats of violence. We then learned that Martin had been made to pay $15,000 dollars toward a Las Vegas trip for his teammates that he did not attend. The story continues to unfold, and just gets worse.

Unfortunately, much of the response has held Martin responsible. While Incognito’s behavior has been rejected by all, too many are faulting Martin for his inability to “man up” and take it. Football is a man’s game, this line of thinking goes, and if you can’t take the pressure, you don’t belong.

“You're a grown-ass man,” Antrel Rolle of the New York Giants said. “You need to stand up for yourself."

And he’s not the only player or media figure promoting the “man up” argument against Martin. The Dolphin’s General Manager recommended violence to resolve the issue, and even his coach’s initial response was to “toughen up.”

For too many, the perception of masculinity displayed by Rolle and the Miami Dolphins remains the dominant view of what it means to be a man. The exact outline of this stereotypical masculinity is difficult to pin down. It includes warrior language and violent behavior, and excludes homosexuality completely, as well as the capacity for varied emotional expression or intimacy. It’s hard to define, but to borrow Justice Stewart’s description of obscenity, we know it when we see it.

We see it when players are involved in blatant criminal behavior, domestic abuse, and sexual violence. But it’s not always, or even usually, criminal. We see it encouraged when players are duct-taped to goalposts by their peers and have Pepto Bismol dumped on them in front of fans and the media; or have images of genitalia shaved into their hair by their teammates; or when the young players are made to pay the “rookie tax,” paying money to those who are said to be mentors simply because they’re new to the team.

These are the kinds of macho behaviors now associated with masculinity in American athletics. Each contributes to the stereotypical notions of manhood erected by popular sports culture, and the failure to endure the abuse has come to mean weakness. The effect of this behavior is huge: Because of the NFL’s influence and media reach, the league contributes as much to the popular conception of masculinity as any factor in our culture.

Ideas about masculinity have been changing, and can be found even in professional football.

But ideas about masculinity have been changing, and evidence of that can be found even in professional football. No population, including the NFL, is defined by popular stereotypes. If Richie Incognito reinforces the warrior image of masculinity common to the NFL, others are dismantling that image.

Here are five players who are beginning to help change the notion of what it means to be a man in the NFL.

1. Brendon Ayanbadejo

Brendon Ayanbadejo

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A former linebacker for 2012 Super Bowl Champions the Baltimore Ravens, Brendon Ayenbadejo is one of the most outspoken advocates for LGBT equality in professional sports.

His views on same-sex marriage became known 2009, when wrote a piece entitled “Same Sex Marriages: What’s the big deal?” for the Huffington Post. Though it was only a few years ago, Ayanbadejo’s public support for LGBT equality was rare and bold at the time. He continued in that role, filming a spot in support of marriage equality in Maryland and speaking out whenever he had the chance.

But it was in 2012 when Ayandadejo’s activism became a national story. Upset by Ayanbadejo’s outspokenness on the issue, Maryland state delegate Emmett Burns penned a now infamous letter to the owner of the Baltimore Ravens. Noting that many Ravens fans disagree with the opinions shared by Mr. Ayanbadejo, Burns insisted that the Ravens ownership:

...inhibit such expressions from your employee and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions. I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing.

Ayanbadejo took his response to Twitter:

Today, Brendon Ayanbadejo is no longer playing in the NFL, but he remains committed to bridging the gap between the LGBT community and professional sports.

2. Tom Brady 

There’s something about the life of Tom Brady that drives people (me included) crazy. Everything about Brady just seems so perfect. He’s got the professional achievement (three Super Bowls and two MVP awards). He’s got the supermodel wife—literally—with whom he shares a $14 million condo in New York City. There’s only so much glamor the rest of us are willing to take.

But as much as he may annoy us (or just me), Tom Brady is changing the image of manhood in the NFL. In addition to being an outstanding football player, he is also a model who’s worked with some of the most famous names in the business, and a fashion icon known for his outrageously well-manicured good looks—in sports they call this being a “pretty boy.”

The subject of untold numbers of blog posts and articles and jokes for his hair and clothing choices and halloween costumes, the quarterback is as well known these days for his off-field activities—charity and fashion and wife Gisele Bündchen—as he is for his on-field play.

3. Chris Kluwe

Chris Kluwe

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Strictly speaking, Emmett Burns was not correct when he said no other NFL players were doing what Brendon Ayanbadejo was doing. The punter for the Minnesota Vikings, Chris Kluwe, was also speaking out on behalf of LGBT equality.

But his outspoken support of gay and lesbian rights (even posing for Out Magazine) is only one small part of the multi-faceted personality that is Chris Kluwe.

If fitting the stereotype of a man in sports means putting sports above all else, Kluwe simply does not qualify. Of his firing from the Minnesota Vikings last year, which some speculated was due to his activism on same-sex marriage, Kluwe said: “I think making people aware of an issue that is causing children to commit suicide is more important than kicking a leather ball.”

You have to respect that kind of level-headedness.

“I think making people aware of an issue that is causing children to commit suicide is more important than kicking a leather ball.”

Kluwe is an avid video-gamer. He’s a founding member of the Minneapolis band Tripping Icarus, and a player of table-top role-playing and fantasy card games. He uses social media constantly and is an expert at crafting curse-filled insults (see his response to Emmet Burns of Maryland). He used to blog for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, until the paper’s editorial page supported a ban on Marriage Equality in Minnesota, which led Kluwe to quit the paper in a dramatic final blog post.

And this year, he released a weird and adventurous book, Beautiful Unique Sparkleponies, a phrase that in itself defies any stereotypical notion of the NFL.

4. John Moffitt

Drafted out of the University of Wisconsin in 2011, John Moffitt has been a professional in the NFL for only three years. Now 27 years old, Moffitt last week informed the Denver Broncos that he is retiring.

For most athletes, the professional game is their highest achievement, the pinnacle of a lifetime of hard work and dedication. It's rare to see a young player walk away from the money and fame of this achievement, not for injury or mitigating circumstance, but just by choice.

That’s what Moffitt did, turning down a contract worth $1 million and a potential run at a Superbowl this year.

So why did Moffitt walk away? He announced on Twitter that he just wasn’t happy risking his health and hurting his family. Here’s how Moffitt described his decision to the Associated Press:

"Once you tear away all the illusions of it, it’s hard work. And it’s dangerous work. And you’re away from your family. And it’s not good for families. It’s very tough on families. I’m ready to go to work and start doing other things right now. So, it’s a smoother transition and I’m still young enough to start a career and my body’s healthy and I’m good. I look at it as a great start to life, you know?"

5. Tim Tebow

Tim Tebow

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Few athletes have been more divisive in recent years than once-quarterback of the Denver Broncos Tim Tebow. The media coverage of Tebow has focused on two primary features: his ability to win games despite his questionable talent, and his overt, on-field expressions of his evangelical Christian lifestyle.

It’s the latter that has made Tebow a sensation in the United States. His fan support during his run in Denver was unparalleled, and his supporters remain vocal and ready to defend Tebow’s image from any attack at his intentions, athletic ability, or public persona.

But regardless of what one thinks about Tebow’s personal worldview or avid fans, there’s no denying the fact that he works against the grain of the traditional masculinity as displayed in professional football. His on-field behavior—most notably dropping to one knee in prayer after scoring—and his post-game media interaction have always separated him from his peers.

Off the field, Tebow's identity has also broken from the stereotypes of NFL culture. From breaking up bar fights to starting the Tim Tebow Foundation, Tebow's personal behavior is a far cry from the bullying and humiliation directed at Jonathan Martin.