One of the greatest sports movies of all time is A League of Their Own. With Tom Hanks and Geena Davis as its leads, the movie follows the Rockford Peaches, a team in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). It’s such a beloved movie that it convinced critics and audiences that Rosie O’Donnell was likeable and cemented Tom Hank as America’s sweetheart. It even tricked the world into thinking Madonna could act, giving her enough “street cred” to make out with Drake years later.
In fact, the most iconic scene from the movie puts Madonna’s acting chops at the forefront. After her character Mae makes an errant throw to home, Peaches manager Jimmy Duggan (Tom Hanks) unleashes on his centerfielder with the now famous “there’s no crying in baseball” speech.
Growing up, I loved this scene. It had everything I wanted. Baseball, the guy who voiced Woody yelling at somebody, a penis joke and making fun of an umpire (something every baseball player has wanted to do). It’s so iconic that The American Film Institute listed it as the 54th best movie quote of all time.
But as I’ve gotten older I think I’ve realized one of the reasons why the scene is so popular. Why it’s been quoted by coaches, teammates and sports fans and why you can buy a t-shirt with the words written in bold red letters. And that’s because in sport, emotion is a weakness.
I should start off by saying I’ve never been a star athlete. I’m not good enough to be drafted or play internationally. My biggest assets are that I work hard and am punctual (seriously, my attendance is amazing). But I have played competitive sports all my life. I started playing baseball and hockey when I was four. In school, I was on the basketball, ultimate Frisbee and cross-country teams. And I am very good at NHL 2012 on the PS3. I should also mention that I’ve had many amazing experiences playing youth sports. I’ve made life-long friends, grown as a person and been supported by some incredible coaches over the years.
But I know how a lot of sports teams operate. When you’re out on the field, rink or court, you have to show strength. If somebody hits one of your players, you hit them back. If somebody says something to you, you say something back. But if you’re mentally exhausted or “just not feeling it” you’ll be labelled as soft.
I felt this when I played for my university baseball team. I made the team in my first year of undergrad back when I was a happy-go-lucky freshman with a bright smile, optimism and a low alcohol tolerance (which I still have). During my first game, I was nervous. Naturally, I didn’t fare well. After two games without a hit, I was taken out of the line-up. I didn’t play for the next two years.
Those two years were tough. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my teammates and we actually won two championships but I was a wreck. When I first made the team I was confident. I knew I wasn’t amazing but I felt I was good enough to contribute. Yet upon making the team I was told I was a bad fielder and would never play defensively. In my second year, I was told I would pinch hit. But that never happened. For two years, I kept score. A human notepad who knew he’d never get to play. I stopped bringing my equipment to games because I knew that there wasn’t any point. My confidence was shot.
Going into my third year, I knew I would be cut. I bumped into one of my coaches during the summer and he ignored me. I wasn’t the prodigal son. I was the Carrot Top of university baseball. And I knew that. Lo and behold, I was cut. When the head coach told me, I had to fight back my emotions. I wanted to succeed so badly and I had failed.
To top that off my summer team disbanded. My amazing coaches and teammates had gone our separate ways. We were the NSYNC of youth sports. And I was Justin Timberlake (but with less talent and good looks). Eventually, I joined another team but it was much worse. Not only was I not playing but some of the guys treated me like garbage. There’s a difference between teasing teammates (which I do all the time) and riding them too hard. I experienced the latter which was epitomized by an email from a teammate mocking my performance. After two years, I didn’t want to play the sport I loved ever again. They say that baseball is 99% mental. I was at 20%.
My experiences aren’t unique. Almost every athlete has had a similar or worse experience. And that’s because we’re told to keep our emotions hidden. Besides my family, I didn’t want people to know how frustrated I was. If it got out, I feared I’d be considered a “cancer” and would be cut immediately. In baseball, if you get hit by a pitch, someone will yell “Don’t rub it, we’ve got ice.” But if you got hit by an 80mph fastball you would want to rub it because it fucking hurts! That’s like saying to someone who’s been shot “Oh don’t yell about it, I’ve got a Band-Aid.” With that sort of culture in place, do you think that saying “Hey coach, I don’t appreciate how I’m being treated and feel mentally beaten up” would be met with a positive response? He’d probably suggest ice…
It’s not just youth athletes who are treated this way. Professional athletes face even more ridicule for showing emotion. Take the Crying Jordan or Crying LeBron memes. While often hilarious they are essentially making fun of guys for getting emotional. The famous “That’s my quarterback” speech from wide-receiver Terrell Owens is mocked just because Owen’s support for his teammate went against his image. Even emotional responses like Jose Bautista’s bat flip are met with anger and hatred from fans who considered it to be unsportsmanlike.
Until we recognize that athletes are not machines, this will never change. Yes, sports are a form of entertainment, but we can’t forget that they involve real people. People with emotions. People who have good days and bad days. People who sometimes let those emotions out. Especially at the youth level, it’s important that coaches, parents and teammates, create a culture where the well-being of athletes is more of a priority than winning.
But until then, Jimmy Duggan, you’re right. There is no crying in baseball. We won’t allow it.