You can snap a man’s leg in half. You can pummel a guy and spit in his face. You can dance when you score a touchdown, or trash talk an opponent as if he were a pig that just soiled your carpet.
But you better not cry.
No, sir. There’s no crying in football. At least that’s the subtle message coming out of Pittsburgh, where quarterback Kordell Stewart is under heavy criticism for his reaction to being benched during Sunday’s loss to Tampa Bay.
Stewart yelled at his coach, Bill Cowher. He pointed fingers and screamed to go back in the game. That’s not shocking. It happens now and then. But Stewart had tears in his eyes as he yelled, left over from his first reaction to the benching, which was to sit down and cry.
And because of that, everything from his job to his manhood is being questioned.
Now, no one is condoning a sidelines argument, which is bad for morale, and a poor example for kids. No one is suggesting that the way you handle benching is to blow your stack.
But the fuss that is being made over Stewart’s reaction has more to do with his tears than his temper. And we ought to ask ourselves why.
Why, for example, did one wire service headline read, “Stewart’s Crying Raises Questions”? Why did the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette use this headline: “Steelers’ Stewart — Crying Out Loud”?
And why did an AP story on the incident begin this way: “Kordell Stewart is the Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback — for now. What coach Bill Cowher must decide is if he can plan for the future with a player who cries under pressure
. . .”
Wow. All that for a few tears?
Imagine if he used a hankie.
The macho game of football
I never understood football’s macho fear of crying. Not when every other emotion is encouraged to the extreme. We don’t seem to care if a lineman howls like a wolf as he plows into a vending machine. Or if a fight breaks out as players run from the tunnel. We don’t even object if a millionaire athlete performs an embarrassingly boastful dance after a routine play. Bragging. Insulting. Screaming. Getting fall-down drunk and baying at the moon. That’s all OK in football.
But tears? Crying? If it’s not out of joy — winning, winning, winning — then it’s somehow for babies. For sissies. A sign of weakness — and weakness can’t be tolerated on the gridiron.
When asked about Stewart’s crying, the jut-jawed Cowher, who enjoys an image of strength, said, “Part of being a quarterback is being a leader…. If you don’t handle situations right, you can be misperceived. And perception is reality.”
Read between the lines. Don’t handle situations right. What he’s saying is:
“Other players don’t respect a guy who cries.”
And this attitude is apparent in sports verbiage. Think of how we describe a player who’s ready to kill. We say, “He’s got his game face on.” Or, “He’s ready for war” — as if war were something we should all be really proud of getting ready for.
Meanwhile, consider the verbs we use for crying. “Blubbering.” “Sobbing.”
“Broke down.” “Bawling like a baby.”
And we’re all wrong. The fact is, tears are as natural a reaction as yelling, dancing or howling. You’re sad, you cry. You get it out of your system and you move on. That may not sound very macho to you. But then, maybe being macho isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The fight against death
Now, I admit, I didn’t always feel this way. I used to hide my emotions as carefully as the next guy in the sports line. Then I spent some time with an old teacher of mine, who was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t put his glasses on his nose. He couldn’t even wipe his own rear end.
Every morning, he would cry over his fate. Never long. Just for a few minutes. The tears would spill down his cheeks, and he lacked the ability to even stroke them away. He cried for all he was missing. He cried for all the things he would never do again.
And then he would stop. That was it. He never saw this crying as a means of giving in. He never saw it as weakness. On the contrary. He saw his tears as strength. He said in allowing the emotion to wash over him, he was true to it, he didn’t hide from it. He faced it, went through it. Got beyond it. That takes courage.
And he was as good a leader as I’ve ever met.
Which leads me to consider a few things about Stewart. Like the fact that he is 26 years old. Like the fact that while the Steelers lost their best receiver, their offensive coordinator and several key offensive linemen, it is Stewart who gets booed in his home stadium this season.
Like the fact that one idiotic Pittsburgh fan actually dumped a beer on Stewart’s head as he left the field a few weeks ago. A Pittsburgh fan! And here’s the crazy thing: That guy was probably celebrated in some bar as being a hero, a guy’s guy.
Meanwhile Stewart, who cares enough about the game to cry over it, is seen as some weakling.
Where’s the fairness in that?
I’m not saying that Stewart doesn’t have shortcomings at his position, or that he doesn’t deserve to sit down. I’m not saying he has any right to yell at his coach. But he didn’t hurt anyone by crying. And the only weakness in that moment came from the people too stiff-necked to understand it.
Mitch Albom will sign copies of “Tuesdays With Morrie” and his other books from 7-8 p.m. Friday at Barnes & Noble in Grosse Pointe and from 5-6 p.m. Saturday at Borders in Birmingham (on Woodward).
To leave a message for Mitch, call 1-313-223-4581 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org