Many years ago, I wrote an essay called “Locker Room Memories” that got picked up by a couple of small publications and anthologized in a book of essays by and about men. The essay wasn’t very good, in the way such things can be for a writer when coming across a piece from long ago. But the subject matter remains worthy and newly relevant today.
In it, I wrote about the experience of picking up a basketball again for some purely recreational play a decade or so after my playing career ended with my last college game. Rather than write about playing, though, I focused instead on the experience of walking into the locker room beforehand, with all that it represents in the life of an athlete.
Now, Donald Trump has gotten me thinking about locker rooms again. And this is what I want to tell him:
Man, you don’t know squat about locker rooms.
Trump, as surely everyone anywhere near the orbit of this frenzied media world learned over the weekend, dismissed his commentary from a decade ago that described, in the most vile and objectionable terms imaginable, basically sexually assaulting women at his leisure.
Because he could.
Because, in his words,
“When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
Then, compounding his offensiveness after his words came to light, he dismissed them as “locker room banter,” reiterating the same point three times running (and then the rooster crowed…) in last night’s debate:
“This was locker room talk. I’m not proud of it . . . This was locker room talk. Yes, I’m very embarrassed by it, and I hate it, but it’s locker room talk.”
In this, I join a now countless litany of male athletes, current and past, who have taken to Twitter and other social media venues to essentially say, “Not in any locker room I’ve ever been in.”
The locker room is a potent symbol in the life of an athlete. In between dressing for daily practice and games, pregame and halftime chalk talks, post-practice stripping and showering, post-game celebrations after victories and quiet reflecting or frustration-venting after losses, the locker room becomes a kind of hallowed place. Which is not to say Boy Scout-decorous and somber.
Locker rooms are never devoid for long of frivolity, joshing, jiving, boastfulness, and even crude antics and words from young men still struggling to find their identity in a naturally hyper-competitive milieu.
Did I ever hear the word “pussy” in a locker room? Of course.
But did I ever hear anything even remotely resembling the violence-laden descriptions of the then 59-year-old Trump as he tried to “impress,” in his warped perspective, a younger, sycophantic man with the power he exhibited over vulnerable young women?
As far as I ever discerned, such language of conquest and abuse would never have occurred to anyone I knew, ever, unless they were secretly practicing to write trashy novels of hollow men for whom sexual exploitation and dominance served some aberrant psychological need.
Maybe I never heard that kind of talk because no one in my high school and college basketball orbit, nor in the scores of fitness club locker rooms I have inhabited since, had ever amassed the fortune and power and resulting removal from daily reality of Trump, for whom “locker room” surely cannot mean anything approximating the experience I and millions of others had as we went about our game-playing or fitness-enhancing lives.
All I do know is that Trump has committed another act of violence in defense of his comments. He has exhibited yet again the extraordinary narcissism that has him conflating his predatory impulses and imagery with the practices and experiences shared in common by millions of boys and men, and now, thanks to feminism, young girls and women, too, for whom locker rooms are held in special, almost reverential regard.
It’s just one more glaring example of the utter absurdity of Trump pretending to give voice to “the common man.”
I’ve snapped towels in locker rooms, uttered obscenities, pulled pranks, been disconsolate and disappointed, cried, cajoled, limped gamely into them when injured, danced jubilantly out of them after a win.
I’ve stared into space after losses, listened to and gave inspirational speeches, led teams in pregame prayers even after I had stopped believing in a deity. (It was an early lesson in willingly speaking and sharing sacred language as a symbol of common purpose and care.)
The sounds of showers, tape coming off ankles, lockers being open and slammed, familiar voices and their laughter echoing off the concrete walls, the noise from the crowd out in the gym on game night.
The smells emanating from active, somewhat agitated young men in a confined space, of analgesic balm applied to muscles, the mustiness of perspiration-soaked shorts and socks and jocks left to dry overnight in readiness for the next day’s practice.
The sight of steam from the showers, your teammates grimacing on the trainer’s table, the straining vocal cords and popping forehead veins of your coach imploring you to get focused as he pounds on the chalkboard during his halftime talk. (The chalk sometimes breaking as a final emphatic punctuation point…)
These comprise the locker rooms of my youth, the sense impressions and memories that remain sacred to me today.
The later locker rooms of my adulthood lacked similar dimension and drama. But neither have they even hinted at the abhorrent, loathsome conduct Trump suggests in this all-too-revealing glimpse into the same character he has exhibited throughout his nakedly self-serving campaign to lead our country.
Locker rooms can be a microcosm, as are so many settings where much is at stake, of a wide range of human emotion and expressiveness (and sometimes the lack thereof). They can help both promote and reveal the flaws in a person’s character, inasmuch as any organized team of individuals in pursuit of a common goal will elicit both the best and the worst of humanity. (Even, occasionally, in the same person.)
With his breezy, self-regarding recap of sexual violence and subsequent reductionism of it to mere locker room banter, Donald Trump has reaffirmed for us the essential bankruptcy of his character.
Such talk may be the prevailing mode of the locker rooms he has inhabited. But he doesn’t get to speak for mine.
