Footy great Bob Murphy sparks debate about masculinity and men crying

Former Western Bulldogs skipper Bob Murphy has sparked a debate about the changing nature of masculinity as expressed by a new generation of footy stars, in an article for The Age newspaper.

According to Murphy, the old school stereotype of the fearless AFL warriors who believed showing emotion to the opposition was a sign of weakness, is being replaced by a new generation of players who are learning to combine emotional vulnerability and physical prowess.

Too tough to be seen crying

He contrasts the iconic image Saints’ defender, Max Hudghton, pouring the contents of his drink bottle on his face to hide his tears after a narrow defeat in 2000, with last month’s emotional post-match interview with Jack Watts, described by Collingwood president Eddie McGuire as one of the best post-match interviews he’s ever heard.

Murphy acknowledges that players like Watts, who was caught on film snorting powder off a woman’s chest in Germany, aren’t always models of positive masculine behaviour, but he claims a new version of masculinity is emerging in AFL in the wake of footy's mental health crisis.

According to Murphy, the rawness of the Watts interview is not a sign of “players gone soft” or a signal that players can behave badly without consequences, but an example of emotionally maturing masculinity among AFL players.

“The modern footballer as a pure athlete is something to behold,” says Murphy. “This new type of masculinity is gaining momentum not just because it might be a healthier way for young men to live, but it helps bring out the best athletic performance”.

From hyper-masculine to hyper-eloquent 

If a new form of masculinity really is emerging in the ranks of the AFL’s top players, then Murphy could claim to have been an early adopter. In 2017, his deputy and current Bulldogs skipper Easton Wood spoke of a decade of change that was embodied and led by Murphy.

“I remember thinking it was a very harsh environment, very hyper-masculine and you weren’t allowed to express yourself that much,” Wood told Melbourne’s 1116 SEN radio.

“Bob was really different to that…he’s very unique in being able to show love and his emotion throughout his career, which is a unique thing in football….[he] has this incredible intuition and this beautiful ability with his eloquence to put complex feelings and nail what exactly an entire group is feeling in just a simple sentence.”

Not everyone agrees with Murphy’s analysis on the changing nature of masculinity in sport. In the comments section under his article, one reader wrote:

“There is nothing new about it....i have been watching footballers cry on tv for nearly 40 years. The 1989 grand final is a good example. Pearce, Sironen, Roach, Jack and Elias were all crying and Meninga was a blubbering mess. This idea that "old school" men don't cry is complete rubbish. They just don't cry over trivial things.”

Murphy on masculinity: How readers responded 

Another reader agreed that old-school masculinity was different and came to its defence, saying:

Why is a stoic display of emotion always derided as something archaic and bad? Nothing wrong with the men of past generations, they were stoic and proudly fought and built the society we live in today.

Another expressed concern favouring new masculine ideologies would exclude those who lean towards more traditional expressions of masculinity.

“It's all well and good Bob,” he said, “but we are moving from a very genuine, very natural communication style to a very fake one. We can't bring everyone with us because not everyone can fake the new ethos. In that context, your talk about footy being a broad church rings hollow. We are shifting to a less inclusive model.”

Other readers expressed their support saying they loved to see “men and women share their strengths and their weaknesses” and even claiming AFL leaders had become “leaders in today’s society” at the same time that “political leaders have gone AWOL on social matters”.

Silence isn't strong (neither is violence)

The strongest message of support for Murphy’s article came from a reader who wrote:

“Men who allow their emotions to show, rather than resorting to silence or violence, are the strong ones. Ask anyone who allows themselves to cry; once you have dumped the effort in holding in your emotions you can think clearly and articulate yourself. Just ignore the tears and listen to what the person is actually saying. Most of the time women are crying is because they are trying to dump rage.”

But how happy are footballers? The bottom line

Meanwhile, the Age published a column by sports media and marketing lecturer Sam Duncan on April 9, which portrayed contemporary football as being an unhappy playing field, stating that player welfare was the biggest issue to confront professional sport this century. 

"The current crop of athletes around the world are the wealthiest, most popular and powerful group of athletes in the history of sport. But, while money can buy many things, happiness is not one of them," writes Duncan. 

He references the words of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who recently described today's super rich, powerful players as being immensely unhappy and highlighted technology as contributing to an all-pervading toxin that "aided in stimulating a lonely, isolated existence in an environment that should, in fact, uphold notions of community.

“If you’re around a team in this day and age, there are always headphones on," Silver said. “[The players] are isolated, and they have their heads down.”

Duncan says the GWS Giants have banned the use of mobile phones around shared meal times and on bus trips in a bid to build camaraderie. 

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