Why this matters
A similar news cycle has played out throughout the recent history of sport, with men drawing a throughline from traditional and often brutal ideals of manhood to excellence in competition. And although these patterns are more scrutinized than they used to be, our major sporting institutions appear largely unready for change.
When former University of Indiana men’s basketball player Neil Reed told a national news network in March 2000 that coach Bobby Knight had choked him during a 1997 practice – a claim subsequently supported by video evidence that led to Knight being placed on zero-tolerance notice by the school’s president and ultimately fired after a student said the coach had grabbed his arm – Hoosiers player A.J. Guyton publicly defended Knight.
Referring to a coach with a long history of volatile and violent behavior, Guyton credited Knight with helping him become an All-American, saying, “Without this system, without Coach Knight challenging me, that would not have been possible. I say that because at Indiana you know you're going to be challenged. I don’t think Neil Reed understood that.”
At Indiana, Guyton said, “you’re going to be challenged by a coach that pushes you to the limit. It’s all a process of a boy becoming a man.”
Explicitly linking Knight’s actions with the process of young men growing up, Guyton reflected a common belief that conflict, aggression, and toughness are core to both manhood and success on the court. That Guyton, who was subject to Knight’s tactics, would support them anyway provides a clear example of how masculinity has permeated American sport over time – from coach to player, on down the line. It also helps define what American masculinity is – dominating, aggressive, and emotionally guarded – and how sport reaffirms it.
In nearly every big-time American sporting institution, standard-bearers like Guyton proudly extol the brutality that is baked into the country’s vision of manhood. And, as with many American institutions, the privileged within sport also keep out those who do not fit that traditional masculine mold, whether because they come from somewhere else or identify as something other than a man who is straight.
“The nation needs to embrace men and heterosexuality and Christianness in the clearest version of (America), which is through sport,” says sport sociologist Stan Thangaraj, an assistant professor at The City College of New York.
While sport’s masculine ideals borrow from society’s, what happens in athletics also informs how we define manhood more broadly as a country. Increasingly, however, that conception of masculinity is being scrutinized and challenged — as is the role of sport in perpetuating it.
The Status Quo of the Gridiron
College basketball isn’t the only place we can see a system by which sport serves as a gatekeeping force in the United States, with masculinity as the secret code for entry. Indeed, athletes in this country learn the code from a young age, with boys the constant targets and the National Football League most often the teacher.
Sixty percent of respondents described themselves as either an “avid” or “casual” fan of the NFL last fall in a Morning Consult poll, and nearly 2 million American kids reported playing either tackle or flag football as of 2019. Even as polarizing talk of racial equity trickles into the league and ratings fluctuate, the NFL’s popularity is still massive. This gives it a unique foothold in the way American masculinity is built up and maintained.
“Football gave you almost the perfect place to say, ‘Women can’t survive here, rah, rah, rah.’” - Wade Davis, retired NFL player
Through game presentation, marketing campaigns, and a sweeping media ecosystem, the NFL works hard to ingrain itself into the identity of American men. It is through these forces that professional football largely sets the status quo of how manhood manifests at both physical and psychological levels across American society.
“Constructing a certain type of manhood has been a central driver within sport, within football, and football becomes a means through which a particular kind of masculine identity can be constructed,” says Jeffrey Montez de Oca, an author and sports sociologist at the University of Colorado. “It’s aggressive, it’s tough, it’s territorial, and it’s basically militarized as the nation is largely militarized.”
This is not just done in-stadium or on televised NFL broadcasts. It starts from the bottom, through youth football and fandom. If the league can make a diehard fan or aspiring football star out of a child, they have a commodity to which they can sell this brutal masculinity for as long as they can keep him hooked.
“Football entrepreneurs, those who work within the industry, have always tapped into this idea of what it means to be a man, and in particular, an American man,” says Montez de Oca. “The most effective way to manage people is by managing their emotions. And that way, they will freely choose.
“In the United States, the idea that we are making choices is very important. So tapping into the idea of what it means to be not only a man, but a real man and a good man, is really important and really powerful.”
