This past week brought the not-so-surprising news that Ricky Williams would not be reinstated by the NFL. Surely they’d love to have him back. He’s a fabulous athlete and brings a lot of headlines in the off-season. But Williams tested positive for marijuana, so he’ll have to wait (if not scrap return plans altogether).
I’ll set aside the obvious question of why we take smoking pot so seriously. After all, this decision is about his livelihood, something that is easy to forget as a spectator-consumer of sports. He’s still young and has to find a way to make a living for the rest of his life. He left college to become a football player, never finishing his degree. Football is a game for spectators, but a profession for the players. Let’s not lose sight of that. This all seems a little over-the-top for getting high. Pot. Please.
What comes to mind when I read the multiplying stories about his test failure, however, is not pot and is only fleetingly about his livelihood. No. What comes to mind is what a complex figure Ricky Williams is in the context of American conceptions of masculinity, of manhood.
I remember the young Ricky Williams who played for the New Orleans Saints, who asked to be interviewed while still wearing his helmet. I saw footage of this a couple of years ago on ESPN, when he first retired. They failed to mention that he suffers from a rather severe social anxiety disorder. Rather, the footage was supposed to show us what a freak he is, how he is so obviously crazy and drug-addled – a strange fantasy for many reasons, not the least of which is how un-freaky and utterly familiar pot-smoking is in this day and age. Why was it important to show him as a freak?
He threatened a couple of important features of American masculinity. The first is the sense that men are there for other men as commodities, never as sensual beings. I’m thinking of the obsession with Williams’ hair, both as dreadlocks and when he shaved them. It had to be made fun of, mocked, rendered a site of his own emasculation. Otherwise we might notice that Williams is really quite beautiful, soft, and uninterested in the interest “we” have in him. And so “we” could also express our real regret, even outrage, that he is unwilling to perform. Mike Ditka said it nicely, upon hearing of Williams’ retirement:
“I’d love to talk to him and try to talk him out of it,” Ditka said from Chicago. “It seems kind of foolish to me, but I don’t know what’s on his mind. You’re just destroying a great career. He’s a talent. To let that all go to waste doesn’t make a lot of sense.” (ESPN.com)
Second, Williams made the mistake of thinking about his life. If men are commodities to other men, the real transgression is introspection. Introspection suggests that you are not available in the right way to other men. You’ve turned to the wrong place – you belong in the arena. Men know this in the presence of other men. It is how we masculate ourselves by telling jokes, bantering about sports or girls, and so on. We enter the arena, one way or another. In deciding to consider himself (Williams famously bought a ticket to “the East” or “Asia” that had “no return date” … two potent signifiers, no?), Williams may as well have donned a skirt.
So when this newest story came along, letting us know that he’d been smoking pot again and wouldn’t be reinstated, I wasn’t surprised at the anger in media reports. Actually, it was different than anger, in some ways something much worse: contempt. I’ve made a point of tuning in sports talk radio during my various drives since this was announced. Such contempt, which is a really instructive and revealing affect. Anger suggests some significant bit of disappointment, and certainly one can imagine a fan being upset over the Miami Dolphins’ chances after Williams first retirement-then-positive-drug-test. I get that. What I don’t get easily is contempt, except that contempt reveals authentic anxiety about what and who someone has become. Williams is a fascinating case here. No violence, no serious drugs. No gambling. What gives, then, if not some sort of counter-check on masculinity? How dare he stop performing for us, right? And in stopping performing, how dare he value something as odd – dare I say “as gay” – as introspection, right?