Former NFL player Don McPherson wants to redefine masculinity

Thursday, April 10, 2014 | 10:46 p.m. CDT; updated 6:50 a.m. CDT, Friday, April 11, 2014

COLUMBIA — He asked the men in the audience how many of them had a woman in their life that they cared about. All raised their hands.

Except for one redheaded boy in the second row.

His mom turned to him and said, "What about me?"

Part of Don McPherson's message in his talk Thursday at Columbia College, titled "You Throw Like a Girl," is that women's issues are men's issues too. The former NFL player for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Houston Oilers has appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and testified in front of the U.S. Congress on issues of sexual and domestic violence.

"If we call it 'women's issues,' it allows men to do nothing about it," McPherson said.

McPherson said part of the solution to sexual and domestic violence should be grounded in feminism, which he defines as caring about women and women's rights.

Men acquire their perceptions of "masculinity" when they are children by watching the behavior of adults around them and by listening to the language used, McPherson said. He said language is therefore intimately linked to how men come to understand themselves.

Comparing a boy to an animal or an inanimate object is accepted, but the most insulting things you can call a boy involve comparing him to his sister, McPherson said.

"'You throw like a girl,'" he said. "Those are fighting words."

Society's conception of masculinity, which dictates that men should be tough and be providers, is too narrow, McPherson said.

None of these things by themselves are bad, but the concept of masculinity needs to be expanded to include men's ability to be empathetic, nurturing, loving and caring as well, McPherson said.

"Masculinity is an act, it's a performance," he said, citing how men act differently with other men than they do with women. McPherson said men are sensitive and loving when with a woman one-on-one, but once men are surrounded by their peers there is pressure to "man up."

McPherson said this narrow understanding of masculinity can lead to violence against women — and it all starts with words.

When men talk about their relations with women, they use phrases like "hit that" and "get some," he said. The objectification of woman is embodied in the language that men use.

McPherson stressed how bystander behavior can shake up the status quo. True prevention won't come just through raising awareness; people have to be able to react in the heat of the moment, he said.

To be able to act appropriately on the spot, people need to practice and have a conversation about these difficult topics beforehand, McPherson said. He hoped to get some of that conversation started through his talk.

"If you don't leave here feeling a little bit uncomfortable, I haven't done my job," McPherson said.

Supervising editor is Elise Schmelzer.

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