More athlete perspectives:
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Well said, Andrew. No additional comments on locker room culture from me, only an observation that it’s fascinating that the man I will not name has conned so many into believing in him by appropriating so many environments and cultures that his real life has had absolutely no connection to – from locker rooms to the military to coal mines to living on the edge of poverty. Truly, his skills at getting people from those worlds to believe in him is astonishing. I admire him in a peculiar way for his ability to fool so many people for so long, and I fear for the future of our civil, democratic society if he continues to get away with it. He must be stopped.
David, I am tempted to agree with your grudging admiration for his seemingly uncanny ability to fool so many people, though P.T. Barnum’s observation about a sucker being born every minute gives me pause. Is it perhaps as simple as that? What is revolting is how transparent and bare-knuckled his fraudulence is. I don’t understand why anyone would be at all surprised by these latest revelations. He has been revealing variants of them all along. I can only surmise that those who still support him are suffering from some kind of Barack-Hillary Derangement Syndrome that has completely blinded them to just how stunted Trump is as a human being, and how dangerous he would be anywhere near the levers of political power. There isn’t any kind of equivalence here—we have not seen the likes of him in our lifetime, and I, like you, fear for this country at the very least were he to become president. If that makes me subject to Trump Derangement Syndrome, I’ll proudly claim the diagnosis…
I guess like so many others, I was thinking some of the same thoughts: “I don’t recall that kind of talk.” As always you expressed so well. Thanks for confirming.
I haven’t spent much time in locker rooms since high school, but I have spent a lot of time in corporate conference rooms and boardrooms, both in the US and in Europe. In private, many US managers have the habit of giving workers about as much respect as Trump gives women. They give workers and the communities their companies impact about as much respect as most of us give to insects. This makes it easy for them to tolerate pollution & dangerous work environments. It also makes it easy for them to move jobs around, including to other countries, without much concern for the impact on the American communities they leave behind.
European managers, living in a different social-economic & political environment, and with a very different history, can’t/don’t do this as much, though Western Europe, also, has its pollution problems, and it has also lost many jobs to lower-cost areas.
What I see in common with the Trump story is the lack of respect for other human beings. An assault on a woman is very direct and personal, and can have a devastating impact on the woman involved and on her family & friends (it also corrupts the man doing the assault in a horrible way). The damage done by a corporation to its workers or to the communities it operates in is often less direct but more widespread in its impacts. A serious environmental accident may impact thousands or even millions (e.g., Deepwater Horizon, Fukushima). In some cases environmental damage can occur as the result of the actions of many smaller companies rather than one large company (e.g., fracking, which is done by many small exploration companies, as well as by oil & gas majors). In both cases (assault against women & damage caused by corporations), sadly, the damage & the responsibility can be endlessly arguable, meaning that redress may be delayed or may never occur.
At the root of it all, a lack of love & respect for our fellow human beings. At the root of that, the evil that lurks in all of us. It appears that those of us who oppose any of this will have an endless and very personal struggle on our hands.
Actually, Jim, as someone who coaxes housebound spiders and daddy-longlegs carefully into a jar in order to deposit them into my garden, I take exception to your insinuation about our minimal respect for insects. :-)
So, you have raised a critical point here—the true equivalence that a culture built on naked aggression and dominance brings to all oppressed parties, be they women, children forced into slavery and war, human workers treated as mere commodity, or, furthest out (or at the inner core) on the concentric circles of the exploited, the earth itself and the indignities we visit upon it with such impunity.
At a basic level, it comes down to what we love and respect: humanity at large and individual human beings in particular, along with the earth that has spawned them, or power. As Trump and so many others have shown, it is not all that difficult to amass and harness power if that is your god. One person, joined by sometimes unwitting, blinded lieutenants, can wreak tremendous havoc on innocents the world over who want nothing so much as a decent job and place to rest their and their children’s heads.
With respect to your insights into environmental exploitation, though, there is both consolation and fear in the knowledge that nature will surely bat last. We can only hope she will be as forgiving as possible in the redress she may be forced to exact from us at a terrible price.
Thanks for adding these important insights to the discussion.
The only thing missing in your account of the locker room (at least at the U of R ) was where were we going to have a beer to reflect on the game we just played in. The Donald would not know a locker room from an outhouse.
Ha, well yes, Tim, there is always that part to complete the whole sacred ritual! It reminds me, in the midst of this MLB postseason, that pros get all the fun—champagne in their own damn locker room! We should’ve been granted at least that much after beating Whittier… :-)
Thanks for capturing the sublime essence of the locker room. I fully agree that Trump and those who join him in laughing off his deplorable comments (beliefs) as “locker room” talk have no sense of what goes into earning a place in the locker room. I was surprised that it took me a few hours to realize how offended I felt that he degraded the locker room and, by extension, those who sacrifice, work, hurt, suffer, and rejoice in its confines.
Thank you, Jay; I had the exact same experience, though it took me more than a few hours to get my bearings on the matter. There was so much raw ugliness and misogyny in that tape and his subsequent response to it that I hardly knew where to begin in sorting through the rubble. So it wasn’t until later that I realized, “Hey, that’s MY locker room he’s trying to pass off as the norm.” Any real athlete, which Trump riding around in a cart on his golf courses does not qualify to call himself, has a vastly different memory storehouse.
Andrew, I’ve read that at one time Trump was a decent baseball player so presumably he has some experience in locker rooms. So I take his excuse to mean it was his way of talking in locker rooms. He’s always been a short-fingered vulgarian.