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“Alpha Males” in the NFL: Measurable Trait or Misused Cliché?

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“Alpha male” is a ubiquitous term attributed to a variety of players. You ever thought to yourself, “How many Alpha males can there really be?”

San Francisco 49ers v Miami Dolphins Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

Let me start off with the most important nugget of this whole piece: “Alpha male” means different things according to your species. Alpha males, and alpha females for that matter, are seen all across Mother Nature. What’s implicit in the whole Alpha male/female concept is hierarchy. Wolves have a rigid hierarchy, with nuanced layers of importance. Male lions who overthrow the Alpha male often murder the Alpha’s cubs, despite attempts of lionesses actively defending the cubs. Each species has its own brutality in how changes of the guard unfold.

One thing is for sure: once you lose the Alpha title, you do not get it back. Most of the time, you’re either dead or banished. That’s key here. I’m gonna say something that’s going to piss you off, but let me finish. I will redeem myself.

If we’re defining “Alpha male” as the NFL player with the most success, then you have to consider Tom Brady. (Wait for it.) And yet, this Alpha female’s team lost to a back-up QB’s team in the Super Bowl. Man, that felt great to type. I’m going to type it again. And yet, this Alpha female’s team lost to a back-up QB’s team in the Super Bowl.

In any particular group occupying a shared territory, there’s only one Alpha male and/or female. Why is this important? There’s a lot of players in the NFL, so how precisely can we even use this term in a league based on parity? They’re all competing for one trophy. And have you seen “Alpha males” interact with each other, even from different teams? They usually like each other! They’ll beat the piss out of each other for 3 hours, but then they’ll meet at the 50 yard line and share anecdotes, exchange jerseys, chit-chat, give each other snazzy handshakes and warm embraces, and for the most part, demonstrate respect for the other person’s craft. That’s not what Alpha males do in nature.

I’m not so sure that there are Alpha males and females in the human species, for the very reason that humans don’t necessarily define success in reproductive terms, and we’re just too nuanced from a social standpoint. Success can be interpreted financially, professionally, socially, even existentially. A CEO of a company can be the butt of jokes in his fantasy football league or around his high school friends; the guy serving your Publix subs might be one of the best jiu jitsu fighters in the area.

But let’s look at it from the perspective that when we’re using the term “Alpha male”, we don’t mean it in the biological sense. The sheer fact that the term is used on so many different players proves that there is no Alpha male in the NFL: it doesn’t carry the connotation represented in the animal kingdom. Again, there’s only 1 Alpha. Let’s think of “Alpha male” in its descriptive sense.

Approaching the “Alpha male” phenomenon from a semantic standpoint, what does it mean? That you’re passionate? Lead by example? Vocal? Get paid? Fast? Motivational? Strong? Fierce competitor? Make highlight reel plays? Influential? A part of you is probably thinking to yourself, “all of these descriptors could be true, depending on who you’re talking about.” Well, “Alpha male” is falling short in its descriptive value then - it’s too ambiguous. You can get paid without being vocal; you can be passionate and rarely appear on the highlights; you can be fast as a cheetah and prefer following.

In my opinion, using the term “Alpha male” is lazy. Do you mean that the player tackles hard? Do you mean they talk the best smack? Do they demand respect in the huddle? Are they the smartest student during tape study? Are they breaking NFL records or in the Hall of Fame? It’s kinda like saying, “Ohhhh Milennials. Am I right?” What the hell does that mean?!?! We can be more precise with our language. For Pete’s sake, if we have a word like “tomfoolery” in our language, can we not appreciate that there are plenty of words to use to describe how a player is successful in the NFL?

Parity encourages talent to be spread throughout the league, and as such, the league is not built on an Alpha male paradigm, but rather a free-for-all.

I get it. It’s easy to use the term “Alpha male” because NFL football players are some of the biggest, strongest, fastest, most elite athletes on the planet. It’s easy to start slanging around Alpha male because it feels like a more animal side of our nature, football being one of the last gladiator sports. Roughly half the Earth’s population are descendants of Antonio Cromartie and Philip Rivers, so they got the reproductive success aspect. Football players date models and make it rain at clubs; we see them on our streaming devices, and on billboards on the way to work. I understand that it’s alluring to lob the “Alpha male” label on the comings and goings of the NFL landscape.

It’s just not adding anything to the conversation.