Joe Ehrmann will always be bound to Buffalo. The city is in his voice, in the rhythm of his life. “I stay very connected,” he said.
Ehrmann lives in Baltimore, but he visited Western New York twice in the past month. He quietly comes and goes all the time, he said. The women who helped shape his life during his Riverside childhood are still here: His mother Peg, in her 90s, is in the area, as are two of his sisters and a niece who has twin little girls.
He admires Buffalo as a city where “what you love and what you see is what you get,” where people expect you to say what you think. He left town almost 50 years ago, en route to becoming a star at Syracuse University and in the National Football League. With the old Baltimore Colts, he was a defensive lineman with a volatile temper and a wild lifestyle. That ended when his younger brother, Billy, died of cancer.
Ehrmann, devastated, knew he had to change his life. He’d eventually dedicate himself to working with young men. He speaks of a nation with an “empathy deficit disorder,” a nation where too many men are self-obsessed, raised to believe in winning at all costs.
You see it all too often with sports and scholastic coaches, he said, where countless “role models” lose perspective about what really matters.
You see it in business and government, he said, where prominent figures often “fall hard” because they only know how to win, because “they’ve developed no moral character.”
And you see it in what Ehrmann, 67, calls a “rape culture,” a nation where several acts of sexual violence against women will occur in the time it takes to read this column, a nation where too many men see relationships as a matter of possession and conquest, rather than love and equality.
In that sense, Ehrmann is not shocked by the words of Donald Trump. To Ehrmann, the Republican candidate for president keeps providing the nation with one long “teachable moment.”
Trump’s most searing comments, caught in a recording made in 2005, have ignited a firestorm about the way many men speak of women in private. “When you’re a star,” Trump says on the tape, during a conversation with television host Billy Bush, a man “can do anything.” Trump is heard claiming he could aggressively kiss women, without permission, or that he could even “grab them” by their vaginas.
Asked afterward to explain those comments, Trump said they were typical of men in private settings. In the second debate, he claimed the accounts of several women who allege he actually behaved that way were untrue. He has described the conversation as “locker room talk.”
In that sense, in that one thought, Ehrmann would agree with Trump.
“Not every man, not every locker room,” Ehrmann said. “But I think it is very indicative of American culture.”
Look, Ehrmann said: Most men, if they’re being honest, have been in situations where they’re heard other men say crude things that “objectify” women, even if the words don’t go quite as far as Trump’s. It is too often the same way with racist jokes or statements, Ehrmann said.
There is that wink-and-nudge idea that we’re all guys here, we’re away from being politically correct, we can say cruel things to harsh laughter, without fear of reproach or consequence ….
Which is corrosive thinking, Ehrmann said. Those moments are when the 12-year-olds listening quietly from the side of the room identify what they believe is the true framework for being a man, when the “adolescent inquisitiveness that has nothing to do with sex” gets shaped into something lasting and damaging.
Technology, Ehrmann said, means that children “are learning life at warp speed.” When he was a kid, pornography was something you had to seek out, a crumpled magazine you smuggled into the woods. Now it is available, in raw and often violent form, with the click of a button on a keyboard.
"Kids don't need to find it," Ehrmann said. "It finds them."
Music, movies and advertisements often portray women as sexual objects, as ornaments for powerful men. The most important refuge for boys seeking the meaning of a true relationship is the example offered by the men they respect.
That demands quiet courage, Ehrmann said, beyond anything he displayed on a football field:
“The real problem,” he said, “is the lack of another man in the room who will quiet that stuff.”
In a way, his career after football has been serving in that role. He became a successful high school coach, with a vision of "raising up men" who were grounded in love and understanding, rather than power. A few years ago, amid the uproar after running back Ray Rice was filmed punching his then-fiancée, the National Football League turned to Ehrmann for counsel and advice.
One result was the “InsideOut Initiative:” Ehrmann and Jody Redman are co-founders of the effort. They travel the country with the support of the NFL, talking to educators. The goal is reclaiming the uplifting and life-shaping role of sports in education.
Sports play an outsize role in a turbulent culture, Ehrmann said. A child who shuts down in a classroom might be far more open to learning on an athletic field. That provides an opportunity to “model empathy and learn empathy.” So he asks a question, at every gathering, that's at the heart of his work:
Think back on the men who coached you. How many truly changed your life and were transformational? How many taught real lessons about compassion, about the way you treat others, about perspective on what it means to win or lose? How many were educators – and how many were guys who made a kid feel lessened or diminished, coaches who were lost in themselves, in the obsessive pursuit of victory at all costs?
All too often, Ehrmann said, the first kind of coach is the rarity.
In that sense, Ehrmann perceives Donald Trump as a familiar type of American man, one who sees self-worth and validation only in winning, in conquest – whether the venue is business, politics ….
Or relationships with women.
Ehrmann knows his statements will stir up political anger, that Trump supporters will say former President Bill Clinton also showed scant respect toward women. The response, to Ehrmann, seems obvious. If both examples shine a spotlight on something that’s gone wrong, the answer isn’t hateful language or tearing someone else apart.
The answer lies in acknowledging a truth: “Every statistic bears out the prevalence of physical violence and rape,” Ehrmann said, acts most often carried out by men who live in the same house as their victims, acts that grow from attitudes of contempt and dominance. “Women suffer in this country," he said, "and it won’t change until we raise up a generation of men who show respect and treat women as their allies.”
Transforming that climate demands the most difficult kind of courage, the guts to turn to someone you’ve known for much of your life and to tell them:
What you’re saying is poison. It has to stop.
Those are blunt words, but Ehrmann's personality was forged in Buffalo.
What you love, what you see, is exactly what you get.
Story topics: By Sean Kirst