Friday, July 31, 2009

More on Sports and Politics

[Cross-posted on]

The Independent has an excellent piece up by David Usborne about former heavyweight boxing great, Jack Johnson, who at the turn of the twentieth century was the most hated man in America. Much like Muhammad Ali (and to a much lesser degree Joe Louis) in decades to follow, the African American Johnson was hated for two primary reasons: (1) his athletic greatness provided him with a public platform; and (2) on that platform, he refused to acquiesce to the racist sentiments of his time.

Rather, Johnson scoffed in the face of calls to act as a diminutive black “house slave.” He flaunted intimate relationships with white women -- a sexist strategy in itself -- largely as a means to infuriate his harshest critics. Johnson’s legacy represents America’s horrid history in its treatment of African Americans, as detailed in Usborne’s article.

That Johnson did not bend to the bigotry of his time no one disputes. On the contrary, he is remembered, aside from his athletic prowess, for his defiance, using his growing fortune to drive the cars and live in the homes that white folk considered to be theirs and beyond the descendants of slaves. He dated white women and made no attempt to hide it. When he died in a car crash in 1946 aged 68, he had had three wives, all white.

But Johnson's greatest sin was his talent in the ring. His success was an affront to white America. Instantly after he became world champion, a search was launched for a white man who could take the title back. The "Great White Hope", as the sports writers called him, was James Jeffries, a former champion himself who found himself dragged out of retirement to meet Johnson. The two men met in a makeshift ring in Reno, Nevada, with the nearly all-white crowd booing Johnson and singing along when the ring-side band played "All Coons Look Alike to Me". Johnson was declared the winner after 15 rounds. Rioting broke out all across America.

Of immediate concern, Usborne’s piece calls for United States President, Barack Obama to pardon Johnson posthumously for violation of the Mann Act, which barred the transportation of women across state lines. Although the act was not enforced upon white men who violated its sexist precepts, it was used to tarnish Johnson’s accomplishments and squelch his symbolic influence for the black community. Ultimately, it led to him fleeing the United States before being incarcerated upon his return.

Senator John McCain, an ardent boxing supporter, is behind the resolution to pardon Johnson. Despite President Obama’s most recent encounters with race relations, which has eroded into a pop culture spectacle of beer guzzling, Usborne initially writes the pardon may not be so probable.

Oddly, (President Obama) may not welcome it. Yesterday, the President was hosting Henry Louis Gates, the black professor from Harvard, and the white policeman who arrested him for allegedly breaking into a house that turned out to be his own. Mr Obama has often said he wants to transcend race himself. Yet he can't get away from discussion of it.

It is unthinkable that he would not sign such a pardon for Johnson, whose baleful story – and its place in the tortured odyssey this country has taken from slavery to true racial integration (if it has even got there yet) – is too compelling to ignore. He secured the world title precisely 100 years before Mr Obama won election as America's first black president.

Usborne closes, however, with the following statements, at least hinting that a so-called “post-racial” society has yet to be realized. “Fool or no fool, Johnson was wronged by his own country for daring to ignore and to shatter social barriers created by ignorance. Mr. Obama will surely sign his pardon because he knows a bit about this himself.” With this latter statement, I agree.
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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Homophobic "Slip?": The Sports World Never Ceases to Surprise Me

Today Hawaii's highest paid state employee exemplified the darker side of sports, another athletic leader casually using homophobic hate speech. First off, yes, a coach is the highest paid state employee in Hawaii. Those familiar with big time college football would know that it's not atypical for a head football coach to hold that distinction. But back to the issue at hand...

At a Western Athletic Conference press conference today, University of Hawaii head football coach Greg McMackin attempted to insult the Notre Dame football team via use of a homophobic slur. From a PDF'd transcript of his statements, available HERE (original language left unedited):

He had his guys. "We do something special at Notre Dame," he said, and they get up and they do this little cheer, like this (clap), you know, this little faggot dance. And you remember, Jason and Stephen, so my guys were looking at me. They’re all looking at me trying not to laugh. So I gave them the shaka. Don’t write that "faggot" down. I was misquoted.