‘Women Can’t Survive Here’
Not only does participation in youth football begin the development of a value system that centers on traditional manhood, but it provides a venue where boys can perform masculinity. The league that has produced stars like O.J. Simpson and Ray Rice who acted violently toward women is also, logically, a place where young men believe they can perform anti-femininity.
“If now the NFL is built through this historical archetype of what it means to be a man, being vulnerable, being authentic, showing different parts of letting people in is pretty antithetical to that,” says Wade Davis, a gay former NFL player and now a VP at Netflix. “Those are considered values or ideas or norms that have been associated with the feminine, which is to be like a woman. And most boys are socialized to believe that to grow up to become a man, you’ve got to distance yourself as far as possible from the feminine.”
Related: Gendered Violence Cases Challenge Sports Journalists To Consider And Reconsider Each Word They Write
But the NFL is not the only institution to blame for evoking America’s terse, confrontational masculinity in young boys. The often-troubled relationship that young boys have with femininity was more explicitly backed up in a recent study of boys who play sports in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. In it, San Jose State sports sociologist Amy August found that widely held beliefs about women in society trickled down to how boys and their coaches thought about potentially competing with and against girls in co-ed sports. The athletes thought they had to moderate their speed and intensity out of fear of hurting the girls or jeopardizing their ability to have children, says August, while the coaches encouraged their players to take it easy on the girls because of concerns that parents or viewers might judge them for being aggressive toward the opposite gender.
This is the two-way street between sport and society. Where co-ed sports could be an opportunity to develop a better understanding of women athletes, young boys who compete instead have trouble getting away from these ideas. The data shows many instead turn to the football field, where rather than demanding sensitivity or emotional intelligence, boys can fully embrace the more base ingredients of masculinity that have been instilled in them from a young age.
“Most boys are socialized to believe that to grow up to become a man, you’ve got to distance yourself as far as possible from the feminine,” says Davis. “Football gave you almost the perfect place to say, ‘Women can’t survive here, rah, rah, rah.’”
As a result, the most popular youth sport in the country not only drives people down the pipeline of NFL fandom and sensationalizes the sport, but also it perpetuates an insidious type of manhood.
Policing Gender (And Race) Through Emasculation
A very public case of this persistent toxic masculinity came last fall in the response to a Dak Prescott interview with Graham Bensinger about his brother’s suicide. Prescott, the quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, opened up to Bensinger about how the pandemic and his mother’s death took a toll on the family and how his brother ultimately took his own life as a result. While many received the comments as helpful openness about mental health, some high-profile commentators criticized Prescott for what they effectively said was Prescott emasculating himself.
“He’s the quarterback of America’s team, and you know and I know, it is dog eat dog,” said FS1 host Skip Bayless. “It is no compassion, no quarter given on the football field. If you reveal publicly any little weakness, it can affect your team’s ability to believe in you.”
Rather than the NFL reinforcing its own masculinity tropes, it found policing from Bayless to get the job done. By calling Prescott’s admission of depression and grief a “weakness,” Bayless linked lapses in traditional tough-guy masculinity to an inability to lead and perform as a football player. Remarkably, former NFL stars like Michael Strahan came out on the other side of the debate, opening up NFL manhood to include what Prescott said.
“Part of being a leader is having guys respect you,” Strahan said on Good Morning America. “And they respect you by being honest about what’s going on in your life.”
Mental health has gotten an increasingly bright spotlight in sport in recent years, largely due to athletes who are willing to beat back against the stoicism that is often expected of high-profile men. But Bayless’ regressive perspective is still the dominant one, and the loudness of voices like his is a major reason toughness as a masculine ideal persists in sport.
That ideal also permeates the culture of NFL locker rooms, one that Davis says is reinforced by a competitive form of masculinity where players attempt to one-up each other by bringing the most expensive cars, beautiful women, and shiny jewelry through the team facility. To make it in the league, you also have to act tough. Some of these tendencies are developed off the field at a young age as well.
“If you grow up in the inner city, you have to walk a certain way, and you have to talk a certain way,” DeMar DeRozan, one of the first advocates in this space, told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan in 2018. “If a guy walks past you, you gotta make sure you don’t show any type of weakness, so they won’t mess with you.”
