If you’ve read my blog, you’ve probably noticed a not-so-subtle feminist tone. As an athlete, I am constantly aware of the trials of being a woman in a male-dominated field and haven’t hesitated to comment on the effects of such a position. However, my studies in American athletic culture have led me to also question what difficulties may come with being a man in a male dominated field. This week, I sought out scholarly writing on the issue of masculinity in sport and how it may negatively affect our society.
In particular, I focused on Bruce Kidd’s article for the Journal of Sport and Society, Sports and Masculinity. Kidd makes the claim that our system of athletics (in which sport is perceived as an all-male, battle-like entity) damages the male ability to access emotional functionality. Essentially, he states that sport, or how we perceive it now, separates men from women, and works to dehumanize the image of a man.
Indeed, men’s issues are an often overlooked topic in the realm of athletics. “Ideology is like B.O,” Kidd begins his article, “You never smell your own.” He argues that our perception of sport is skewed in itself, that our depiction of athletics as connected to Grecian roots of glory and community are false.
It is true, the Grecian Olympic Games were centered around not community, peace or character building, but rather glory and defeat, brute competition and a division between the fame of winners and the shame of losers. Games were held in preparation for war, and champions chased triumph and little appreciation was given to the essence of competition, but rather it’s bloody, beaten result. There were no teams, champions would never share celebrity with another person, and no shaking of hands after events. There was a winner, no second, no third.
In contrast, today’s understanding of sports, as designed by Pierre de Coubertin’s revival of the Games, has undertones of community, peace and fraternity. It promotes the Olympic movement as one that encourages participation, education and mutual benefit of sport to all. However, Kidd argues, those intents were stated only to appropriate and “recast the symbols of the ancient games for his own purpose, which was to combat the decadence and militarism of fin-de-siecle Europe…instilling physical and mental toughness, obedience to authority and loyalty to the ‘team.'” Such a design promoted the preservation of patriarchal structure, because, at the time, physical and mental toughness, obedience to authority and loyalty were all terms mutually exclusive with anything female.
Such a construction of sport to preserve patriarchy creates a system in which men actively delineate themselves from women, “by encouraging us to spend our most creative and engrossing moments as children and our favorite forms of recreation as adults in the company of other males, [sports] condition us to trust each other more than women.” Such trust, argues Kidd, fuels a type of fear in the face of females participating in sport: “they [fear] the profound social and psychological changes that might result if women were understood to be fully competent in the special domain of men.”
Is that true? Do men push women out of sport for fear that they will be conquered by what they’ve been conditioned to believe is a weaker entity? I believe that certainly was true in the past, and is still true in several instances (particularly with older sportsmen), but I do sense a change in social climate with respect to men’s fear of female success in athletics. Take long distance running, for example, where women regularly win races and are supported and celebrated equally with their male competitors. Another example is Sam Gordon, the 9 year-old little league player who played as well (or better) than the boys around her and in so doing earned national fame:
Perhaps, though, these are the exceptions that prove the rule.
One part of athletics that Kidd harps on was how they affect the male psyche. Boys are encouraged to join athletics at young ages and taught that sports will help them earn their manhood. They will make them strong, attractive, and tough. They learn a “no pain no gain” mentality in which they objectify their bodies as “instruments and submit to physical and psychological injury and [inflict] it on others.” Sport is constructed as a violent ground in which a player looks to ‘pummel,’ ‘destroy,’ or ‘annihilate’ another. It “encourages athletes to treat each other as enemies to be intimidated and brutalized, when in reality they are co-players without whom the rewards of playing cannot be obtained.” Sportsmen are conditioned to abandon emotion in pursuit of glory, an attitude that pervades and pressures all aspects of their lives beyond the field.
Athletics are supposed to bring us together, but instead, they encourage us to stay apart. As Kidd says, “the contradictions of modern sports can sometimes undermine the very privilege they enshrine.” In order to correct this trend, he suggests a revision of our use of language in addition to the elimination of even jestful sexism in the locker room. Words such as “jock,” “tomboy,” “suck,” and “sissy,” should be removed from our vocabulary. Teams should not ‘rape’ other teams. The competition should end at the whistle.
More importantly, we should view athletics not as battles or but art forms. Kidd writes, “I suggest we consider sports to be glorious improvizations, dialectal play or collective theatre where athletes are part antagonist, part partner.” We don’t have to be soldiers, we can be artists.
Each of the topics discussed here deserve a blog in themselves. I have only brushed upon the topic of detrimental masculinity in sport, and intend to continue my analysis over the next couple of weeks. I intend to address topics like fraternity, language, media and sexuality. In that time, please help me by participating in the conversation. What topics do you find most interesting, controversial or misunderstood in men’s issues? In what ways is masculinity in American Sports culture damaging, and in what ways could it be positive? Comment below, or, if it suits you, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you.
I had to close with this tidbit: