Tamba Hali and the media’s toxic culture of shame

The NFL media’s tendency to shame athletes into a preset way of speaking and behaving is not just wrong. It’s also toxic. Just look at Tamba Hali.

The demands are impossible. Just ask Tamba Hali.

For that matter, you can also ask Cam Newton. Perhaps Tom Brady. Certainly Colin Kaepernick. Oh wait, I’m probably going to be shamed for even bringing up the latter’s name.

Consider the following contradictory demands. When a player is on the field, he is encouraged to play through the whistle on every single play. Letting up means letting someone else take your job. Pain is ignored. Emotions are stirred. Adrenaline is pumping. Play after play after play, the players live up to the demands of coaches, fans and media members, all of whom will take them to task for taking plays off or looking half-hearted on a particular play.

Within seconds, once the final whistle blows and the clock reads 0:00, the opposite is expected. Flip the switch. Put your head down. All of those emotions should now be properly stored in the overhead bins. Answer casually and candidly any questions asked of you by reporters shoving a microphone in your face, even as you need to wipe the sweat that won’t stop dripping down your face.

On the field, act this way. Off the field, act completely differently.

If not, we will shame you.

***

This weekend, Tamba Hali went off-script.

Ever since Hali was taken in the first round by the Chiefs in 2006, the Liberian star quietly kept to himself off the field while maintaining a never-say-die attitude on the field. The end result will ultimately be a place in the team’s Hall of Fame. He’s forced 33 fumbles. He’s sacked a quarterback over 89 times. Despite playing a very physical game, Hali has missed 4 games in 11 NFL seasons.

In short, Hali has been a consummate team player and leader. While there are positive connotations for those terms, it’s also another way of saying, “Tamba has never went off-script.” Which is why it was so surprising that Hali took to Twitter on Friday to say a number of things that he wasn’t supposed to say.

There’s no need to replay the weekend’s events here. You’re likely already well-versed in them if you’re halfway through this column. Suffice it to say, Hali called out his head coach (for lack of playing time in the playoffs), his star teammates (for not reporting to OTAs this spring) and kept talking for much longer than anyone expected. It was akin to a car alarm you expect to go off any second except it keeps tweeting.

Twitter suddenly became awkward, at least the Chiefs corner of it. It’s a testament to Hali’s reputation cultivated over 11 seasons that many fans thought his account was hacked. The lame sort of excuse that everyone tries to reach for when they get in trouble was automatically credited to Hali. That is how out of bounds his Twitter rant was—a completely unexpected curveball (wrong sport) from an athlete who has always known better.

It’s that last line that makes this so disturbing.

***

Shaming is such a subversive and dangerous thing.

To open up to a more personal page, I grew up in church. To be more specific, I grew up in what you could call a small, rural church with typical Evangelical beliefs and a style that ran heavy on the charismatic (Pentecostal) side. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I saw a shaming culture at work there, toxic leaders who demanded complete loyalty to a familial leadership team who refused to share the church’s books and vilified anyone who questioned the church’s direction.

That’s not intended to be an indictment on church. I still attend one myself. It was simply the first time I noticed that a certain set of people in power created an environment within which communications were stymied or outright silenced for the sake of the culture that was in place. Of course, I didn’t know what to call it at the time. I just knew it felt wrong.

Since then, I’ve seen the same methods used in all sorts of places. From college leadership quelling protests to workplaces stifling certain subjects from arising in conversation, it’s fairly commonplace for a shaming culture to emerge to protect the status quo—as if no one could ever know the truth if we just all pretend everything is okay. It works in many instances (which is why it exists), but it prevents a group or organization from reaching its greatest good—stopping at a point where those currently in power can enjoy the spoils.

Take our country for instance. (Yes, let’s go there.) We have a free press. We enjoy free speech. Yet such levels of shaming exist that many people do not feel comfortable enough to say what they think. The moment someone reveals their cards is the moment that many of us stop listening, having reduced them to two-dimensional beings. We combat each other with memes we pass on social media and 60-second talking points we overheard on cable news. It’s propaganda and we pass it like the plague.

From politics to sports to religion to our workplaces, a shaming culture is often put into place to make sure that no one or no thing is allowed to move forward. Because it would mean upending the current system—and someone is likely profiting from that system.

There has to be a better way.

***

Back to Cam Newton. What if it’s a good thing to see a player struggle to deal with his emotions following a loss on the biggest stage imaginable? What if it began a conversation about the humanity of athletes and the unnecessarily silliness of shoving 50 microphones into the face of a man who just played through the whistle, just like he’s was taught.

Back to Colin Kaepernick. Forget whether or not you agree with him. Is it not good for all of us to be directly confronted with ideas that run counter to our own? I know from my own perspective how much I’ve grown when challenged over the years—by professors in college, by friends from varied backgrounds, by my parents when bringing new ideas back around to them only to have them explain how they landed where they did years ago. Even more, Kaepernick has been busy with many important social endeavors—all of which deserve a spotlight, none of which deserve to be shamed.

Back to Tamba Hali. When a man who has bled on the field in the red and gold for well over a decade (and has done so with such excellence), he’s earned the right to say damn well whatever he wants to say. In fact, if Tamba, of all players, has something to say about leadership, then we would be wise to listen.

Instead, Twitter turned into a chorus of shame.

“He should have kept that inside.”

“Twitter isn’t the right place for this.”

If there’s anything that needs to be kept inside, it’s this odd set of demands we place upon our favorite athletes to live up to some preset standard of excellence that only benefits the powers that be. Tamba Hali is demanding excellence from the Chiefs—from his head coach, from his teammates and from himself.

There is absolutely no shame in that.