So, anyway, just please. Last year, you covered for me as far as (inadvertently mentioning a) recruit. Cover for me. Go ahead. Say "faggot dance." No, please cover for me on that, too. Right, Karl (Benson)? I’ll deny it. Anything else?

To hear the full audio of his speech, click
here. Amazing, as seen in the transcript, it appears McMackin attempted to have others cover up his words and in doing so used the slur "f****t" twice more.

McMackin has since issued an apology (to Notre Dame, not to the LGBTQ community).

What's worse, the University of Hawaii athletic program has a history of institutionalizing homophobia (see HERE). In 2000, Hawaii's athletic department dropped the name "Rainbows" in order to disassociate itself with LGBTQ institutions, renaming themselves the supposedly more masculine "Hawaii Warriors." Hawaii coaches and then Athletic Director Hugh Yoshida openly discussed how the "Rainbow" mascot was a marker of confusion that associated the athletic program with gay pride, noting that as a problem. Said Yoshida of the rainbow symbol, who later apologized for these statements, "That logo really put a stigma on our program at times in regards to its part of the gay community, their flags and so forth." Still, the rainbow logo was dropped.

The other disconcerting aspect of this story is the unquestioned support society gives athletics in general. I've never been one to completely bash athletics, but to act as if sports produce nothing but positive values is absurd. Nevertheless, our citizenry incessantly glorifies athletics by spewing out the most typical cliches to defend them: "Sports teach teamwork, how to bounce back from defeat, dispute resolution, etc."

If coached and managed properly, true, sports can convey and teach those values. But as we see, sports just as often perpetuate discrimination. If McMackin casually uses hate speech to insult adversaries at a press conference, imagine the type of language and behavior that takes place behind male locker room doors nationwide, or at post-game, late night parties.

All the while, state employee's salaries/jobs are under the gun, correctional facilities are being closed, human services are in jeopardy. But when Hawaii's high school sports programs are threatened due to the economic crisis, all of a sudden the community kicks in over $400,000. I wouldn't say that generosity to sports is necessarily bad, but taken in context with the negative aspects of sports and the loss of other human services in Hawaii, one has to wonder about our values.

And back to McMackin, those players who did, as McMackin stated, a "f****t dance," destroyed his "warriors" 49-21 last year. So if he defines homosexuality with some form of weakness, what does that say about his "warriors?"

(Photo courtesy of the Honolulu Advertiser)
More video on this story from ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" available HERE.

Update as of 7/31/09:
Coach McMackin has been levied a number of punishments, including (1) a 30-day suspension without pay, (2) a salary reduction commensurate with that which other state executives are voluntarily taking due to the economic crisis; (3) inclusion in public service announcements that call to end hate speech; and (4) the portion of his salary being cut goes towards a position on the university main campus that advocates for the LGBTQ community. He has also apologized to the LGBTQ community and it appears genuine (see here).

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

For Anyone Who Thinks Patriarchy Doesn't Exist...

Today the BBC World Service aired one of the most disturbing pieces I've ever heard. The piece stems from the brutal gang rape and murder of South African football star, Eudy Simelane, which took place in April 2008. The Guardian covered this tragedy and the attendant phenomenon termed "corrective rape" (recall the movie Boys Don't Cry), which generally goes unaddressed by the South African criminal justice system:

The partially clothed body of Eudy Simelane, former star of South Africa's acclaimed Banyana Banyana national female football squad, was found in a creek in a park in Kwa Thema, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Simelane had been gang-raped and brutally beaten before being stabbed 25 times in the face, chest and legs. As well as being one of South Africa's best-known female footballers, Simelane was a voracious equality rights campaigner and one of the first women to live openly as a lesbian in Kwa Thema.

Her brutal murder took place last April, and since then a tide of violence against lesbians in South Africa has continued to rise.
Human rights campaigners say it is characterised by what they call "corrective rape" committed by men behind the guise of trying to "cure" lesbians of their sexual orientation.

Now, a report by the international NGO ActionAid, backed by the South African Human Rights Commission, condemns the culture of impunity around these crimes, which it says are going unrecognised by the state and unpunished by the legal system.

