Manifesting toxic masculinity in sports

Cameron McGriff

Sophomore Cameron McGriff goes up for a put-back dunk after a missed shot from Lindy Waters III.

Take the game of football. Now take the pads off. Take the helmets off. Take the tackling out. The violence is removed and what’s left? A game that’s enjoyed because of skill, athleticism and strategy.

Now, who’s really going to watch that?

Frankly, not many people.

Experts say a lot of sports are enticing because of the consequential hits, the showings of dominance. The viral videos that show up on SportsCenter, Instagram, Facebook, entice sports fans into watching certain sports.

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 there’s a fight in hockey?

What’s the intrigue?

There’s no extra value in these plays. A big hit is worth the same as a tackle. A dunk and layup are both two points. Fighting doesn’t earn a team more points in hockey. But still, society loves all of it. 

So, 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 is a theory that came from sociologist R.W. Connell in the early 90s. This 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. That’s men being men. That’s hegemonic masculinity.”

Hegemonic masculinity doesn’t only exist in sports, it’s also in society. But in sports, it’s 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 there’s no empirical proof that’s true.

“Most of this masculinity in sports is hegemonic, it just seems natural,” Graber said. “It’s natural that we should want to go out and defeat people. Well, there’s nothing natural about that impulse. There’s nothing natural about that being any source of fulfilment 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 they’re hurt and they’re crying, it becomes like, this guy is a sissy. But if they’re crying because they’re excited, it becomes like, look how competitive they are. It’s always grounded in these norms of what’s acceptable as a man and what’s 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 they’re supposed to work and take care of the family. That they “wear the pants.”

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

Patriarchy’s a social construct, it’s 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 don’t. 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 don’t, they’re looked at as “weak” and “feeble.”

It brings up the question — who’s fueling all this?

Many will point to the media. While the media certainly has a role, Graber said the media can’t tell us what to think only what to think about. The media doesn’t 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? It’s 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 it’s hard to realize what’s 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 isn’t obvious to the eye either, Graber said it’s been rooted in people for 10,000 years.

“It’s the informal socializing of that reward system,” Graber said. “You can’t 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. There’s nothing natural about this, but we’re 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 it’s the reason for so much inequality. It’s the reason why women’s sports aren’t as popular as men’s, the reason why women get less coverage on TV.  

It’s a complex issue without a simple fix, but it starts with rewarding the good in sports. It starts with watching videos of the nice heartwarming 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 don’t 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 they’re not supposed to be. And we don’t 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, it’s 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 it’s 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 don’t realize it’s hegemonic masculinity that’s 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 they’re entitled to other people’s 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.

It’s 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 it’s authentic to you, then we start to challenge the nurture aspect of gender expectations.”