January 26, 2011

In Defense of Jay Cutler – Rejecting the Bogus “Man Code.”

[This post originally appeared at The Masculine Heart.]

[Disclaimer – I don’t like Cutler as a quarterback and I think he is kind of whiny. Hell, I don’t even think he has what it takes to be an NFL starting quarterback. But that has nothing to do with his toughness.]

For those who live under rocks or (for some unknown reason) do not follow professional sports (I’m joking, I’m joking), Jay Cutler is the starting quarterback for the Chicago Bears football team. In Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, he was injured at the end of the first half and tried to play to begin the second half. After one pass attempt, the coaching staff (at the recommendation of team doctors) pulled him from the game and sent in the 2nd string quarterback (and quickly pulled him in favor of the 3rd string quarterback, who played VERY well in a losing effort).

Within minutes some of his fellow NFL players – who are done for the season and were sitting in front of the TV – were commenting on Twitter that Cutler is soft, that he “tapped out” (an MMA term for admitting you have been beaten – you literally tap the other guy and the ref stops the fight). These quotes comes from a Fox Sports post by Nancy Gay (Cutler lacks grit in loss against Packers):

Maurice Jones-Drew: “All I’m saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee … I played the whole season on one …”

Asante Samuel: “If he was my teammate I would be looking at him sideways. … I luv my QB @mikevick he has the heart of a lion. I guess others are scared of success.”

Mark Schlereth: “As a guy (who) had 20 knee surgeries you’d have to drag me out on a stretcher to Leave a championship game! #justsaying”

Darnell Dockett: “If I’m on Chicago team jay cutler has to wait till me and the team shower get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room!”

Kirk Morrison: “If my knee was hurt or acl/mcl/pcl sprain, I would not be standing up on the sideline.”

NFL Network talking head, and former NFL star, Deion Sanders added: “Im telling u in the playoffs u must drag me off the field. All the medicine in pro lockerooms this dude comes out! I apologize bear fans! … Folks i never question a players injury but i do question a players heart.”

Another player (who has never proven himself as anything but an emergency backup quarterback), Oakland’s Bruce Gradkowski, was widely quoted as Tweeting: “Is cutler still ur starter next year? Did the players give up on him?

During and after the game, Cutler was trashed by “fans” on Twitter, as well. More concerning, however, is that he was also trashed by most of the sports talking heads, include many former players on ESPN and the NFL Network.

After the fact, after the damage had been done, Jones-Drew and Gradkowski retracted their Tweets – sorry guys, you spoke out of your asses, knowing nothing about the injury Cutler sustained (a sprained MCL), so own your ignorance.

The situation was made worse by two things:

1) During game coverage, Cutler was shown sitting alone at the end of the bench, looking like he was sulking. He was also shown standing a couple of times. There was no icing or immobilization of the knee that one would expect with a serious injury. And, to me, the worst part was that he did not put on a headset to help help his back-ups in whatever way possible. This, to me, is about his poor attitude, his emotional immaturity, not his courage as a player.

2) When asked about the Twitter comments at his locker following the game, the Sports Illustrated reporter suggested that he saw Cutler crying (and everyone knows the “real men don’t cry” bullshit we get hit with all the time):

Cutler appeared genuinely hurt when asked about the comments, saying: “No comment on that.” He then turned his back to reporters, fiddled with some things on a shelf and bit his lip as tears welled.

Reporting on the SI story, an NBC reporter wrote (partly in defense and partly to shame):

For the record, Cutler has missed exactly one game since he first became a starter as a rookie in Denver, and that one game came when doctors wouldn’t clear him after suffering a concussion this season. One missed game in a career that has seen Cutler get sacked 138 times does not make him a wimp. But Cutler has a long way to go to rebuild his reputation. And crying in his locker isn’t the way to do that.

[Emphasis added.]

I’ll get back to this last comment in a moment, but I want to address the toughness issue. Cutler took more sacks than any other quarterback this season – and he never pulled himself from the game in losses or gave up on his team.

“I can’t even believe I’m sitting here talking about Cutler’s toughness,” (Bears general manager) Jerry Angelo said.

Cutler is often criticized for his demeanor, along with his decisions during games. But his toughness? That’s a new one.

No one took a bigger pounding this season.