The report calls for South Africa's criminal justice system to recognise hate crimes, including corrective rape, as a separate crime category. It argues this will force police to take action over the rising violence and ensure the resources and support is provided to those trying to bring perpetrators to justice.

The ferocity and brutality of Simelane's murder sent shockwaves through Kwa Thema, where she was much known and loved for bringing sports fame to the sprawling township.


The Guardian talked to lesbians in townships in Johannesburg and Cape Town who said they were being deliberately targeted for rape and that the threat of violence had become an everyday ordeal.

"Every day I am told that they are going to kill me, that they are going to rape me and after they rape me I'll become a girl," said Zakhe Sowello from Soweto, Johannesburg. "When you are raped you have a lot of evidence on your body. But when we try and report these crimes nothing happens, and then you see the boys who raped you walking free on the street."

According to the BBC World Service piece, black lesbians in particular are targeted. Both the BBC World Service and Guardian pieces have candid interviews with South African men who casually/humorously discuss raping women, how they justify their actions, the violent socialization of masculinity that leads to this patriarchal phenomenon, and the lack of response by South African authorities -- lack of response by bystanders/general public, police, and up through the courts (i.e., radical criminology). See also here.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

This keeps me from being grumpy

So I have to admit, watching these prisoners re-enact Michael Jackson's videos/dances is fun and entertaining. But pop culture calls for skepticism. A few questions I'd love to investigate.

  1. How does a western gaze (like mine) play into this?
  2. I know almost nothing about this detention center. I'd like to know if it's run by the state or if it's private. And if it charges audiences to watch the performances, where does the money flow?
  3. Some of the prisoners clearly get more social capital out of this. Are all of them forced to participate, and how do the more marginal performers feel about their involvement?
Marga Ortigas indicates there is some consensus among the prisoners that they see this as beneficial.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Phenomenon of Commenting: Post-Feminism, "Violence Against Men," & Imagined Communities

It's fascinating how in the Obama years, every time a discussion emerges on affirmative action or other policies relevant to race, the discourse that arises revolves around our so called post-racial society (e.g., fire fighters case in New Haven). Likewise, with women now comprising a majority of most college campus student bodies (undergrads and grads), men will not hesitate to argue how disadvantaged they are whenever they get the chance.

It's not as if this hasn't been going on for centuries as minorities have gained power. However, a new way of measuring this can be seen online. I first noticed this when NPR ran this story, titled "Student: Men Need To Feel Empowered, Too." After the show's host subtly challenged males' assertions that men were the now disadvantaged group, males (at least they appear to be males) came out in waves to comment on the story, spotlighting how underprivileged they supposedly were relative to women, how they were even victims of women.

Yesterday, "Talk of the Nation" ran a story sparked by the Steve McNair homicide titled "The Violence We Ignore." It was actually based off a story run in the Blatimore Sun by Ned Holstein and Glenn Sacks. Holstein argued men were victims of violence nearly as much as women and cited a bunch of quantitative studies, most of which focus on minor forms of violence (e.g., pushing, shoving, yelling, slapping) as so-called evidence that women initiate intimate partner violence as much as men.

As Jody Miller has shown through more thorough qualitative research, these statistical studies completely decontextualize broader power imbalences between men and women (or boys and girls) that contribute immensely to women's more severe victimization.

In any case, the comments made by males following the "The Violence We Ignore" story resemble a little imagined community of guys, pinpointing their own experiences to "prove" that men as a whole are victims of a judicial system privileging women. More to the point, they argue that collectively, women are now the more effective perpetrators of violence against men because the system supports women, even those who beat up their husbands/boyfriends.

Again, in the comments discussing co-occurring violence (and women's violence against men), there is no willingness to discuss the pretextual and structural power imbalences men have over women that contribute to co-occurring violence. There is no willingness to even begin a discussion on issues, such as women being isolated from families/friends, financial control, physical intimidation, using children as leverage, etc. In fact, the male commenters occassionally try to argue women now utilize some of these strategies to become the more effective abusers, again because the system supposedly supports men being abused.

