The Death of Kobe Bryant and the Slow Rise of Positive Masculinity

As a model of masculine behavior, Kobe was complicated; in addition to his positive contributions, we must not lose sight of his settlement of a rape allegation.
Nevertheless, it’s worth talking about how the response to his death has highlighted some really healthy displays of masculinity.

It was 1995, and I was a sophomore in high school in rural southern Pennsylvania. I’m not a sports person at all, but the boys I had crushes on were all on the varsity soccer team, and freshman year I had gone to every football game, home and away, as a xylophone and glockenspiel player in the marching band.

Contrary to the snide remarks and nasty accusations sent my way by pretty much the whole percussion, flute/piccolo and flag sections, I hadn’t joined the band because they were going to DisneyWorld in February. I joined because I wanted to be part of a team. From the band director down, though, I got the consistent clear message that I would never be welcome on the team, and they got their wish; I dropped out after we returned from Orlando. It wasn’t that much of a surprise, really; I’d been given the consistent clear message since first grade that I would never be welcome anywhere in Pennsylvania.

So, I still didn’t understand what it meant to be part of a team when I arrived that fall morning in 1995 to an unexpectedly emotional scene. It must have been Friday, because I remember the football team in their jerseys, the cheerleaders in their short pleated skirts, but most of all I remember big, broad-shouldered jocks hanging on each other’s shoulders and weeping.

The biggest jocks in the school. Weeping.
In every hallway, around every corner. Weeping.

They had all just heard the news: that the football head coach, out for a steak dinner with his family the night before, had suffered a heart attack and had died overnight.

I didn’t know Coach. He taught Senior English, which I wasn’t ever going to take because I was graduating early. I didn’t know Coach, could barely recognize him in the hallways, wouldn’t have known who he was if I had run into him off campus. I didn’t know anyone on the football team, either, had only one friend and a couple acquaintances on the cheerleading squad. I had no real connection to this tragedy.

But I was deeply moved by their tears.

It was the closest I had come to death at that point in my life, unless you counted the deaths of my pet chickens. And it’s the first time I remember having a thought I’ve often had since: I’m not a person who is moved to deep emotion myself — sometimes my stoicism feels almost pathological — but I am deeply, profoundly, helplessly moved by other people’s emotions, and I’m particularly vulnerable to other people’s grief.

I remember walking those hallways, weaving between the weeping linebackers, and struggling to hold my own tears. They felt like crocodile tears, further evidence of how I was an imposter in this school, this county. I didn’t know Coach. I wasn’t grieving, merely mirroring the grief of others.

Most of all, I remember chemistry class. My teacher was young, though she was not a new teacher. Still, she was young enough that when she was a senior at the same high school, she’d had Coach as her English teacher. Chemistry must have been my first class of the day, because I remember her spending almost half the class remembering Coach. And she didn’t cry very much, but I bawled my eyes out. So much that she stopped me on my way out of class to check on me.

But as I walked the holidays that day, as I watched the brawny, burly, macho football team weep openly, I kept coming back to how weird and uncomfortable it was to see them cry. It wasn’t right, all these jocks crying in the hallways.

Twenty-five years later, I feel differently.

My social circle talks a lot about toxic masculinity, the way that our culture insists that boys shove down their feelings, bottle them up, don’t talk about it, “boys don’t cry,” until it poisons their relationships with themselves and others, until it too often erupts in violence against themselves and others.

My friends who are parents talk about the struggle to raise boys who can feel their feelings, to raise kids who will feel comfortable coming out to their parents and the world as who they really are.
My queer, nonbinary and trans friends talk about how toxic masculinity kept them bottled up inside themselves for too long, doing deep and lasting damage to themselves in the attempt to conform to or break out of strict heteronormative binary gender roles.
My poly friends talk about how toxic masculinity ties relationships to harmful patterns of jealousy, parsimony and possessiveness.
My straight guy friends and feminist friends talk about how toxic masculinity imprisons men and stunts their potential.
My political friends talk about how toxic masculinity interacts with capitalism to bring us Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein and Donald J. Trump.

And the memes are everywhere.

So here I am, sitting on the futon with my partner, watching the NBA pre-game on TNT. Watching Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Reggie Miller, the rest of the commentator team and their guest Jerry West. They’re wearing Lakers purple, sitting on tall chairs in the middle of the Staples Center, “the house that Kobe built,” to quote Alicia Keys at the Grammy’s in that same building Sunday night. The Lakers game has been canceled for tonight while the team grieves.

I’m watching these giants of men — giant for their height but also their legendary athleticism — talk about family, about love, about fatherhood and brotherhood, about the memories they hold dear, about the other friends, teammates and family who are grieving with them. I’m watching Shaq cry without bothering to wipe the tears away, listening as he chokes up and keeps talking anyway, watching Ernie Johnson Jr. beside him hold Shaq’s shoulder, rub his back, silently encourage him to take his time and feel his feelings.

It’s like watching the football team weep all over again.

I’m listening as five of the country’s biggest jocks encourage basketball jocks and fans across the country and the world to be together, to tell their own memories of Kobe, to mourn, to cry. I’m hearing them call on their audience to make amends, to heal their relationships, to say “I love you” to their family and friends. I’m listening Reggie say over and over, “I want everyone out there to know, it’s okay to cry,” and “It’s okay to feel broken right now.”

It’s like watching the football team weep, but now I have words for what disturbed me then, for what makes me so hopeful now.

What we’re seeing in this moment is a national display of positive masculinity. We’re watching manly men feel their feelings on national television, and encouraging the rest of us to do the same.

We have a long battle against the centuries of toxic masculinity before us. One death and its grief won’t heal us. Still, it’s incredibly heartening to hear national figures like Shaq, Barkley and Reggie and dozens of other famous jocks I’ve heard since Sunday on live airways, crying openly, naming the people they love and the things they do for their children, and supporting each other.

It’s an indication that we’re shifting towards a better direction.

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