This post is the second in a two-part series on Ben Stokes’ presence at the Ashes 2019. You can read Part One here.
‘Fighter’. ‘Warrior’. ‘Superman’. All words used to describe 28-year-old Ben Stokes and his Ashes heroics. Words earned by his gargantuan effort of skill, patience, responsibility and determination in what was one of the great innings in the history of cricket.
It was an incredible sporting moment that captivated a nation. But it also got me thinking about a few words that were used to describe another talented athlete, not even 24 hours before; ‘weak’, ‘selfish’, ‘snowflake’ and, worst of all, ‘millennial’. These were words used to describe 29-year-old NFL quarterback Andrew Luck, an incredible player who after several successful but injury plagued seasons, decided that he just couldn’t take it anymore. That for the sake of his body, his relationship and his mental well-being he would retire, sacrificing millions of dollars and years of potential NFL success.
The response to this decision couldn’t have been further from the adulation Stokes received. Luck’s decision was met, not with sympathy, but with anger. He was booed off by his own fans. He was criticized by a selection of ‘pundits.’ After an incredible career, his decision was seen as weakness, despite the injury risks that have been proven again and again.
It is symptomatic of an issue that persists in male sport all over the world, one the NFL suffers from more than any other sport. In the way we talk about, consume and even participate in sport, there remains a form of masculine culture that puts the athletes we worship, at genuine risk.
Luck’s decision to walk away was so widely criticized because it was an affront to the old-school masculinity that dominates the NFL. Success in the face of adversity is ‘manly’. Walking away from a fight you know you won’t win; that is unacceptable weakness. The best piece I’ve ever read about the NFL, possibly about any sport, is this one by Brian Phillips, about the Miami Dolphins Bullying scandal in 2013. It’s an astonishingly written piece that faces down the NFL’s cultural obsession with toxic masculine culture. Here’s just a taste:
“Warriors make war on warriors. There’s no room for crying in this game. You have a problem, you handle it on the field. Handle it as a man. Go down swinging. I hear you, NFL, and that’s why I’m not here to move you or persuade you. If you have a p**** (I censored it, Grantland didn’t) and feelings, you’d better cut one of them off. I’m here to start a fight.”
There is no doubt that the cultural crisis detailed in the piece is a virus that infects sport all over the world. Being a fighter is to be applauded as a great show of masculine strength. To walk away, to know your own limits, to admit to weakness, it just isn’t manly enough. The offending athlete should be hazed, booed; anything it takes to kick them out of the club. When every sport is wrestling with the mental health of its athletes and where around the world men commit suicide at an alarming rate, something needs to change.
I was enjoying every second of what Ben Stokes did on Sunday afternoon. But as he was described as the latest fighting, masculine superhero, I couldn’t help but find my mind wander to Luck. One cast aside, one a hero. The legend of Stokes continuing to grow with every astonishing performance, past transgressions forgotten (when we celebrate uber-masculinity, what he did outside a Bristol nightclub may end up only increasing his popularity). Luck now seemingly a pariah in the city he gave his body too. I was celebrating Ben Stokes yesterday as loudly as anyone and will continue to do so. But I don’t want to forget Andrew Luck and his own, equally important form of bravery. The decision he made and the change he could bring.
We create our heroes and we tear them down. We elevate them to such a lofty status that any perceived weakness becomes a personal slight. Today Ben Stokes is our hero. But if he decides that the pressure is too much, that for his own well-being he will call it a day, he will be criticized just like Luck. These athletes play sport they love for a living and are handsomely compensated. But that doesn’t mean they forfeit the right to control over their own bodies and their own minds.
There is some hope in the recent reaction to the initial Luck backlash. Since he was booed by fans and criticized by pundits, others have come out and applauded his bravery. Some have speculated that it could be a watershed moment for the NFL and the way it treats its players. Change could, and should, be coming.
It can’t come soon enough, because figures like Ben Stokes, and the inspirational things they do, lift us up in ways we can’t even explain. But we need to protect them, not vilify them. When they fail, it doesn’t mean they are fatally flawed. If they walk away, it doesn’t mean they are weak. They shouldn’t stop being our heroes, even when they decide to look after themselves and their family, instead of looking after us.