An interview with men’s health pioneer Don Sabo, Ph.D.
Indianapolis Colts superstar quarterback Andrew Luck’s announcement on August 24 of his retirement from professional football at age 29 prompted an outpouring of commentary in the sports world and beyond. Luck said in his retirement press conference that due to a series of injuries he was “still in pain,” that he could not live “the life I want to live,” and that he was unable to pour his “heart and soul” into his position, which would “not only sell myself short, but the team as well.”
When I heard Luck’s comments, I quickly realized this was a great opportunity — a “teachable moment” — in which people could connect an event in media culture to larger issues and perhaps learn something valuable in the process.
I also realized this was an opportunity to introduce many people — especially but not exclusively young white men — to a movement that many of them don’t know exists. Long before social media and the emergence of powerful but divisive terms like “toxic masculinity,” the profeminist men’s movement has been empathetically but critically looking at the many ways in which men’s emotional, physical and sexual health continue to be diminished and harmed by outdated and discredited beliefs about “manhood.”
Listening to Andrew Luck, I thought of an essay written by a mentor and old friend of mine, Don Sabo, who is a pioneering figure in both the sociology of sport and in the field of men’s health. I asked him about the essay, and to provide some background about his life and work as a scholar-activist who also happens to be a former NCAA Division 1-A football player and defensive captain.
The interview follows:
Jackson Katz: In your article “Pigskin, Patriarchy and Pain,” published 25 years ago when Andrew Luck was a toddler, you wrote that “Boys are taught that to endure pain is courageous, to survive pain is manly.” You coined the phrase the “pain principle” to describe how pain affects the lives and psyches of male athletes. Can you elaborate on that concept?
Don Sabo: Football teaches boys that the way to become a man, a real man, the kind of guy who makes friends, impresses girls, and gets ahead in life — is not to show physical or emotional pain. Boys learn to play even when it hurts, basically to accept the injuries and pain the game inflicts on them. The lessons are to play in spite of pain, and don’t talk about the pain. Man up and shut up. I suspect that Luck is the “exception not the rule” when it comes to dropping out of football to protect his health. Most players “suck it up” and “stick it out” until it’s too late and their bodies and health have been harmed.
JK: You played Division 1 college football in the 1960s and experienced significant injury to your back, for which you had “spinal fusion” surgery in your mid-forties. Some former football players say that despite suffering serious injuries, the sacrifice was worth it because of all the positive benefits they enjoyed. You don’t agree.
DS: Football wrecked my back, but this didn’t become clear until long after my final game. It wasn’t until years later that I found myself living with chronic pain to the point that I couldn’t play catch with my son, pick up my baby daughter, or jog around the neighborhood. Thankfully, I found a Canadian surgeon who conducted a “double-level, lower lumbar fusion,” which has kept me out of pain ever since. If I could somehow magically live my life over again without football, I’d do it. I’m sure I could be happy and productive without ever having worn a helmet and bludgeoning other boys with no concern for their health or mine.
JK: You’re one of the pioneers of the men’s health movement. You’ve been teaching, researching, and writing about issues of men’s health since the 1970s. In all of the commentary about Andrew Luck’s “early” retirement, I have seen very little reference to this incredibly important movement and its impact on how we understand the ways in which men are taught (or not taught) to take care of their bodies and overall health. For those people who are just hearing about the men’s health movement for the first time, can you give them a brief overview of the movement and its goals?
DS: The basic idea within the men’s health movement was borrowed from the women’s health movement; i.e., the ways that gender relations are defined and organized influence health behavior and outcomes. For example, when boys are mainly recruited to go into combat — in war, a boxing ring, or football — chances are greater that they will incur injuries and elevated concussion risk as a result. So too when boys learn to equate masculinity to aggression and shutting down feelings, they can be more prone to fight during adolescence or suppress emotional expression in relationships. The men’s health movement doesn’t assert that all facets of masculinity are bad or dangerous to men’s health, but rather, that parts of the cultural recipes for manhood can hurt boys and men rather than help them.
JK: Do you see Luck’s decision in part as a product of a generational shift in consciousness about the physical and emotional costs and benefits of “doing” traditional masculinity? Did you know of any talented football players in your generation who walked away from the game when they could have persisted, even with serious injuries?
DS: The reality I experienced was that only a few teammates actually quit, but rather, most of those who stopped playing did so because they got pulled away from the game. Some quit because of injuries or the simple fact that they were too small or not athletic enough to make the team. Others chose to focus more on academics so they could get into college or stay in college. Organized football is a competitive hierarchy, stretching from the lowest tier (pee wee or grade school football), through high school, college, and professional levels. There’s room for more players lower in the hierarchy but fewer participation slots in the higher rungs of the ladder. Some guys left football in order to marry and become a father. At the college or professional levels, many may be “called” but few are chosen, so basically, most guys got processed out of the game.
JK: Millions of young men, especially young white men, have been drawn to the retrograde teaching and explicit anti-feminism of men like the Canadian psychologist and academic Jordan Peterson, and the right-wing podcaster Ben Shapiro. Many of these men have no idea that feminist women and profeminist men like yourself have been thinking deeply and empathetically about questions of men’s health for decades. They have bought the conservative propaganda that “feminists hate men” and similar simple-minded and wrong-headed slogans. As a former accomplished football player, sociologist and researcher on issues of men’s health, how do you see the role that feminism has played in helping to shape your understanding of masculinities and health?
