Trump has got locker-room culture wrong

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the South Florida Fair Expo Centre.PHOTO: AFP

It's such an easy thing to use as a defence, isn't it? It's just blokes. Locker-room humour. "Banter" . The word should be banned. It makes such a massive generalisation about what is acceptable in conversations between men. And make no mistake - what Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said is in no way acceptable. It brings the image of the locker room into disrepute.

(The Washington Post had earlier released a tape in which Mr Trump was heard bragging in vulgar terms about kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women during a 2005 conversation with Mr Billy Bush, then of host of Access Hollywood.)

Clearly, Mr Trump has no awareness of how that culture has moved on in the past 30 years. You can't just say, "that's what blokes do" - because you know what, it isn't. Even in sport - one of the most "macho" industries. And I should know; I played professional football for nearly 20 years.

The locker room is an extreme environment - you have stress, testosterone and nervous energy. The competitive juices are flowing. There are things that are said that you wouldn't say in public spaces. But it's self-policing, and there's still a line that people don't cross - otherwise, you'd be absolutely slaughtered by your teammates. Mr Trump went way beyond that line.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the South Florida Fair Expo Centre.  PHOTO: AFP

Everyone has different levels of where to draw that line, and things have changed since I was young when I remember hearing coaches say things to players to "toughen them up", things that in anybody else's eyes would just be seen as racist. In their own perverse way, they thought that they were doing the youngsters a favour, but it just perpetuated ignorance. I knew it was wrong even then, and always said to myself that I would never forget it, and would never say things like that, or treat people that way.

The locker room is an extreme environment... There are things that are said that you wouldn't say in public spaces. But it's self-policing, and there's still a line that people don't cross - otherwise you'd be absolutely slaughtered by your teammates.

But the locker room is an incredibly contradictory environment - at one extreme, it's very caring and supportive, at the other, it's hard and brutal. A lot of the humour lies in putting other people down. Players are constantly on at one another, having a joke at someone else's expense - it's seen as an initiation process.

But there's the opposite side of that, too: an incredible togetherness, loyalty, support when people are going through personal problems. An emotional openness between men that you wouldn't necessarily expect.

The insults and the bragging have a part to play in that. You need to have the ability to release the pressure, as you spend so much time together. And it can help to build relationships - but only if it stays within bounds, otherwise it can destroy the very thing you're trying to reinforce.

That doesn't mean you have to be racist or sexist or homophobic - there are other ways of making your mark. And that's partly where the bragging comes in. People project a persona to protect their image and vulnerabilities. Why did Mr Trump say what he said? He was trying to impress Mr Bush . It's that ego thing. But I've never known the level of conversation to descend to the level of what Mr Trump said. Derogatory comments are made - they're not acceptable - but I've never heard women spoken about in such a predatory way. People would have objected. Loudly.

Maybe 50 years ago, when Mr Trump was young, that was the language used. But there's been a huge shift in locker-room culture ever since I started playing. Just look at the way issues around race have been tackled. A lot of that has been down to the diversity in the dressing room. Society has far less tolerance of that kind of language, and people have become much more aware of when the bounds of acceptability are crossed.

My era was that of footballer Justin Fashanu and the horrible homophobic abuse he suffered. I experienced some of it myself - apparently in part because I read The Guardian. People in the locker room weren't saying those things because they thought I was actually gay: They knew I wasn't. It was that put-down style of humour taken to an unpleasant extreme. In their eyes, it wasn't homophobic because I wasn't gay. But in the process, they were being incredibly derogatory.

At the time, I didn't even have the support within my own dressing room - it was just seen as name-calling. I wonder, if I had been gay, would they have still used that type of abuse? Would it have then crossed their line, beyond just winding people up, and made them aware of the damage that is caused by that sort of language? Regardless, that sort of thing would not happen now, 100 per cent. I'm involved with the Football Association, working on areas of equality, and it is treated so differently today. The gay community, and players, have far more protection.

One of the reasons I find Mr Trump's excuse so offensive is that he's presuming the culture of the locker room is the same as what goes on in his brain, the culture he finds acceptable in his ivory tower.

The dressing room hasn't been anything close to that for a long time, and it was never as bad as the vile language that came out of his mouth. I've never experienced, in all my time in football, anybody who would ever think what he said would be something to laugh at or brag about. It's so extreme.

The reaction on both sides of the Atlantic has proved the point that you can't be flippant with abusive language and then just try to brush it off as part of a culture you know nothing about.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2016, with the headline 'Trump has got locker-room culture wrong'. Print Edition | Subscribe