This is an absolutely textbook example of what Angela McRobbie discusses in her article, "Post-Feminism and Popular Culture." She defines post-feminism as: active process by which feminist gains of the 1970s and 80s come to be undermined. It proposes that through an array of machinations, elements of contemporary popular culture are perniciously effective in regard to undoing feminism, while simultaneously appearing to be engaging in a well-informed and even well-intentioned response to feminism. (p. 255).

The male commenters appear desperate, showcasing their individual examples as a means to advocate for male rights. In the process, they argue for equality between the sexes because they state the tables have been turned; they are now the said victims of a liberal state that privileges minorities. In their collective imagination, they cite quantitative studies lacking context so they may wallow in a shared experience of reverse discrimination.

I really loved Steve McNair as a football player; my favorite of all time. I'm saddened his death is being used inappropriately this way. Here's the much more common reality:

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Fight Sport Theatre: Today is UFC 100

[Cross-posted on]

Today, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) will hold its centennial event, UFC 100. Mixed martial arts (MMA) has become the "ultimate" in what I have termed fight sport theater--the marketing and presentation of fighting for popular consumption, and UFC 100 is truly a milestone event for the sport.

As a 36-year-old male with an athletic background, I'm within close range of their target demographic, males ages 18-34. Perhaps not surprisingly, I have been successfully seduced by the sport's athleticism, machismo, and overall theatrical presentation of violence.

Yet as a scholar, who dissects the intricacies of youth violence incessantly, I am also one of the sport's major critics. Our society glorifies violence on so many levels, frequently using violence and interpersonal domination to embolden a type of masculinity that creates societal problems daily (see here for a latest example).

Relative to the massive collective violence we see encapsulating the Middle East and Africa, or the examples of gun, family, street violence and other types of crime that occur regularly in the west, sporting violence is a blip on the radar. Truthfully, MMA is merely a small part of our culture that accepts violence in everyday life. Yet is it acceptable to justify violence by comparing it to other, more excessive forms (e.g., MMA is far less dangerous than boxing, let alone war)?

So what does it mean, that the UFC has been able to successfully push the ultimate in fight sport theater through 100 shows and mesmerize its largely male audiences for 16 years? What does it mean to have athletes like B.J. Penn who strategically demeans opponents through verbal barrages of expletives to push his fights, a reality show that trivializes bullying, or a company president who says to a female sports reporter, “…you f’n dumb bi--h”?

Or what does it mean to have incredibly diverse athletes like Lyoto Machida, Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre, from countries outside of the United States, who are UFC champions exemplifying the very traditional notions of martial arts that respect competition?

I think we’re all still trying to figure it out. For better or worse, enjoy the fights. Admittedly, I will.
Academics Blogs

Friday, July 10, 2009

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The National Football League, Gun Violence, and Hyper Masculinity

Yesterday it was reported that one of my favorite NFL players, Steve McNair, was killed, shot multiple times, including once to the head. A 20-year-old woman, Sahel Kazemi, was also killed, and like McNair, shot in the head. McNair was a three time Pro Bowl player and won the MVP award in 2003.

From ESPN: "Former MVP McNair found dead":

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Former NFL quarterback Steve McNair, who led the famous Tennessee Titans' drive that came a yard short of forcing overtime in the 2000 Super Bowl, was found dead Saturday with multiple gunshot wounds, including one to the head. Police said a pistol was discovered near the body of a woman also shot dead in a downtown condominium.

Nashville police spokesman Don Aaron identified the woman as Sahel Kazemi, whom he called a "friend" of McNair's. She had a single gunshot wound to the head.

Police said the 36-year-old McNair was found on the sofa in the living room, and Kazemi was very close to him on the floor. Aaron said the gun was not "readily apparent" when police first arrived.

Given the circumstances, it appears to be a murder-suicide enacted by Sahel Kazemi, but that is speculation at this point. Early reports touching on McNair and Kazemi's relationship state that Kazemi was arrested for drunk driving a few days ago with McNair in the car as a passenger. He was not arrested.

That McNair was married with four children will also provoke questions about his partnership with Kazemi. Given male athletes' well-documented tendency to philander with multiple women, that is an important discussion for another time after these particular details have been sorted out.

