As my young son Emmett begins his path toward adulthood (yeah, he's got only 14 months on the job -- but time flies), I've found myself thinking long and hard about what I should tell him when it comes to being a "real man." Yes, a "real man" pees standing up. And yes, a "real man" should have his prostate checked annually after his 40th birthday.
But, to be honest, I long ago failed any traditional "real man" litmus tests. I've had multiple pedicures, I cry during "A Walk to Remember" (if only Landon's friends could see what's inside Jamie's heart ), I've broken a mere two bones (both ankles), I always remember my wife's birthday, I can't dunk, my alcoholic beverage of choice is a White Russian and I'm allergic to beer.
Luckily, as an ESPN.com columnist I really don't need to come up with original material. After all, I've accrued nearly 15 years of exposure to the greatest "real man" teachers in the entire world -- professional athletes.
Just think about it: What non-jockstrap-wearing human being ever -- literally, ever -- begins a straight-faced sentence with the words, "A real man "? I mean, we're in the 21st century here, long past the days of knights and princes and men swooping in from nowhere to save lowly damsels. Yet in the testosterone-packed, enlightenment-lite world of big-time sports, the phrase "a real man " is uttered, oh, 2,000 times per week. They're not joking.
According to those we root for, "real men" like Andrew Johns, "admit they're wrong" (the Rugby League star, after he was arrested for possessing an ecstasy tablet earlier this year); they "play football" (former Arkansas football coach Houston Nutt while describing his team's toughness); they "take the responsibility" of raising a baby and not demanding an abortion after impregnating someone (Fresno State running back Lonyae Miller); they "hit home runs at Petco Park" (Giants outfielder Dave Roberts); they "step up" when things aren't going well (Miami Heat assistant Ron Rothstein on his team's troubles); they "learn from their mistakes and move on" (former Florida State receiver Peter Warrick, who was arrested for shoplifting and now manages an Applebee's); they "play minor league baseball without whining" (Rickey Henderson joining the Newark Bears); they "block NFL linebackers and safeties" (Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes) and they "tutor" those trying to take their jobs (former Cardinals linebacker Ronald McKinnon, who, ahem, maintained his manhood but lost the gig).
Oh -- one more thing. If we are to judge the participants of modern professional sports by their actions, "real men" lack guts, courage, integrity, decency and the nerve to stand up for what is righteous when the cowards around them remain silent.
In major league baseball, the "real men" recently divided themselves into three unique camps: (A) Those "real men" who sought unfair, illegal advantages by consuming steroids and/or human growth hormones; (B) Those "real men" who didn't cheat but failed to defy the union and speak out against those ruining their game and (C) Those "real men" who "fessed up" and admitted their cheating ways after being caught, like Andy "Real Man" Pettitte and Brian "Real Man" Roberts. Not that anyone seems to mind. In the wake of an apology that read like late-'80s Hunter Thompson, Pettitte was praised as a "real man" by teammate Mariano Rivera, who appeared dazzled by the left-hander's gutsy ability to evoke remorse without really appearing remorseful.
Yet in the world of the "real man," Pettitte-Rivera is child's play.
Three years ago, when word of his grand jury testimony was leaked to the media, Yankee slugger Jason Giambi -- a "real man" with the tats and long hair to prove it -- held a press conference to announce that he was sorry for, uh, something bad that, uh, he, uh, shouldn't, uh, have, uh, done. (Giambi never actually said what he was sorry for, but we got the idea.) With rare exception, the 2000 AL MVP was given a free pass; George "Real Man" Steinbrenner even issued a statement reading, "It takes a hell of a big man to stand up and apologize to his teammates, to New York Yankee fans and to baseball fans everywhere and admit he was wrong."
In truth, were Giambi a "hell of a big man," wouldn't he have decided not to juice in the first place? Wouldn't he now present Frank Thomas, the runner-up to the 2000 MVP award, with his trophy? For that matter, if Steinbrenner were a "real man," wouldn't he have kicked Giambi to the curb with a curt statement reading, "Yankees don't cheat"?
Equally perplexing are the "real men" of the Atlanta Falcons, many of whom (rightly) shredded coach Bobby Petrino when he tiptoed out of town like a sewer rat to take over for Nutt at the University of Arkansas. Yet, at the same time quarterback Joey Harrington was uttering, "[Petrino] preached team and he preached family, and then he quit on us. That's not what a man does," one had to wonder where the "real men" were when it came to Michael Vick's drowning and electrocuting his dogs. Where were the "real men" and their outrage?
Where were the "real men" condemning acts of unimaginable cruelty?
Answer: They were busy being represented by "real man" receiver Roddy White, who in a recent game against the Saints showed off a T-shirt reading "FREE MIKE VICK." "Real men" don't quit hopeless coaching gigs -- but they willingly send 10,000 volts through a pit bull's skull.
Not that "real men" like Petrino warrant free passes. Indeed, high school, college and professional coaches happen to be this planet's most blatant distributors of "real man" rubbage. "Real men" hate to lose. "Real men" fight to the end. "Real men" stand up for their teammates. "Real men" put team above personal goals. "Real men" blah, blah, blah.
If a guarantee can be stated here, it is that Petrino and Alabama's Nick Saban made their fair share of "real men" speeches well before lying and leaving their jobs. So, one can assume, did Bill Belichick, whose "real man" pep talks carry far less oomph now that we know this "real man" is a "real cheater."
Truth is, the "real men" I know in sports are largely, ahem, women.
When's the last time a WNBA player waxed her dogs? When's the last time Jennie Finch or Tairia Mims was suspected of 'roiding up? Do legendary coaches like Kay Yow, Pat Summitt and C. Vivian Stringer spew "real man" nonsense, or do they simply rely on the old standards of class and dignity?
Take your Giambi, your Pettitte, your Vick, your Saban, your Petrino.
I'll continue to admire a "real man":
Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero," now available in paperback. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.