At 15, I was packed off to a military prep school in Tennessee where, according to the brochure, I would be transformed into someone my parents would find less disappointing through strict discipline, male camaraderie, dollops of Brasso and that timeless character-building exercise of marching around a golf course with a World War II vintage rifle slung over my right shoulder.
What I actually learned was that boys ought not be left to our own devices. The paucity of women, and their civilizing influence, produced a culture that was vulgar, abusive and wildly, wildly profane. And that was just us regular cadets. The football players — well, they were beyond redemption.
I don’t think it was just my old school. This week, as the great Dolphins hazing scandal erupted into national news, I kept imagining men seated at their dining room tables, nodding hard, agreeing with their wives, feigning shock and disgust over these terrible reports of mistreatment, vulgarities, extortion, cruelty and other outrages. As if nothing in their own experiences had prepared them for the news that guys could be so damn mean or crude.
My military academy (defunct since 1986) was notable for shabby dorms and a splendid football team, led by a number of so-called “post graduates,” very talented and often very large players who were too academically wanting to matriculate straight to college. Mysterious entities associated with bigtime college football programs were taking care of the tuition while the players spent an extra year gussying up their academic credentials and tackling skills.
One of these 300-pounders lived just down the hall from the room I shared with two other cadets, guys like me of only normal girth. We understood that we were but petty mortals whose existence depended on the whim of the gridiron gods. This particular hefty liked to validate his unassailable status by barging into our room, walking past our bunks and peeing into our sink. It never occurred to us to protest. Other nights, he made special appearances to demonstrate his thunderous proficiency at flatulence.
Thing about it was, we actually liked the big fellow, who protected us from the truly awful hazing the other pituitary cases wreaked on their lessers. Plus, he liked that I had a job waiting tables in the school mess hall and most nights could smuggle stolen milk and other contraband food into the dorm under my pea coat. It was like a grocery-based protection racket. But it was worth it to fend off the truly sadistic stuff that festers in these weird macho environments.
Not that we all weren’t a bit morally bent by the military school experience. But the rest of us knew that if we took it too far, we ran the risk of a pummeling. The sheer physicality of the football guys, and the kind of reverence elite athletes commanded on campus, lent them unlimited license to do what boys are apt do. (Not that I wasn’t a football guy myself. Except I was a skinny, slow-footed, not very courageous player whose only memorable moment came during practice when I was knocked unconscious while holding a tackling dummy. Unhappily, that was not a feat that commanded the fearsome status needed to haze fellow cadets.)
Best I could tell, becoming an adult (a loose definition in my case) didn’t much improve the general conduct of men in the company of other men. My stint with the Army Reserves was not exactly an exercise in sensitivity training. And early on in my journalism career, newsrooms were mostly a bunch of beery boys whose deportment would send a modern-day human-resources director into cardiac arrest.
I’m guessing the stuff that has scandalized the Dolphins, however appalling, was only marginally more atrocious than what goes on with other male athletic outfits, amateur and pro. We boys, without constant adult supervision, tend to devolve into farting barbarians.
Newspapers fixed their dumb-ass male problem by hiring a bunch of women journalists (their presence in U.S. news operations have risen from less than 20 percent, when I got my first reporting job 45 years ago, to about 38 percent today, and would be higher still if newspapers weren’t shedding employees.). I doubt women in the newsroom will believe this, but us boy journalists are actually a bit more civilized lately. Thanks to them.
I’m not sure the same formula would work for football, what with the shortage of 330-pound women with totally tattooed limbs, Mohawk hairdos and mad-eyed savage tendencies. But if football teams continue to leave males to devise their own codes of conduct….
Well, just keep the big boys away from my sink.