The N.F.L.'s Gun Culture

For all of McNair's athletic grit, intelligence and physical abilities that I so deeply admired, he was not without his faults off the field, which not surprisingly involved illegal gun possession. From an excellent 2003 article by Mike Freeman in the New York Times (bottom of webpage).

Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair was accused of driving while intoxicated and illegal possession of a handgun last May. McNair had a gun permit, but in Tennessee it is against the law for an intoxicated person to have a loaded weapon. Police say they found a loaded .40-caliber gun and extra ammunition in McNair's car when he was arrested.

Freeman's observation of McNair's incident was part of a larger article that not only documented other NFL players who had been in trouble for various weapons charges, but also investigated a pervasive gun culture that exists in the NFL. Freeman interviewed 19-year NFL veteran Lomas Brown who made the following comments:

"I think the vast majority of players in the N.F.L. have guns," said Brown, who retired at the end of last season. "Just about every guy I played with in the N.F.L. had a gun. Almost every player I knew had one. Guns are rampant in football. You have all these players packing guns wherever they go. It's a disaster waiting to happen."

Many people in the N.F.L. share Brown's view, according to interviews with more than 25 players, owners, team executives and agents in recent weeks. Weapons, including military-style assault rifles, can be found in players' homes and cars, and even sometimes in their lockers, the players, executives and owners said.

Due to the prevalence of N.F.L. players who carry firearms and the subsequent problems that have emerged, the league implemented an official gun policy for players.

Violence Breeds Violence

A policy, while obviously needed, will do little to challenge the underlying causes of this problem. Players claim they need guns in order to protect themselves while out socially from aggressive fans. Wrote Freeman, "The primary reason for the rise in gun ownership, many people said, is an increased concern among players that they are targets for everyone from aggressive fans to criminals and even terrorists."

However, in a violent, hyper-masculine athletic culture where physical prowess and domination is celebrated, it is far more likely that the prevalence of guns among N.F.L. players reflects their tendency to misinterpret an increase in violent potential as form of prevention. This concept is commonly adopted by youth who join gangs for protection, thinking that by joining a gang they will be protected from bullies and other gang members.

All the empirical data, however, show that violence, including victimization, increases with gang membership. Thus, it is hardly surprising that gun violence is so high among N.F.L. players, many of whom apparently carry firearms on a very regular basis while out and about in the broader community.

After Washington Redskins saftey, Sean Taylor, was fatally shot in his Miami home in November 2007, N.F.L. players expressed their fear of being targets. David Fleming's article, "Living Scared," provides some insight into N.F.L. players' reluctance to protect themselves via help from others.

…more than any other league's, the culture of the NFL—the wealth, fame, brutality and air of invincibility—makes its players vulnerable. Broncos security chief Dave Abrams, who was hired full-time shortly after Williams was shot, says the hardest part of his job is convincing players of their own mortality. To excel at such a violent sport, he explains, they must be fearless; they think of themselves as the kind of untouchable warrior who would never require the protection of a bodyguard, an alarm system or even a locked door.

But instead of taking true prevention measures that lessen violence – not putting oneself in combustible situations – players see prevention through the twisted logic of carrying firearms.

Gun Ownership in an already Hyper Masculine Context

Adding to this problem is that guns have become a behind the scenes symbol of hegemonic masculinity in the N.F.L. In a social context where the individuals are supremely gifted physically, one of the few ways to further physical stature and continue the one-upsmanship that so often exists between males is by adding lethal weaponry. More from Freeman:

Possessing a gun has also become a macho emblem, a status symbol among athletic, affluent young men, said Michael Huyghue, a former Jaguars general manager who is now an agent representing dozens of N.F.L. players. For players, Huyghue said, owning guns" is as basic to them as owning jewelry or fast cars."

"They have almost become tools of their trade," he said. "And every profession has something that the people in it identify with, just like the lawyer that must have his $600 briefcase or $1,000 cuff links. But the difference is the briefcase or cuff links won't kill you, and I have never heard of a situation where a gun saved a player."

Huyghue's final statement, above, is absolutely critical – carrying firearms does not prevent victimization. The more prevalent are guns, the more likely are lethal outcomes, especially when guns are mixed with masculine bravado, alcohol and late night partying. One of the more publicized examples of unintentional gun violence occurred when former New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself in the leg at a nightclub in November 2008.

