Wussification has no place in sports

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Mike Rice's tough treatment of his players led to his dismissal from Rutgers, but some had no problem with his approach.

Wussification as defined in the Urban Dictionary: The systematic sissifying of men. Men used to be real men, now they are becoming wimpy and sissy like, afraid to speak up now, afraid to take charge or command, losing their mojo, all this because of our politically correct society.

There are some genuinely offensive things that happen in sports. A couple of examples: NFL owner Dan Snyder clinging to a racist mascot in Washington; the NCAA fining a college athlete for washing her car on campus; Chad Johnson violating his probation after a no-contest plea last year to battery on his then-wife, Evelyn Lozada.

The word wussification, innocent enough on the surface, skates a fine line. We know the first letter of that word has been replaced to get it past the censors. The word teeters on the edge of being derogatory, and for whatever reason, we've decided it doesn't cross it. People use it without caution on the television or the radio, and it has been thrown around a lot in sports lately, especially in relation to player safety.

It's really time for the word to be retired.

Wussification is a playground word, an I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I word. It's a word designed to shame or provoke. No one wants to be a wuss.

But wussification gets used in a broader way as well. One commentator used it to discuss why he disagreed with Rutgers' decision to fire Mike Rice. Rice was the basketball coach captured on video throwing balls at players and verbally belittling them. The commentator said if coaches back away from corporal punishment, players will become weaker.

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Brittney Griner refuses to be straitjacketed by the old gender ideas.

It may be a relatively new word, but it signifies a concept that has been around for more than 100 years, albeit under a name that might seem odd and stilted now. Muscular Christianity, as it was called, was a movement started in Victorian times, in which sports were seen as the antidote to a perceived feminization of Christian men. Boys were sent off to the playing fields to get away from their mothers and toughen up.

This movement remained popular as a lot of American sports, such as football, were being formed in the early decades of the 1900s. The idea was that men were becoming too sedentary, too feminine. Men needed to be able to take a punch, put a little dirt on it and get back out there. The problem with society was that men were acting too much like women, and real men had to put a stop to that. Sound familiar?

"One of the ways masculinity in its traditional form has always protected us is that it is talked about as being under threat," said Marie Hardin, professor and associate director of the Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State. "[The idea] just re-emerges in different forms. I think this word being an extension of some pretty old ideas is right on the money."

In this era and in this mindset, there really wasn't much room for female athletes. Why would women want to pursue sports when they were designed to hone masculine ideals?

Girls play a ton of sports now, but there are still those who believe women's sports beyond the recreational level are inherently inferior. The belief that female athletes are a less-feminine version of their gender or that gay men couldn't be good athletes -- it all represents decades-old fallout from the idea that sports should be purely masculine in the most traditional sense.

The use of wussification has picked up, especially as leagues like the NFL and NHL discuss changes to the rules and equipment that may allow players to retire with some measure of health. Wussification is the way people casually dismiss the debilitating health effects that come after a player's career.

Players like former Jets wide receiver Wesley Walker, a 12-year veteran who retired in 1989 who says he is in pain every day. But he and others aren't in the public eye anymore. They don't get a three-hour prime-time window and, even if they did, no one would watch. We like our sports heroes young and invincible. And we certainly don't want to have to listen to them talk about their injuries as they age.

Wussification, sissification -- these words are meant to demean anything that threatens masculinity, whether it's wearing a helmet, curbing fights in the NHL or protecting NCAA players from corporal punishment. It marginalizes the men who suffer after playing the game, and anyone who questions whether change could keep the next generation from the same fate.

"I think it denigrates female ways of doing things," Hardin said.

But common sense has always applied to health issues. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt was uncomfortable enough with 19 player deaths in college football that he proposed sweeping rules changes, including the revolutionary implementation of the forward pass. Lives were quite literally saved, and ultimately so was football.

And no one would call Roosevelt a wuss.

Changes are taking place because things have progressed away from Masculine Christianity and the language that has supplanted the archaic term.

Pacers center Roy Hibbert was fined for using a gay slur that might have gone largely unnoticed a few years ago. But in an era when NBA free agent Jason Collins announces he is gay and the league wants to create a hospitable working environment, those words just get in the way of meaningful communication.

NFL players Chris Kluwe, Scott Fujita and Brendon Ayanbadejo were vocal supporters of marriage equality. From inside the pro sports bubble, they broke unwritten rules and dealt with backlash. And Brittney Griner's utter transparency when it comes to her idea of self is refreshing, because she refuses to be straitjacketed by the old gender ideas even if it makes some people uncomfortable.

Wussification is a word used by the majority to try to silence groups with little power -- like ailing former players or those who oppose abusive treatment by college coaches. They may not have much of a voice to begin with, and that term just shouts them down. In the dynamic of wussification, anything other than absolute toughness is discounted.

Let's at least recognize the word for what it is, because it really doesn't have a place in a reasonable discussion.

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