These days it seems that we can never escape news about professional athletes behaving badly toward women. We saw Baltimore Ravens Ray Rice clobber his fiancée in an Atlantic City elevator early in 2014. You might also remember running back Adrian Peterson disciplined his four-year-old son with a tree branch causing severe wounds on the child’s backside.
This coupled with reports of sexual violence on college campuses, motor cycle gangs having shoot outs in bars, and racial violence in our city streets make us wonder: Where is this all coming from? Pundits and observers of American culture propose that there are a false set of behaviors and values that are communicated to our young men from television, music videos, advertising and Xbox, namely a “false masculinity.” This set of values teaches that to be truly a man one must exhibit athletic ability, sexual prowess, and economic success.
Thank heavens there’s another model out there. In his book, Season of Life by Jeffrey Marx, he tells the story of Joe Ehrmann and Biff Poggi. They were the coaches of the Gilman High School football team in Baltimore when it was known up and down the East Coast as a powerhouse. Ehrmann, the defensive coach, is the former Baltimore Colts defensive lineman, who had a stellar 13-year career in pro football. His close friend and head coach Biff Poggi are committed to making a difference in the lives of young men. Football just happened to be a part of their strategy.
Ehrmann and Poggi start all their games with this routine. “What is our job?” they shout out. The players yell back, “To love us!” The coach shouts, “And what is your job?” “To love each other!” the boys respond. “If a Martian had just happened on Earth and somehow found himself witnessing only that introductory talk, a perfectly logical communiqué home might have included a summary such as this: ‘Learned about some sort of group gathering called football. It teaches boys to love,’” writes Marx.
Ehrmann experienced a personal revolution after his younger brother Billy died of cancer at age 18. He eventually became a Christian and then an ordained minister. His loss and suffering mobilized him to attend to other sufferers, and to find means to prevent unnecessary suffering. To that end he helped start the first Ronald McDonald House in Baltimore, developed programs for racial reconciliation, and moved his family into the city of Baltimore in order to be present with the poor with whom he was in ministry.
As an illustration of his philosophy, shortly before the first game of the season, a football player’s mom asked Poggi how successful he thought the boys would be. He responded, “I have no idea. Won’t really know for 20 years.” She’d been asking about team success, of course, but Ehrmann was thinking about the far future. He added, in a comment to Marx, “[After 20 years] I’ll be able to see what kind of husbands they are. I’ll be able to see what kind of fathers they are. I’ll see what they’re doing in the community.”
He contrasts what he calls “false masculinity” with “building men for others.” His prescription? A focus on the capacity to love and to be loved, a transcendent purpose in life, and a willingness to accept responsibility, to lead courageously, to be capable of empathy, and to seek justice on behalf of others. Or, as Poggi put it to his players, “I expect greatness out of you. And the way we measure greatness is the impact you make on other people’s lives.”
Sounds a lot like the way we want our children to come out, doesn’t it? Sounds a lot like the stuff Jesus taught us, doesn’t it? On this Father’s Day weekend I bless all the fathers in our congregation who struggle every day to be good fathers, husbands, workers, neighbors AND Christians in all those roles. In Christ we learn that “true masculinity,” if you will, is long-suffering love, service to others, strength expressed in non-violence, and a passion for the things of God. May our sons and daughters learn that way as well.