And gun violence will also be more frequent when non-athletes feel they must up the ante, using guns in the case that they find themselves in confrontations with armed N.F.L. players. As Sports Illustrated writer, John Rolfe explains, the American culture not only provides for the right to bear arms, but celebrates gun ownership and lacks the willingness to impede illegal gun sales.

It's no small thing that, laws and rights of gun ownership aside, we as a culture view violence as a form of entertainment -- as movies, TV shows and video games attest. We don't flinch from using our knuckles to make a point and we pride ourselves on being a nation that builds bigger, better and smarter weaponry that we don't mind using when given the chance. Outlaw guns and we'll resort to knives.

The ready availability of guns makes it all the more likely that athletes -- their wealth widely known and often flaunted -- and their friends are going to pack heat for protection, and that some punk will be packing, too, when he decides to go after a slice of that wealth or simply to establish the size of his cohones during a nightclub beef.

Athletes are common targets in any sports-crazed culture such as our own, as much objects of scorn and loud condemnation from fans and media for their failures as they are the recipients of cheers and honors. After all, we have the right to make our feelings known, don't we? But as Billy Martin once said in the aftermath of yet another watering hole donnybrook, "Kooks seek me out." Lord knows, he wasn't the only sports figure to attract unwanted attention or respond to it forcefully. It's all a flammable mix.

Rather than critically rethink the "flammable mix" of variables that pervade when N.F.L. players choose to socialize in nightclubs late at night, players live under the false assumption that preventing violence means increasing one's violent capabilities.

Are N.F.L. Players Really Involved in Gun Violence That Frequently?

Ben Schrotenboer from the San Diego Union Tribune has done an excellent job of tracking N.F.L. players who have been arrested for various offenses, violent and non-violent. He notes that the one of the biggest problem areas is for drunk driving, especially among wide receivers. A fairly comprehensive list of N.F.L. players who have been arrested while active in the league can be found HERE. This work notwithstanding, Schrotenboer surmises that N.F.L. players are less criminogenic than society at large:

The NFL is better behaved than American society.

NFL: roughly one arrest per 47 players per year since 2000, including injured reserve lists, according to the database.

U.S. population: one arrest per 21 people per year (around 4,800 arrests per 100,000 inhabitants) and one arrest per 25 people age 18 and over, according to the FBI.

Schrotenboer acknowledges the limitations of his comparison – that comparing N.F.L. players to the entire U.S. population is flawed due to the major demographic differences in the comparison groups. Furthermore, it is common knowledge that professional athletes receive preferential treatment from bar/club owners, hospitals, and police after they are caught engaging in most criminal behaviors.

The more appropriate questions here would be (1) is the prevalence of gun violence – including victimization – among N.F.L. players significantly different from males in a comparable age/class/race group; and (2) building off of Michael Huyghue’s point, does carrying a firearm really prevent gun violence?

In September 2008, Jacksonville Jaguars offensive lineman, Richard Collier, was paralyzed from the waist down after being shot multiple times following a possible bar fight. Indianapolis Colts wide receiver, Marvin Harrison, was tangentially involved in a 2008 shooting in Philadelphia. Former Chicago Bears defensive lineman “Tank” Johnson dealt with multiple firearms charges just before playing in the 2007 Super Bowl.

The list of N.F.L. players muddled with gun controversy history goes on – wide receiver Chris Henry of the Cincinnati Bengals; defensive back Adam "Pacman" Jones once with the Dallas Cowboys; wide receiver Rae Carruth formerly of the Carolina Panthers; linebacker Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens (knife was the weapon involved).

Some scholars have argued athletes are not more criminogenic or prone to finding trouble than average members of society; it is simply that their cases command more media attention. In the case of gun violence, if in fact "the vast majority of players in the N.F.L. have guns," I'm not buying it.

Surprisingly, the official NFL Players Association website has a page dedicated to "Solutions to Gun Violence." Perhaps the passing of Steve McNair and Sahel Kazemi will serve as another wake up call. Prevention of gun violence means lessening the number of guns out there and changing hyper masculine patterns of behavior that lead to violent confrontations.

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