Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Why football injuries can be like prejudiced remarks

By Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton


I think it can be hard for non-professional athletes such as myself to understand the incredible significance of reaching the championship game of a sport when that sport is what you do for a living. We think, it's just a game, but for these atheletes, it's their life, their identity. Just imagine having the opportunity to vie for the very top achievement in your own profession.

Last weekend four NFL teams played for a chance to go to the Superbowl-- the pinnacle of professional football. Green Bay (led by Cal's own Aaron Rodgers, I might add) defeated the Chicago Bears, but the incident that had people talking was that Jay Cutler, the Bears' quarterback, was pulled from the game just as the second half began due to an injury, later revealed to be an MCL tear. Not an injury you can play with.

Jay Cutler (credit: AP photo)

As Cutler stood at the far end of the sidelines, totally isolated from his teammates and his status "questionable," other football players began to question Cutler's toughness. One player tweeted, "This is the NFC championship if u didn't know!" and another added, "I have to be crawling and can't get up, to come off the field... meds are available... [but] there is no medicine for a guy with no guts and heart." Other players went even further. Example: "If I'm on chicago team, jay cutler has to wait till me and the team shower get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room!''

In a league that prizes toughness and playing through pain as the marks of the true Gridiron Hero, the Chicago Bears quarterback was quickly reprimanded and demoted by his peers for falling out of step.

Sports Illustrated's Paul Daugherty wrote a courageous article today in which he notes that the cultural standard of toughness that leads to the defamation of Jay Cutler is precisely the same cultural standard that leads to players playing -- and coaches coaching -- through concussions and heat exhaustion, with potentially tragic results. Daugherty's article is courageous because, like Cutler, he is likely to be the target of criticism and vilification. You too are soft. You don't understand what it's like out there in the field. Don't play with fire if you can't take the heat.

... Why on Earth would I be writing about football and the Chicago Bears' quarterback on this blog about racism and prejudice? Partly because I wouldn't want you to dismiss this incident as possible only in a macho, testosterone-pumped subculture particular to football. Rather, the incident illustrates the incredible power of social influence in the maintenance of social norms, and the fate that awaits those who speak out against or behave inconsistently with these norms.

Research in psychology shows that those who speak out against cultural norms-- however wrong those norms may be-- are actually more likely to become the targets of scorn themselves. In some ways, it makes evolutionary sense for social groups to have ways to enforce conformity to a set of valued norms (think honesty, respect for others, fairness). The downside, of course, is that when cultural norms are in need of revision, or the values are misguided, they are hard to change, and those who try to effect change will be vilified.

We are generally raised to follow certain conversational "rules" that include being courteous, not instigating conflict, and ensuring smooth social interactions. And "calling people out" on their indiscretions is, socially speaking, as disruptive to the continuation of smooth social interaction as blurting out that somebody's breath smells. Rest assured that if you blurted out that somebody's breath smells-- even if their breath does smell-- you'd be ostracized for being so rude. Most of us know this on an intuitive level, and thus we politely hold our own breath or turn slightly away.

In 2004, Nicole Shelton and Rebecca Stewart published an article in Psychology of Women Quarterly that illustrates the social costs associated with speaking out against prejudice. Shelton and Stewart asked women and men to role-play a job interview, with the woman as the applicant and the man as the interviewer. The researchers gave the men specific questions to ask, some of which were clearly sexist (e.g., "do you have a boyfriend?" was the least offensive question). Afterwards, the "interviewers" (the men) provided their impressions of the interviewees (the women). The results showed that the more forcefully a given woman confronted the sexism, the more she was rated as a complainer, as a bad person, and an unhireable applicant! Similar results were observed by Cheryl Kaiser and Carol Miller in 2003, who found that even when a potential employer was highly prejudiced, interviewees who pointed out the discrimination were labeled by outside observers as "hypersensitive" and "irritating."

In this way, cultural norms like playing through concussions or keeping silent folllowing prejudiced comments remain part of the status quo, and it takes a lot of courage to challenge these norms. The question for us now becomes-- do we ourselves want to turn our backs to playing through concussions, and sitting silently when other people are prejudiced? Or are we willing and prepared to face the social costs for what we feel, and what we know, is right?

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(cross-posted from Psychology Today)