The league-leading 52 sacks barely reflected the number of hits he absorbed. He was constantly under pressure, particularly in the early going, and even when he runs, he’ll often take the tackle rather than slide. He did it again at least once against the Packers.

“We’re in a perception business,” Angelo said. “I certainly didn’t like what was said. I take that personally, too. He’s our quarterback. We wouldn’t have been where we’re at without him, and I want that to be made clear. We stand by him.”

His coaches and his teammates have stood beside him and refuted the criticism of his toughness, especially Brian Urlacher in the post-game press conference:

“He’s a tough son of a bitch, hell yeah he is. He practices every day. You’ve seen the hits he’s taken his career. He gets up, he doesn’t bitch, he doesn’t complain, he just goes out there and competes and tries to win the game,” Urlacher said of Cutler. “If he couldn’t be in there, it’s because he was hurt, because he couldn’t go and probably thought he was hurting the team if he couldn’t be in there. That’s why.”

I have suffered a partially torn MCL. I could stand and walk, looking pretty much normal, but when I tried to play on it, even with a heavy-duty brace, there was NO stability in the joint. I understand exactly why the coaches pulled him.

When I injured mine (I was 18), I found a doctor who would shoot me up with cortisone so I could play in a tournament (where college scouts would be in attendance), and by playing on it I damaged it to the point that it took a year to fully heal, costing me any chance at a soccer scholarship.

They could have shot Cutler up with drugs – but the Bears have invested a LOT of money in him (it is irrelevant that I would never have done so), and they did not want to seriously damage their guy in order to play him – especially when it was clear he had no stability in the joint and would be a liability to a team that was already behind.

Do you think he wanted to come out? No way – and my guess is that was why he was sulking.

For what little it’s worth, the fans are divided as to whether he quit on his team or did the right thing (via USA Today):

Did Cutler make wise choice or quit on Bears?



Yes, by the way, those numbers add up to 101% – someone is doing some rounding.

The Real Issue is the Man Code

In the world of sports, especially pro sports, men are expected to be tougher than nails, never show emotions (other than anger and triumph), and never quit/give up – so Cutler is perceived as having violated the (hegemonic) masculine code of conduct:

Brannon identified four components of traditional masculinity ideology:

  • men should not be feminine (“no sissy stuff”);
  • men should never show weakness (“the sturdy oak”);
  • men should strive to be respected for successful achievement (“the big wheel”);
  • men should seek adventure and risk, even accepting violence if necessary (“give ‘em hell”).

More recently, Levant defined traditional masculinity ideology in terms of seven dimensions:

  • The requirement to avoid all things feminine;
  • The injunction to restrict one’s emotional life;
  • The emphasis on achieving status above all else;
  • The injunction to be completely self-reliant;
  • The emphasis on toughness and aggression;
  • Non-relational, objectifying attitudes toward sexuality;
  • Fear and hatred of homosexuals. (Ron Levant, Men and Masculinity, 2001)

So, from the first list: Cutler acted “feminine” (he had a tear after unfair criticism and a tough loss); he showed “weakness” by not staying in the game; and he did not have a good day, so his team lost, showing him to be less than “successful.”

From the second list, Cutler violated the prohibitions against being “feminine,” not restricting emotions, not being tough enough, and possibly in not being self-reliant enough.

These are unfair criticisms in my opinion.

By not fighting to play when he knew he was hurt, he acted in the best interest of his team. He also may have saved his next season from being one where he was rehabbing a major reconstruction of his knee (again, this is also in the best interest of his team).

In essence, Cutler sulked on the sideline and later shed a tear when he heard about the criticisms from his fellow players (I would have, too, especially after losing a game that would have put them in the Super Bowl). If they had lost and he had played the whole game, and he was then spotted shedding a tear, no one would have said a thing. It’s no wonder that his teammates are standing up so strongly in his defense. He showed himself to be a team player, not the selfish player I always thought of him.

In the end, though, having played my share of team sports (including football), I should not expect any different from NFL players than what we saw. Teams are notoriously tribal and authoritarian in their worldview. Teams become insular families – and there are strict rules of conduct, especially for men.

Cutler honored his responsibility to his team, to his family. But he is seen by his peers, some in the media, and about half of the fans, to have violated the male athlete’s masculinity code.

That code needs to go the way of leather helmets.

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