The Locker Room Love Boat

By Johnny Ginter on February 14, 2014 at 2:00 pm
Who's up for a little shopping trip into Puerto Vallarta?

The Love Boat, a show about a boat where people often fell in love, had a pretty basic formula: people would get into scrapes, then there would be some sort of romantidramacomic misunderstanding, and then said misunderstanding would resolve itself neatly with a fight or musical number or someone getting laid. Throughout it all, the crew of the ship remained affable and happy (with the exception of a six episode interlude in season three that saw the show focus on the gristly murder of Loni Anderson and subsequent forensic investigation).

For ten completely inexplicable seasons, America watched Captain Stubing, Isaac Washington, Gopher Smith, and the rest of the gang help solve relationship problems on the high seas and stay close friends throughout it all.

Unfortunately, I've found that in sports and in actual life, it's a lot harder than that to put that kind of camaraderie into practice.

Season 2, episode 12: A curmudgeon (Jim Delany) strikes up a friendship with a television executive. Mark Dantonio's old recruit (Darius Slade) rebuffs his advances. Inept painters (Jack Mewhort, Jake Stoneburner) make a shambles of Tressel's cabin.

It's hard not to be at least a little cynical about all the various proclamations from college football players about family and togetherness, given the fact that they're part of an incredibly diverse group made up of people who've grown up sometimes thousands of miles apart and in every socioeconomic background possible.

Hashtags #SACREDBROTHERHOOD and #DREAM14 are cool and all, but they're also endless. Every year brings with it a new slogan, a new attempt to show outside observers how close a team is, and how nothing can break up their bro love. Coaches reinforce it too, telling reporters in press conferences about how "this is the closest team I've ever coached" or "really, they're like a group of brothers more than a team of football/basketball/jai alai players."

POPPYCOCK AND BUSHWAH. I'm a sophomore advisor at the high school where I teach. I would love, love, for togetherness and teammwork to be as easy as a slogan or a saying repeated on social media. But it isn't. People are complicated, and the makeup of a group of anybody doing anything usually has more to do with coincidence than by design. I highly doubt that Urban Meyer asked each new recruiting target how they felt about the previous 22 signees before asking them to make their final commitment to Ohio State, for example.

Season 4, episode 9: Thad Matta's center (Amir Williams) turns out to be a klutz. An embezzler falls for an NCAA investigator (Mark Emmert). Romance comes between two uncommitted recruits (Terrelle Pryor, Seantrel Henderson).

Football has just offered up two prime examples of this recently. Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito were, from their text messages with each other, incredibly obnoxious football players who also happened to make super disgusting comments about women and lived a life that most people would probably find incomprehensibly gross and weird, with a lot of hookers mixed in.

You know, bro stuff.

Anyway, there's no need to recount the whole story (because it's stupid), but my point is that this is a pretty good example of why proclamations of "love" and "togetherness" on teams are pretty much worthless. If you had seen Martin and Incognito hopelessly flailing at women to get in their pants together, you'd probably assume that they were at least on friendly terms with one another.

Instead, what you have now is a very public ugly back and forth between two grown men, one of whom now claims that the other was suicidal. I'm not sure why Richie Incognito would promote the idea that his friendship was driving Jonathan Martin to consider killing himself, but that is at least one aspect of this story that I believe. In any event, this was a dysfunctional relationship in a dysfunctional locker room, and it's also something that the Dolphins would've never admitted to publicly.

Season 8, episode 22: A vacationing chauffeur (Jessica Dorrell) and her wealthy employer fall in love. A famous AAU player causes love-smitten Jeff Boals to fantasize himself as a series of flamboyant heroes. A separated couple (Bret Bielema and Jen Hielsberg) vie for their son's affection. Dick Vitale (as himself) can't convince anyone on board he is who he says he is. (90 minutes)

The second example is Michael Sam.

I'm impressed with the way that Missouri handled his story, especially internally. The fact that their locker room was able to keep a lid on a huge story like that is an indicator that, yeah, maybe this time there was some actual, concrete brotherly love that was being put on display. But even that has it's limits.

As unified as Sam's teammates have been publicly, Mizzou TE Eric Waters has a different opinion of the whole thing:

Mista Chowww huh

I've got no definitive hot take on how legitimate Waters' comments are. I will note that every time there's a positive, feel good story out there, there's always at least one person who takes extreme pleasure in pissing in the collective cornflakes of everyone involved (which wouldn't make Waters necessarily wrong, just a douche).

In any event, there's nothing cut and dry about love and togetherness, even in a story like Michael Sam's. We want there to be, because we want to accept the narrative of a big happy family that always gets along.

Season 10, episode 17: The USC Trojans Cheerleaders come aboard. Monte Kiffin loses his job because Lane becomes jealous when the cheerleader that he is interested in likes Monte and not him. A man and his bride-to-be share the honeymoon with his best man (Bevo XIV).

Michael Sam's story is still a positive one for the same reasons why the Martin/Incognito story is a negative one. Love, brotherhood, whatever you want to call it, isn't a consistent, reliable thing. It has detractors and bumps and setbacks and problems that must be navigated along the way.

Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito had a superficial relationship built on drugs, strippers, guilt, horniness, and overeating. An outside observer to one of their benders might have tricked themselves into thinking these two men had a close bond. They did not.

The Missouri locker room likewise wasn't a monolithic entity in support of Michael Sam. There were probably snide comments, trash talk, and at least a little homophobic grief thrown Sam's way over the course of the season after (and probably a little before) he came out. But the fact that despite that the team kept his secret and supported him is an indicator of a true bond that goes farther than anything forged in whatever strip club Martin and Incognito were getting blasted at on any given night.

Real love, the good stuff, is shown through actions in the face of adversity. You have to work at it, and it's tough. But it's worth it.

Happy Valentine's Day.

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