Organized sports have been a part of my life since age 5. In high school, I played fall, winter, and spring sports, and all four years of college were spent on a men’s soccer team. So, I’ve been in my fair share of locker rooms.
Two quick things I can vouch for from the outset: (1) Not all young men who play sports are animals and (2) not all locker rooms are filled with vulgar talk. Of all the teams I’ve played on, I can’t remember hearing a conversation–even braggadocio–making light of sexual assault. There are at least some locker rooms out there that don’t foster the kind of caricatured filth that seems to characterize men-only spaces.
If you are a player or a coach, I want to inspire you to fight for the dignity of your locker room.
For four years in the hills of western PA, my home was an old-school locker room. There was something about walking across the college campus through the glass entrance of the gymnasium and grabbing the worn handle on that thick wooden door. There was an aura as I walked through that beige-tiled hallway and heard the voices of my teammates and coaches echoing toward me from the locker room.
It was home.
The locker room was a place where true male friendship could flourish. Amidst foul smells of grass, dirt, and sweaty laundry, young men became vulnerable with one another. Although culture often depicts the locker room as a place for rivalry and vain boasting, in my experience it was the exact opposite. After hard competition on the field, the locker room was the great equalizer. Seniors showered with freshmen. Everyone’s laundry went in the same bin. Young men who wouldn’t have ever been friends became friends because they shared that hallowed space.
I would dare say that the conversation in the locker room is more important than the talk on the field. Behind closed doors in windowless rooms shut away from the public eye, locker room talk reveals integrity. The locker room provides a space where young men feel safe to be themselves. My friendships with the other guys on my team grew most during the down time in the locker room or on bus rides.
As players and coaches, we are participants in creating locker room culture. The talk that happens there will either build or destroy character. We need to fill our locker rooms with speech that foster friendships and encourages integrity.
There are only a few cultural spaces left where young men can learn true respect for authority. In the locker room, the coach is king. As his words echo off cinderblock walls across a room of attentive eyes, boys learn what it means to submit. Whether it’s chalking up plays or discussing teamwork or berating a lack of effort, coaches are daily drilling into young men the importance of respect and honor. Whether they realize it or not, they are shaping the way young men will relate to their future bosses, pastors, children, and wives by their example and speech. And it all takes place in the locker room.
Perhaps most of all, locker rooms give young men a place to belong. It’s strange: there is sense of security that comes with having a metal box set aside specifically for your belongings in a dingy room with fluorescent lighting and grass clods on the floor. Young men want to know they are a part of an endeavor greater than themselves. The locker room is the symbolic foundation for that sense of belonging.
In many ways, the bragging and coarse language that is found in many locker rooms is a young man’s effort to be accepted by his peers. Men want to know they belong to the team. They want to know they are respected by their teammates. Ironically, when vulgarity and pride fester in a locker room they actually tear a team apart. More devastatingly, the patterns of degrading speech we establish in the locker room filter out into the culture at large as those men are jettisoned into adulthood.
Are we–both players and coaches–going to forfeit one of the most formative spaces for developing manhood to vulgar speech, degrading conversation, and destructive oneupmanship? I am holding forth a vision for better locker room talk. I am calling for us to see locker rooms as sacred spaces that deserve to be defended from sexist, boys-will-be-boys vulgarity. Our young men deserve better. Our young women deserve better. The flourishing of our nation demands it.
The locker room is a transcendent space that is more than a mere place for changing clothes and tying shoelaces. The locker room is a treasure worthy of protection. It is a place perfectly suited for the development of young men and the maturing of future fathers, husbands, and citizens of our nation. But like all good things, it takes intentional cultivation.
The heaviest burden falls to our coaches. The title Coach carries with it a sense of respect and total authority almost peerless in today’s society. May the coaches of America begin to re-shape their locker rooms–and the talk that takes place in there. Who knows? Perhaps we still can make locker room talk great again.