Men strive to be champions while failing to be real men

February 06, 2005|By Dan Rodricks

JOSEPH EHRMANN, broad-shouldered Baltimore Colt of famous memory, a pastor of the 4,000- member Grace Fellowship Church, volunteer defensive coach of the Gilman School football team, and founder of a movement called Building Men For Others, took time out from his hectic schedule the other day to speak of things he knows best - football, guys and God. National Football League teams fly him out of Baltimore to speak about these things. Thursday he was due to counsel a group of abusive husbands at a shelter for battered women. Demand for time with Joe Ehrmann has risen since the publication of a book, Season of Life, about his journey from star defensive lineman to a man of faith with a special ministry that seeks to redefine what it means to be a man. Ehrmann came to his mission after a successful football career, the death of a younger brother and a period of self-examination that gave him a deeper understanding of what he calls "the father wound" in men, including those who will play in the Super Bowl today.

So, Joe, are NFL players interested in being better men?

Joe Ehrmann: Most of the men in the NFL are looking for some direction. I think the saddest day of a man's life is when you reach the pinnacle of success and you realize how empty that is. You spend your whole lifetime thinking that getting into the NFL is going to give your life some meaning, value and purpose, and you don't find any of that.

DR: Even if you make it to the Super Bowl?

JE: It's not all it's cracked up to be - if there's not a community or other relationships involved with it. I think with guys in the NFL, their self-image is tied to their jerseys, and everyone else starts treating them a certain way. But it's empty, a facade, something you just project.

DR: Certainly you must have met young men who were built the right way.

JE: There are some. But the thing about football is that pathological drive to succeed; it goes beyond any normal goal of achieving. There's something that propels you to that level, and if I were to name the common denominator I would say it was father-son dysfunction.

DR: Guys are driven to the Super Bowl by father-son dysfunction?

JE: Oh, yeah. I think father longing is probably the deepest issue with men. Never feeling fully accepted or loved by your dad leaves you with a woundedness, an ongoing deficit in your life, that impacts your relationships.

DR: Are you speaking of absentee dads?

JE: There are three kinds of dads. There are the missing dads. They've abdicated their responsibilities. Forty percent of all boys in America will go to bed at night without their dad in the house. Then, there are the dismissive dads; they might take their kid to church or a game but they don't teach them anything, and a kid gets no sense of who his dad is, and that leaves a certain longing as well. And then there are some dads - I call them mission dads - who understand that their role is to help their boys become men and they need to define masculinity and model it.

DR: And they model it badly?

JE: You got three lies your son is being taught about masculinity. The first lie comes in elementary school, on the playground - that masculinity has something to do with athletic ability, size, strength and skill. The second lie is when you hit adolescence - that you can measure masculinity based on sexual conquest, that you can use or manipulate women to validate your own masculine insecurity or gratify some kind of physical need.

DR: And the third?

JE: That you can measure masculinity based on economic success - possessions, power. When you watch the Super Bowl with your son, watch the commercials. Every commercial tries to define [masculinity for] boys. And who are the role models for men today? They tend to be athletes who compete and win against other men, have sexual conquests and make all kinds of money.

DR: And you see this at the root of the big social problems in America?

JE: Most of the problems come out of this definition of masculinity. What do you end up with? A whole culture of violence, where men think they can use their size and strength to hurt other men, children and women. The most unsafe institution for women in America is the home; 1 to 3 million women will be physically abused by their intimate partners this year. We're 4 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of all incarcerated people. ... We've got 13 million kids living in poverty, 9 million without access to preventive health care. And then we have this whole materialism that places possessions ahead of people; you've got all these men who feel their self-worth is based on their net worth.

DR: What do we do about this crisis?

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