There is really no such thing as “locker room talk.” Guys who try to banter this way are just hoping no one hears the note of desperate striving in their voices. Most of them haven’t been in a real locker room since they were in high school, which is probably why Donald Trump’s snickering conversation with the sycophant Billy Bush sounded more like sauna chatter between a couple of junior brokers. Here’s the problem with that kind of talk: It’s not the talk of leaders; it’s the talk of bandwagoners and wannabes who are trying to make some invisible Man Team.
“This was locker room talk,” Trump said in Sunday night’s presidential debate. “This was locker room talk. I’m not proud of it … This was locker room talk. Yes, I’m very embarrassed by it, and I hate it, but it’s locker room talk.”
Fine. Give Trump the benefit of the doubt that his remarks caught on that hot mic from Access Hollywood about crotch-grabbing women were just words, and not actions worthy of arrest. It’s all just locker room talk. But whether it’s uttered by a trader, lawyer, doctor, football player, or a political candidate, “locker room talk” is a creepy cliche. It’s the talk of someone trying to assert that they belong.
What Trump is saying by invoking the phrase “locker room” over and over again is that when guys are in the showers and whirlpools, sitting around naked except for damp towels over their nether regions, this is their alpha code, their mode of male-only hormonal-based communication, and it’s therefore excusable. He’s saying that this is how rich and powerful manly men commonly talk and think about women when they are alone in their natural animal state and not obliged to put on a mask by the rules of mixed society. After all, he claims, Bill Clinton has said worse to him on the golf course, and done worse things to women.
As long as men don’t actually act on this sexual “banter,” Trump says, it’s harmless. It’s merely embarrassing to be caught talking like a werewolf. We’re supposed to accept this as another example of Trump’s celebrated virtue of saying what so many people are fearful of voicing.
He has told us the truth about men when no one else will.
The characterizing of this as commonplace is doubly creepy because it suggests that sexual obsession is the immutable trait of successful maleness. And that under the skin of every stud is a serial ogler if not a groper. All of which is as demeaning to men – especially athletes – as it is to women.
But what exactly constitutes “locker room talk,” anyway? What are the parameters of this secret dog whistle of conversation? The fact is, it doesn’t exist. Trump’s fantasy of a locker room is contradicted and proved ridiculous the minute you actually step into a real one. There are a range of characters and voices in that all-male haven. Let’s take the NFL as an example, because it’s in-season and has such a reputation for distorted masculinity. Ask some men who have been leaders in NFL locker rooms what they think of Trump’s hot mic tape from “Access Hollywood,” and here is what you get: sneers.
Scott Fujita, who played for the Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns before retiring in 2013, said, “There’s plenty of offensive, inappropriate language that’s used in locker rooms, but I don’t recall ever hearing a teammate casually boast about a criminal sexual act, even in jest.”
If you really listen to NFL athletes talk in locker rooms, as opposed to cartoonizing them, you discover they aren’t all just sitting around in damp towels, snickering. Stephen White played defensive end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets, and is now a blogger for SB Nation. He recently wrote this about the variety of locker room cultures and outlooks he encountered in the league.
“I’m not talking about just being racially diverse, but also diverse backgrounds and points of views all brought together by football,” White wrote. “Hell, there’s always some teammates where just about the only thing y’all have in common is football. If you really think NFL locker rooms can easily come to an overwhelming consensus given all those different personalities and backgrounds, then you really have no idea what an NFL locker room is.”
Listen to Pittsburgh Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams. Usually, when Williams talks about breasts, it’s because he’s been paying for free mammograms for low-income women ever since his mother died of breast cancer in 2014. Williams has spent a decade prodding the NFL into a breast cancer awareness campaign after watching his mother and four aunts fight losing battles against the disease; the BRCA1 genetic mutation runs in his family, and he has known since he was a small boy that his mother was doomed. When you see players wearing pink cleats and wristbands, it’s thanks to Williams, who has two young daughters.
“It’s not just a color; it’s a culture for me because of the family that I lost to this disease,” he said Sunday.
If you catch Baltimore Ravens tight end Ben Watson talking about sex in the locker room, it’s probably in the context of abstinence. Watson is a published conservative Christian author as well as a blogger who has gained a massive following on Facebook for his thoughtful posts. On Saturday afternoon Watson posted his response to the discussion of “locker room” talk.
“One’s character is one’s character,” he wrote. “It does not and should not change in the locker room, on private emails, or on a bus. This is the challenge for all of us.”
Ask guys in the league what they talk about, and they’ll tell you they talk about politics, money, injuries, team problems, union issues. Also, “faith, family, movies and music, current events,” Fujita said.
Sure, some guys make lewd remarks or crude boasts about their exploits. But here’s what’s interesting. They’re not the most admired men in the room.
“I’ve never seen a leader, or a team captain resort to slime to establish respect in the locker room,” said Hall of Famer Reggie Williams, the former NFL Man of the Year. “There are narcissist players who think more about the scoreboard in their bedroom than the scoreboard in the stadium. Those aren’t leaders.”
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