Manifesting Toxic Masculinity in Our Sports

Some experts say that sports are enticing because of violence and showings of dominance. The viral videos of hard hits that show up on SportsCenter, Instagram, Facebook, entice sports fans into watching certain sports.

Take the game of football. Now take away the pads, take the helmets off, and take out the tackling. The violence would be removed, and what would be left? A game thats enjoyed because of skill, athleticism and strategy.

Now, whos really going to watch that? Many believe the answer to that question is: not many people.

Think about it. Why do football fans ooh and aah when a player gets pounded so hard that his body goes flying? Why is that posterizing someone in basketball thought of as better than a simple layup? Why does the crowd go wild when theres a fight in hockey?

Whats the intrigue?

Theres no extra value in these plays. A big hit is worth the same as a tackle. A dunk and layup are both worth two points. Fighting doesnt earn a team more points in hockey. But society loves all of it.

Where does this come from?

Oklahoma State professor, Dr. Shane Graber, is an expert on the subject matter. His research is on the effects of race, gender, class and sexuality in mainstream news. Graber said this behavior derives from hegemonic masculinity.

This theory came from sociologist R.W. Connell in the early 90s and refers to the proposed practices that promote the dominant social position of men, and the subordinate social position of women. The concept explains why men desire dominant social roles over women.

Hegemonic masculinity is that masculinity that just kind of goes assumed as natural, Graber said. Like when you say, Men will be men, they are going to go bars and get drunk. What happens next? They get into a bar fight. Thats Men being men. Thats hegemonic masculinity.

Hegemonic masculinity doesnt only exist in sports; its also in society.

But in sports, its what drives people to think a certain way, to be attracted to certain things. Society is led to believe these assertions of dominance are better, but Graber said theres no empirical proof thats true.

Most of this masculinity in sports is hegemonic, it just seems natural, Graber said. Its natural that we should want to go out and defeat people. Well, theres nothing natural about that impulse. Theres nothing natural about that being any source of fulfillment or satisfaction. Why do we want to defeat? Why do we want to beat?

Pitzer College professor Dr. Dan Hirsch is also an expert on the topic. Hirsch said sports provide a lot of these social norms masculinity is considered to be:

You look at some of the men who if they cry in sports, for example, it becomes a big story, Hirsch said. If theyre hurt and theyre crying, it becomes like, This guy is a sissy. But if theyre crying because theyre excited, it becomes like Look how competitive they are. Its always grounded in these norms of whats acceptable as a man and whats not.

So, where does this all come from? Why is society conditioned to think like this?

I think it stems from decades and centuries of patriarchy, Hirsch said. It comes from the men in the family need to be the breadwinners and the providers and those kinds of things, that kind of mentality.

Patriarchy boils down to the idea that men are expected to be at the head of the table. That theyre supposed to work and take care of the family. That they wear the pants.

Hirsch said patriarchy continues to fuel mens desire to be aggressive and violent in sports. And that its the reason the egregious hits continue to pile up on a weekly basis.

Patriarchy is a social construct; its not natural. But Graber said it sticks around because it continues to be rewarded. Players are lauded when they play through injury and despised when they dont.

Think about the harsh criticism Andrew Luck took when he retired as quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts. Luck suffered a myriad of injuries including a gruesome shoulder injury that took years to recover, a lacerated kidney that left him urinating blood and a mysterious calf injury that had no timetable to return. And he fought through a lot of it, but the mental strain finally got to him.

After years of fighting to play through horrifying health conditions, Luck decided to hang up his cleats at 29. But because he was such a talented player who had the chance to work himself toward being an all-time great, it was considered a betrayal to NFL fans.

Athletes are praised when they play through injuries, but if they dont, theyre looked at as weak and feeble.

This all raises the question whos fueling all this?

Many will point to the media. While the media certainly has a role, Graber said the media cant tell us what to think only what to think about. The media doesnt help hegemonic masculinity prevail, but rather it reinforces the boundaries.

Hirsch brings up an example of basketball in the late 1980s with the Detroit Bad Boys a team that was popular because of its aggressive, violent style.

I think those two are informing each other, Hirsch said. Did it become violent because it was popular or was the violence of it making it popular? Its hard to know which one is fueling the other. They are related and mutually supporting each other.

Experts say this behavior is rooted so deep in society that its hard to realize whats happening.

Graber said any healthy-minded person would choose to talk and compromise over physically battering someone for the sake of a sport, but the moment the whistle is blown, that logic goes out the window.

This isnt obvious to the eye either, Graber said its been rooted in people for 10,000 years.

Its the informal socializing of that reward system, Graber said. You cant just be directed to be violent and aggressive and told you will be rewarded for that. You have to be socialized. You have to see that played out in a very natural type of environment. An environment that feels organic. Theres nothing natural about this, but were socialized to think that these ideas of sport can be aggressive and violent.

Hegemonic masculinity is something society has grown used to, but experts say its also the reason for so much inequality. Its the reason why womens sports arent as popular as mens, the reason why women get less coverage on TV.

Its a complex issue without a simple fix, but it starts with rewarding the good in sports. It starts with watching videos of the nice heart-warming moments of when a player spends time with disabled kids, not when a player hits another so hard that his helmet gets knocked off. It starts with changing the way kids are taught to approach life.

Right now, we dont teach boys to be men, we teach boys not to be girls, Hirsch said. So they spend their formative lives, their lives early on, being taught what theyre not supposed to be. And we dont have a good way of communicating boys like, This is what a man is.

Hirsch said the concept of manliness is not natural. Besides physical features, its all been nurtured into what society considers a man to be today. But that can be changed.

The first part is, undoing this narrative of, Being a man is not being a woman, Hirsch said. Once you can undo that, then we can explore what it means to be a man. That can be different for everybody.

Hirsh said these messages of hegemonic masculinity that are being filtered through society that push violence to be so popular. And its not a good thing.

J.J. Watt, a defensive lineman for the Houston Texans, was once touted by some as the best player in the NFL, a potential all-time great, but with the injuries he sustained, people have almost forgotten about him. Ryan Shazier, a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, made a routine tackle that almost paralyzed him for life. Junior Seau, an NFL player from 1990-2009, committed suicide because the awful effects of CTE took too much of a toll on him.

The blowback from these injuries is incomprehensible. Is this what people want? Is it not better to see these players healthy and competing on the field?

But even going beyond that, people scorn at athletes who get caught up in domestic violence incidents, but they dont realize its hegemonic masculinity thats fueling that behavior.

Ray Rice and Kareem Hunt were taught growing up, explicitly and implicitly, that their bodies were so strong that they could do whatever they want, Hirsch said. That theyre entitled to other peoples bodies because of who they are and what their roles are.

Is that what sports is supposed to represent?

Most people would rather it be something more powerful that can be used to establish a positive culture. Society would need to unite and begin to think in a different way for that to happen.

Its obviously a long path that will take much work, but Hirsch said it starts with the youth. Eliminating the violence, the injuries, the hegemonic masculinity, starts with changing the way children are raised to think of gender roles.

What if it were socially acceptable for little boys to play with dolls, and what if girls could really like fire trucks? Hirsch said. At their sort of level, early, early on, teaching them that gender does not need to be these dichotomous structures we create for you, it can be whatever you want it to be as long as its authentic to you, then we start to challenge the nurture aspect of gender expectations.

Photo Credit: John McStravick/Flickr Creative Commons

This post was originally published on OColly Media Groups website, here.

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