As a former professional athlete, I understand team code as well as anyone. In fact, I understand why it is a necessary part of the landscape. When you are at the highest level, you also endure the highest level of scrutiny, invasion of privacy and accountability. And you seek refuge by creating an environment which contains people with a common understanding about how to navigate such a world. An environment also known as the locker room.
Over time, your teammates became brothers, coaches became father figures, managers became sage godfathers, all representing different generations of what makes up the family. And you are very cautious about what you publicly say about a family member.
This isn’t an environment that you understand on day one of a professional career. You learn it earlier, and there is no better place than college to plant the seed of that family tree.
Like most college athletes, I was finding myself in those critical years, slowly building trust in others in tandem with gaining confidence in myself. My biggest challenge often revolved around being the only everyday black player on an Ivy League college baseball team. I spent time dispelling the idea that I only got into the school because of my athletic skill when out of uniform. And while in uniform, I was fighting the idea that all of my athletic ability was biologically given to me. Everyone was soul-searching between fraternities and majors while working on how to fit into the culture, how to turn at the right time towards the sun, how to perform and keep everyone in the family shade. Since we had an excellent team for the first two years, we were doing a lot of things right on the field. We were, baseball-wise, successful.
We attributed a lot of that success to our culture. How we protected each other, managed our roles, how tactical decisions were executed, even when we were to talk. We had captains who led the discussions, we had a tag team of coaches who ultimately would work together for 30-plus years. With this kind of intimacy, you would think you would know just about everything there is to know about each other. But not really.
Whether it is more of a macho construct or just a team construct is worth exploring, but either way, there are questions not to ask. You don’t ask how someone’s father made his fortune, you don’t ask why an aunt of one of your teammates is smitten by barely 20-year-old college athletes, you don’t ask why a player could practice with a Confederate flag draped around his waist. These details can be conduct unbecoming of a team player.
You can know too much in a locker room. Or focus on the wrong information. I couldn’t tell you where any of my managers spent their time after the game was over and I saw these men more than I saw my own family. We spent an inordinate amount of time together in the locker room, on the field or on a plane for most of a day. At first glance that was considered the ultimate in intimacy, but in reality, it was just close proximity.
And close proximity can create a survival mode of another kind. One that can work seamlessly on the field, can execute fly patterns and call curveballs, but you are most likely not the emergency contact on your teammate’s medical records. When it came to personal questions, I knew only the answers that people offered to give without prodding. The rest was empirical evidence, manifestations while in-game, revelations from bumping into someone at a campus party. Good data, but incomplete data. Then, once you do know intimate details, they are not to be shared. If you’re playing for an iconic, highly-visible institution like Penn State, you have even more silence.
But the silence isn’t just directed towards the media or away from ethical obligation. It’s endemic to the inter-personal relationships on any given team. It can be explained in how I could have a teammate for years and couldn’t tell you if he had a sister. However, I could tell you how well he blocks. Yes it is a code, but it’s often steeped in a lack of true intimacy. And in reality, this kind of silence proves to be much more deadly than any other kind.