Kevin Durant didn’t even make it through his opening remarks before his voice caught in the back of his throat. He lost his composure right away, and the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar was never quite able to regain it over the course of his press conference after winning the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award. Tears continually rolling down his cheeks, Durant spent the next 25 minutes deflecting credit to others, taking time to thank each and every teammate, coach and family member by name for the unique role they played in his individual success. He didn’t so much praise his mother as offer her up as a candidate for canonization.
“I love you,” he repeatedly yet sincerely intoned to person after person. “Thank you. I love you.”
It was a stunning sight. Not only because of the obvious significance of the event for Durant, but because of how eagerly and emotionally he endeavored to bring seemingly everyone else in his life into the spotlight with him. In so doing, he revealed the most vulnerable side of himself—a side which American society teaches young men, let alone those tasked with very public sports stardom, that they should never show.
“Big boys don’t cry” is not said quite as often today as it was a generation or so ago, and to the extent that it is uttered in modern parlance, it is more often than not by parents who just want their kid to stop having a meltdown in the cereal aisle so they can finish shopping in peace. It seems like a reasonable request, and a reasonable enough way to phrase it. Be as grown-up as you can be, please, and at least take it easy until we get back in the car.
And yet it’s also more than that. The evidence suggests that what is pragmatic parenting in the moment tends to extend beyond childhood, to the days in which we no longer lose it when we don’t get that box of Lucky Charms. It follows us to school, into our workplaces, and into adulthood. “Big boys don’t cry” becomes “real men don’t cry,” and thus becomes something more complicated entirely.
A 2010 survey conducted by Ipsos found that only 28 percent of American males felt “real men” were unafraid to show their emotions in public. On the flip-side, a full 72 percent said that a man was unable to respectfully maintain his masculinity if he cried in front of others for any reason other than the tragic death of a loved one, or if he cried at all.
This is, it should be noted, a relatively recent development in human history. In ancient Greek culture, as former CBS anchor and noted public tear-shedder Dan Rather told the New York Times, it was considered acceptable, even desirable, for men to cry. “It was very common for men to show their emotions,” Rather noted. “It was considered even part of the heroic character and personality.”
That all started to change around the close of the 19th Century. With the industrial revolution completed and its values firmly ensconced in the broader culture, efficiency became prized above all—and emotion was identified as a barrier to that goal. In the words of University of California-Riverside professor Tom Lutz, factory workers, who were primarily male, were “discouraged from indulging in emotion lest it interfere with their productivity.” It wasn’t so much that open displays of emotion were inherently un-manly, or otherwise bad. It was that they were distracting, or poor for morale, or unhelpful. The rest sort of filled itself in.
And here we are today. Male crying is stigmatized in virtually every aspect of our culture. Any display of emotion generates, if not outright hostility, a heaping helping of side-eye and a few hearty guffaws at your expense.
No man is safe. John Boehner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the man third in line to become leader of the free world should tragedy strike, is regularly mocked for his propensity to become overwhelmed with emotion. The ever-tasteful New York Daily News nicknamed him the “Weeper of the House.”
The scorn isn’t limited to those in high places, although the media coverage might be. Any man who has experienced emotions in public knows how fraught this sort of thing is, regardless of context. This sort of thing is complicated, but also it is simple, and harsh.
And that, perhaps, is why Kevin Durant’s emotional and, yes, weepy MVP acceptance speech is so important. As skeptical of male emotion as society at large may be, our sporting culture may be even more unwelcoming. We expect our athletes to be “real men” in the most unreal ways—fierce competitors who, like the factory workers before them, subvert their emotions in the service of doing their job, and so abdicate the most basic aspects of humanity.
For all the unfair ways that athletes are judged—for their tattoos and opinions and ways of speaking and other human foibles—none stands out more than this. Because they have seemingly superhuman talents, fans expect them to be something more, something other than human. It’s not just that this isn’t fair, although it isn’t. It’s also deeply dumb, and incredibly limiting.
More than 100 years of passive reinforcement has taught us that our heroes don’t cry, that doing so is a sign of weakness, that sensitivity and athletic excellence can’t coexist.
This isn’t just a problem in the supremely fraught, testosterone-worshipping world of the NFL. For proof, look no further than the reaction to Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra’s revelation that some members of his team shed tears in the locker room after a close loss in March of 2011. The denunciation of the then-reviled LeBron James and his “soft” Heat teammates was swift and fierce. Everyone wanted to pile on. #HotSportsTakes abounded.
If you were a kid watching all that unfold under basketball’s biggest spotlight, it would be enough to make you swear a blood oath right then and there to never even think about crying again. The message, through one tossed-off take after another, had been reinforced: “Big Boys Don’t Cry.”
Fast-forward three years to Durant, the league’s universally beloved superstar, sniffling and sobbing his way through a touching 25-minute acceptance speech that doubled as a tribute to everyone that had helped him up onto that podium—emoting in a way that no athlete in recent memory had done on quite such a public stage. Sure, there may have been a tear or two shed by a role player in the wild scrum of a championship celebration. And yes, Derrick Rose briefly got choked up when talking about his mother in his own MVP speech a few years back. But none of those displays was quite as prolonged or nearly as vulnerable as the one put forth by Durant on Tuesday.
He wept when discussing the encouraging late night texts he receives from Kendrick Perkins. His voice broke when describing the ever-present smile of rookie Andre Roberson. He just about broke down completely when thanking his mother for her selfless sacrifices.
“We weren’t supposed to be here,” he said through heavy sobs. “You made us believe. You kept us off the street, put clothes on our backs, food on the table. When you didn’t eat, you made sure we ate. You went to sleep hungry. You sacrificed for us. You’re the real MVP.”
This sort of dedicated mammismo is the sort of emotion that passes muster with even the hardest of bros. But what made it meaningful was the context of the moment—a moment of pure love, boundless gratitude and raw emotion from a world-famous basketball superstar to everyone who helped him achieve his lifelong dream. The significance of the moment, for those who are not members of the Durant family or teammates past and present, lies in that.
Durant, in his MVP moment, is undeniable. And yet, in the moment of his great triumph, and in contrast to every expectation of emotionless “manliness” we as a culture have heaped upon him, he was comfortable enough to stand in front of millions and weep as he paid his respects to those who helped him along the way. And because of who he is and what he has done and how he has done it, he wasn’t ridiculed or mocked or discounted for it. He was celebrated. He was lifted up. He was idolized. Context, again. But also maybe a step into the light, overall.
Not every man who cries deserves to be idolized. That’s not the point. Kevin Durant is a hero because he’s a brilliant basketball player on the court and an admirable human being off it. That’s more than enough.
But by being willing to show his emotions so freely in such a big moment, he also proved that even the biggest of boys can cry when the moment is right, and that it’s not weak for a “real man” to feel things in a real way. It’s a sign that manliness and athletic excellence aren’t incompatible with emotional vulnerability. Because in that moment, on that stage and in his greatest glory, no one was more vulnerable than the guy crying his eyes out. No one was more of a man than Kevin Durant, triumphant and teary-eyed at once.