DS: My grandfather used to say “Find out where you’re going to die and stay the hell away from there.” Hey guys, feminism and feminists aren’t going to punch you in the face, encourage you to risk your life to show you are tough, or beat yourself up (or somebody else) to prove your manhood. Feminists and feminisms are not the enemy, but rather, most encourage women and men to rethink our lives and identities from outside the boxes of traditional sex roles. Would you go into a restaurant and expect to love everything on the menu? Sample the “menu” of feminist and profeminist writings and ideas, see what insights you find.
JK: Football remains extremely popular, but there has been a decline in youth participation, presumably in part because of all the new studies on traumatic brain injury. Is the sport itself inherently unhealthy?
DS: Here’s a trend that might surprise some readers. University of Michigan researcher Phil Veliz, Ph.D. is an expert on youth participation in sport. Data analyses from the nationwide Monitoring the Future study of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders show steady declines in boys’ participation in organized football between 2006 and 2017. Findings confirm declining participation rates in football for 8th-12th grade boys; i.e., from 40.5% to 36% among rural boys, 40% to 30% among suburban boys, and 39.5% to 26% among urban boys. One explanation for this exodus is that today teens have lots more sports available to play than 30 years ago when, in many schools and communities, the “only games in town” were football, baseball, and basketball. Today, with more sports to choose from, it appears that more boys are avoiding wearing helmets and butting heads. Football also continues to be inhospitable to women and gender non-binary people. The ongoing heterosexism and homophobia likely push some kids away.
From a profeminist and men’s health advocacy perspective, I appreciate the range of athletic options that young kids have today. I also “high-five” the efforts of football coaches who lessen the amount of contact in practices. I endorse rule changes that penalize spearing and unnecessary roughness. These changes diverge from the “sacrifice your body” and “kick ass at all times” football mentality that I learned as a boy. They also represent morphing gender roles and attitudes, which basically, are what profeminism and men’s health advocacy are all about. All too often, anti-feminism and the macho posturing that goes with it are recipes for guys to either beat up others or themselves.
JK: As women’s sports continue to grow and evolve, do we see women adopting some of the values of men’s sports, such as pushing through pain at all costs, and sacrificing one’s present and future health to compete and win? When it comes to women’s sports with a fair degree of physical contact, what sort of gender dynamics are at play for women when it comes to questions about their health that are either similar or different from the ones with which men grapple?
DS: This is a really complicated question, one that’s better answered in a book than a blog, but I’ll give it a shot. There’s been tremendous changes in gender relations in sport during my lifetime. Today the participation rates between boys and girls in school and community sports are more similar than not. Also, the traditional cultural equation between being an athlete and “masculinity” doesn’t resonate that much with current youth. Also, research I’ve conducted with the Women’s Sports Foundation shows that, today, girls and boys are apt to participate in multiple sports, sampling several sports as they move from grade to grade and though high school. Football remains the most popular sport among boys, but it’s no longer the “only game in town.” In short, boys have more choices in the kinds of sports they can play, and they are not as apt to equate being an athlete to manliness. To find excellent nationwide research on youth sports, click on RESEARCH at www.womenssportsfoundation.org
JK: Dave Meggyesy, the former NFL player whose 1971 memoir Out of Their League shocked readers with its critique of the dehumanizing aspects of pro football, said nearly fifty years ago that “When society changes in the way I hope it will, football will be obsolete.” But even after all the advances in recent decades of neurological science, and the growing awareness of traumatic brain injury, football remains incredibly popular. Are young men like Andrew Luck the outliers and the exceptions, as the machine of football rumbles on regardless of the physical costs to so many of its participants? Or do you see a day when football will in fact be obsolete?
Social change typically moves slowly, more like a glacier than a river. When Meggyesy challenged the health dangers and exploitation in football, he was like the proverbial “canary in a coal mine.” He was one player critiquing the most popular and profitable team sport in America. Today his message is basically forgotten — about as far away from Monday Night Football as Saturn. Similarly, the Luck headlines will fade. His resignation will not change “the game” or lead many parents to pull their boys off football fields. Coaches won’t abandon their status and purpose in life. High schools and universities will not shut down their football programs. Finally, up to now nobody knows whether Luck just quit the team or left the game. Did he resign because of his own pain and injuries, or because the game itself beats up and injures its participants? Luck well might take a coaching job in the future or end up in an announcer’s booth. This being said, his example may encourage some players to leave the health risks behind, basically, “to get out while the getting is good.” The fundamental reality is that for decades, and at all levels of organized football, many players left the game — from peewee leagues through high school, college, and professional leagues — but “the game” and its cultural messages about men, traditional masculinities, dominance striving and win-at-all costs competition show little signs of disappearing. For boys and men (and girls and women), perhaps the biggest lesson in Luck’s decision to stop playing football is that it’s OK to quit the sport you love in order to protect your body and enhance your health.
Here’s my parting advice to athletes regardless of their gender: Be a buddy to your body and your body will be a buddy to you.
Don Sabo, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus in Health Policy at D’Youville College in Buffalo, New York. He is currently Senior Health Policy Advisor of the Women’s Sports Foundation (a national nonprofit founded by Billie Jean King). A frequently invited speaker and keynoter, and the author and co-author of several books and numerous articles, Sabo has directed many national studies that identify developmental, educational, and health correlates of youth sports participation.