Real Men 

America's "most important coach" talks about the lies we tell boys, the role of sports and the meaning of manhood.

Style: How was the football season at Gilman this year?

Ehrmann: Terrific. Great group of boys.

So how was your season?

9-1. And we won the championship.

You've been cited as someone who knows something about building character in young men. What is the most important thing to teach?

Fundamentally, the most important thing is to give boys a proper definition of masculinity and manhood. Most young men and most men are told to go be a man at the age of 13 or 14 without having it defined or seeing it modeled. We have a lot of false concepts of masculinity. Sports is one of the biggest perpetrators of false concepts of what it is to be a man.

How do you redefine masculinity?

There are three lies that boys in this culture are told. The first lie is in elementary school. They're told that somehow masculinity equates to athletic ability. It winds up becoming about competition, winning and losing. Then, in adolescence, they're told that masculinity has to do with sexual conquests. The third lie is later, that masculinity has something to do with economic success that can be measured in terms of power, position or possessions.

When you look at young boys, who are their role models? Athletes with all kinds of sexual conquests with a lot of money. Boys want to compare themselves to that. That creates a world of chaos in this society. We have the most violent culture in all the industrialized world. A culture of rape, where men think they can use power to hurt other people. We also have a culture of materialism that puts things ahead of people.

There's really only two criteria: relationships and the ability to love and be loved. The second one is that all of us have to have some transcendent cause that is bigger than who we are as individuals. I know from my role as a pastor; I've helped a lot of people die. When you're on your deathbed the only things that matter are relationships and leaving the world a better place, through a transcendent cause.

How do you make headstrong youth buy in?

If you can capture a kid's heart, you can get his mind. So you have to be in a context where kids know they are cared for, not based on their performance but based on who they are.

You don't cut any kids based on athletic ability. You must have some big teams. How many kids?

Up to 60. You make varsity automatically when you're a junior.

Does everybody get to play?

Sure. You can't honor kids if they don't play. If you talk about valuing kids on themselves and not performance, you've got to live that out.

And you still have winning teams?

We won five of the last six championships. We've been ranked as high as fourteenth in the nation. You provide an atmosphere of love and acceptance, kids will have the freedom to perform to the best of their ability. Any boy in America that wants to pick up a helmet and shoulder pads, that needs to be honored.

Diversity is a big component in the symposium at St. Christopher. We've spent a long time trying to be colorblind. Now we're being encouraged to celebrate diversity. Won't that make it easy to fall back on old stereotypes?

Colorblindness is impossible. If you put it just on ability, like math class, in math class, you have to teach to every student. But students have unequal ability, but they all deserve to participate and be the best that they can be. Why can't we do that in sports? They have unequal ability, but they should have equal opportunity. You have to celebrate those things that make a good team. I think it winds up destroying stereotypes.

You have to celebrate the inherent qualities that each kid brings to a team or community. You're not looking for the best athlete. You're looking for the best human being. If you can get kids to focus on those inherent qualities that contribute to the well-being of the whole community, that's what needs to be celebrated. To me it breaks down racial and athletic stereotypes.

Isn't diversity something of an oxymoron with parochial school, to some extent? Tuitions are high, religion is an element. ... Aren't you paring your pool right there?

Our school is a secular school. There is not religion involved. Tuitions are high, but our school has great commitment in terms of economic and geographical diversity. Great financial aid. Some have to take two or three buses to get here, other kids are being chauffeured. That's a wonderful educational environment. They learn from each other. The missing piece in our culture is empathy, understanding what someone else is feeling, considering their circumstances. That has praise and honor. Both benefit from the other's perspective.

How do you foster that?

We have a rule on our football team. If anyone sees a kid eating alone, they have to bring that kid to their table. We make sure that we play inner-city schools, and when we do, we always have a meal together with the other team and their parents, so our parents have to host their parents. We're very intentional about it. We're intentional about making sure we play in those environments too.

So you're probably not too keen on some of the cheers we hear at prep league and even some college games, like "Your dads work for our dads"

That's awful. Are you kidding me?

How do you overcome that?

You speak to the kids. You're in a place like Gilman? You're not there so you can go to the best college and make the most money. You're there to get the best education to have the greatest impact.

Is spirituality part of the strategy? Or the goal?

Very much. Any team sports. Spirituality, not religion. Spirituality is the quest to conquer self. Teams have to have a spirituality. Any community has to have a spirituality to it. Otherwise, all you have is a bunch of individuals. Spirituality is when you seek the highest values for the greatest common good. S

For more information on the symposium, "Building Leaders From the Inside Out," Feb. 24-25 at St. Christopher's School, go to www.stchristophers.com/symp05/index.htm.


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