Take notice world, "real men" are human and express actual emotions, including fear.
I should start off by saying — I hate sports. Or rather, what I really loathe and despise is sports culture.
I’ve always considered it the beating heart of so much that’s dysfunctional and wrong about our society, with it’s horrifyingly entitled, blatantly misogynistic mindset. And even the very nature of hyper-competitiveness: I need you to lose and feel “defeated” to feel strong and successful myself. It's not for me.
But every negative notion I have about sports culture was temporarily dumped on it’s head when Australian surfer Mick Fanning was attacked by shark recently while competing in the J-Bay Open final in South Africa.
In case you somehow missed the staggering footage:
How this story even ended up in my newsfeed, I have no idea … but as I watched, my jaw hit the floor and my heart leapt into my throat. Yes, because of what happened to Fanning in the water, but even more so … because of how he and fellow surfers handled it afterward.
In short — they handled it, not with the typical macho “sports dude” behavior, but with honest human emotion.
Here are five things Mick Fanning (and his friends) did SO right:
1. He admitted he was scared
It’s OK for men to admit when something frightens them (though society constantly shames them into saying otherwise). A visibly shaken Fanning didn’t feign bravado when he returned to the beach, nor later when we tweeted to his fans "It was by far the scariest thing I have ever been through and am still rattled."
Friend and fellow competitor Julian Wilson, who paddled frantically toward Fanning during the attack to try to help him, also admitted his own terror, freezing completely when the incident first started, fearing that Fanning was dead when the shark pulled him under. “I felt like I couldn’t get there quick enough,” an emotional Wilson said later.
2. He showed emotion (openly and unapologetically)
When Fanning and Wilson returned to shore, both men broke down emotionally, overwhelmed by adrenaline and the horrifying realization of what could have happened (but thankfully didn’t). Fanning’s closest friends on the surfing tour quickly rallied to his side in a private room. “There was about eight grown men in there, and every single one of us was crying,” Fanning told reporters.
The idea that guys should never cry or feel moved emotionally is an unfair and cruel expectation that we impose on men. Tears aren’t weakness, they are a sign that a man has heart and is actually invested in his relationships and in his own life.
3. Competition stopped being the priority
There is a time and place for competition, but the men involved here put “winning” aside as soon as they returned to shore, realizing the title no longer mattered compared to what Fanning just experienced.
When a reporter reminded Wilson that the two men were currently locked in a world title battle and asked if that meant anything to him, Wilson instantly replied, “No, not at all. I’m just happy he’s alive.” As for Fanning, he made no bones about saying “I’m happy to not even ever compete again. Like, seriously. To walk away from that, I’m just so stoked.”
4. He put friends and family first
Everyone needs someone to lean on in moments of trouble, fear, or crisis. Men are no different. The stiff upper lip, “soldier through” in silence, “handle your feelings privately” pressure we place on men is bullshit. When he returned to shore, the first thing Fanning did was embrace his friends, who raced to his side. Once he saw footage of the attack, his thoughts then turned to loved ones not present. "At that moment, I realized there was going to be some serious concern from my family and friends around the world, so I asked if I could do an interview [on television] so they could hear it from me that I was OK," he told reporters. He then boarded a flight home to Australia the next day to see his worried mother.
Before departing, Fanning spent the evening surrounded by close friends, having a few drinks, trying to process the remaining emotional adrenaline from the traumatic day together. "There was a lot of love and relief, but it was so strange though … it felt like I was at my own wake to be honest. I got some sleep but it was a pretty restless night," Fanning said.
5. He's taking the time he needs to recover
Time and time again, society tells men to “man up” when they’re hurt or struggling. Shake it off. Toughen up. Pretend you’re fine. (In fact, suicide rates among men are four times higher than that of women.) Fanning has been clear, he needs some time to regroup and he’s taking it. "I just can't believe I've come through this completely unscathed physically. Mentally I'm a bloody mess, but I'll come good in time," he said.
The dude was almost eaten by a shark. Pretty sure that qualifies Fanning for a little time off to regather himself. And thankfully his fellow surfers, family and friends are showing confidence in him but also support for his need to take time off to decompress. “It will probably take — I don’t know — a couple of weeks, months,” Fanning said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take. But I’m just lucky I’ve got really good people around me and great friends to just pick me up.”
As amazing as this story is, it isn’t without its measure of male bravado.
Just moments after he was pulled to safety on the rescue boat, a male reporter immediately started asking Fanning stupid “dude questions” like ““You see teeth? Did you get some teeth?” and “Did you get a couple punches in?” as if Fanning just emerged from a drunken frat boy bar brawl instead of punching and kicking a shark off, fighting for his life.
Likewise, memes instantly flooded social media after the attack portraying Fanning as a total shark battling badass. One in particular says “Chuck Norris? Never heard of her.” Because of course the default “bro move” is to try to lift one man up by tearing another man down by calling him a girl. (Le sigh). This conveniently leaves the equally badass Bethany Hamilton out of the equation, a female surfer who at age 13 lost her entire arm in a shark attack, yet returned to the water again and rose to global fame as a surfing champion and inspiring role model.
And that’s my whole point — Being tough isn’t a man thing. Being emotionally open isn’t a woman thing.
Being both at the same time is part of being a healthy, happy human being.
We have a long way to go in the world of sports (and the world in general) reducing the influence of toxic masculinity, but Fanning and his fellow surfers made a glowing show of how “real men” handle real emotions in real life.
They showed the world that men can be brave and scared, that men can be courageous and cry, and most importantly … that men can care deeply about each other and show vulnerability without it compromising their strength or hero status.
So hell yes ... I am so incredibly glad Mick Fanning is OK! His narrow escape from that deadly encounter is something sports fans will talk about for decades.
But personally — I think how he and his fellow surfers handled the situation emotionally is even more admirable and unforgettable.