Don’t let toxic masculinity (and CTE) destroy your sons

May 31, 2023


An impactful piece on chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE in the Washington Post* broke my heart.

CTE is a fatal brain disease associated with repeated traumatic brain injuries, such as concussions and/or repeated blows to the head. It’s a progressive condition seen in athletes who take repeated blows, like football players and boxers. It’s been associated with the development of dementia, erratic behavior and confusion.

Diagnosis can only be made after death, which is why it’s only now beginning to be understood. But autopsies have found CTE in the brains of 99% of the NFL players whose brains they’ve studied, 91 percent of college football players and 21 percent of high school football players.

But there’s a problem bigger than CTE. One that CTE is a symptom of.

Toxic masculinity.

Toxic masculinity is all about how boys and men prove they are “real men.” The expectations of “real men.” The idea that a real man shows no weakness. If injured, sucks it up and goes on with his sport. Runs it off.

Toxic masculinity is responsible for CTE, in my opinion, and the Washington Post story I cite at the end of the piece explains one piece of it without naming it. But that’s what it is.

I have seen firsthand the denial of father who want their kids to play football because they, themselves played the game. More than a decade ago I asked a retired semi-pro football player I know why he let his son play high school football, given CTE.

“Oh, that’s been exaggerated,” he said.

I can’t help but wonder what he thinks now. I am not sure contemporary science, medicine,  data have changed his mind.

Stubborn resistance to facts

CTEWe see a lot of that stubborn resistance to data these days. Yes, I’m thinking “Covid”. This resistance to data? I think it’s a sign of willful stupidity.

One of my good friends is a former athlete who played some form of aggressive sport well into his 50s and has worked out incessantly his entire life. Now in his real senior years, he has destroyed his body. Multiple injuries. Multiple surgeries. Disability. Constant pain, some of unreachable by medication.

He ignored the warning signs along the way. He toughed it out.  Mostly because he loved sport, but also because of toxic masculinity. Because sport and physical achievement were how he defined himself his whole life. If he didn’t have that, who was he? What was he? What did it say about him?

And there’s more:

Another good friend is similarly resistant to change in his habits, despite major mobility issues. While he’s not someone I’d normally consider a victim of toxic masculinity, when I think about it I see that his activities have defined him. Perhaps he fears he’d be nothing without them.

Raising a boy in this day and age can be challenging. Raising him without regard for toxic masculinity is even more of a challenge.

The larger issue looms large. But the more practical issue is the prevalence of CTE among a certain kind of athlete.

I’ll say this:

If your kid plays a sport in which they risk multiple head injuries, think about whether or not this is a good idea, given what science and medicine are now telling us.

I get that it’s hard to combat those expectations of men. The way we glorify professional athletes.

Parenting is always a challenge.

But the bottom line is this:

Is playing worth risking their lives for?

*Washington Post story here.  and if you hit a paywall, put the link in here.

And don’t forget our 5-star condolence gifts, HERE.

10 comments on “Don’t let toxic masculinity (and CTE) destroy your sons
  1. Laurie Stone says:

    I’m lucky with my sons. We’ve always been close and having a female perspective all their lives, I believe helps them like and respect women more. They didn’t grow up regarding females as “the other,” which is a problem in some of these households.

  2. Like Laurie, I feel fortunate. My son was surrounded by women all his life (his sisters, me, his grandmothers), and if anything, was overly sensitive. Mostly, I’m happy he’s not afraid of talking about his feelings, even the uncomfortable ones. (And mostly secretly, so glad his high school didn’t even have a football team!)

  3. Diane says:

    My sons have each dabbled in sports only in a luke-warm fashion. And that’s just fine with me! We’ve been a theatric/musical/artistic family. Toxic masculinity isn’t even on the radar, thank goodness! They all like to keep fit, but that is where it ends. Several of the teenagers I have taught were deeply involved in full-contact sports and I got so I dreaded attending their games. One, in particular was a quarterback and was getting ‘sacked’ by the opposite team on a regular basis. I got so I couldn’t watch. I wanted to go out there and snarl and tear at the other players. But his father was fully behind it. Encouraged it. When he was home with a severe concussion, he kept asking for brownies, which he said would cure him and which I was glad to deliver. When he didn’t make it into the majors, both his mother and I breathed a sigh of relief!

  4. My son joined the AirForce. He’s been in for 15 years. I’m glad he didn’t join the Marines or the Army as that’s much more physical. So far, just a knee injury from hiking.

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