In the reaction to Prescott and DeRozan, we see a trend through which Black athletes are subject to more strict and overt policing. “Race has always needed the concepts of gender and sexuality to construct both the normative and the non-normative subject,” says Thangaraj, the sport sociologist from The City College of New York.
If manhood and Whiteness can be enforced as one, all the better for those who want to keep athletes in line. In fact, Thangaraj has found that this process can be circular, whereby minorities who break into sports like pro basketball that are already largely non-White (and with several high-profile Muslim stars) subsequently move the goal posts for other immigrants or those with different gender identities or sexual orientations. Just as quickly as one group is accepted into a masculinized environment, they can begin to actively keep others out.
“As men challenge their racialization in sport, in order to be recognized as ballers,” says Thangaraj, “it means you’ve got to do stuff that excludes other people.”
Women’s Sports vs. ‘Hegemonic’ Masculinity
While this attitude persists and excludes forms of masculinity that are counter to White, Christian, heternormative manhood, a more broadly defined masculinity threatens tradition. Meanwhile, some wish to see a system of sport that does not center on gender at all. The growth of women’s sports and alternative men’s sports show not only the changes that could be coming but also the lengths to which many are willing to fight to keep change at bay.
Over the past 40 years, we have seen an uptick in participation of young women in school sports, and the WNBA – a league where prominent star players like Candace Parker and Sue Bird have built a mainstream brand while being dominant as competitors and public about their beliefs – imagines what a new system could look like. But the response to the league, which in its 25th season still is often underrepresented in the media and fan discourse, shows how hard it is to break through. This is because the mere fact of a women’s league already serves to make it something other within the hyper-masculine American sports landscape, says Thangaraj.
“Female masculinity all of a sudden delegitimizes the links between masculinity and maleness,” he says. “And the presence of queer masculinities puts young men in another place where they are seen as non-normative.”
This dynamic plays out as well in sports like men’s gymnastics and figure skating, which have seen their popularity dwindle and budgets get slashed in recent years (especially during the pandemic). August, the San Jose State sports sociologist, has found that gymnasts who are women are typically expected to perform femininity when they compete through makeup and gaudy outfits. Using the same template as other sports, one might think gymnasts who are men would benefit at their expense, but something wholly different plays out instead: The men are just called gay.
“There is a hegemonic form of masculinity in sport that probably applies among male gymnasts,” August says, “but in terms of public perception, that gets missed because the sport is likened to ice skating and there’s that association because there’s an artistic component to it, it gets marked as a gay sport.”
As a result, just as through football, young boys are made to believe that non-mainstream sports are out of bounds – not straight or manly enough. Optimists believe there is an opportunity to detoxify men’s relationship to these sports, but, in the meantime, famous men’s sports athletes likely have the biggest opportunity to change sport’s relationship to manhood.
‘People Will Listen To This Person’
Already, some celebrity athletes have begun to challenge men’s dominance in sport. In the aftermath of NBA star Kobe Bryant’s death in January 2020, researchers observed how his support of his daughter’s success in basketball and the subsequent #GirlDad movement started by ESPN host Elle Duncan last winter might serve to make coaching young women a more accepted form of fatherhood and manhood. Such a change would force fathers toward smaller women’s sports like volleyball and soccer in addition to basketball, as there is not a clear path for women in pro football or baseball.
At Vox, Tony Porter, the CEO of A Call to Men, an organization that promotes “healthy, respectful manhood,” explained the potential effects of the #GirlDad phenomenon:
There’s a perception that “you’re missing something if you don’t have a son,” he explained, which “fits into the constructs that we have around male domination and masculinity and manhood.”
Coaching and working with girls can be illuminating for men, Porter said, showing them “how to be open to the experiences of sharing emotions and fears and pains,” something that’s more accepted for women than for men. “When we’re working with boys or just with other men, we deny those human experiences.”
A similar example – one also developed through parenthood and family – is seen in retired NBA champion Dwyane Wade. Over the years, Wade has discussed his self-consciousness over his appearance and difficult relationship with his parents, and over the past year, Wade has been very public about his humility toward his wife as well as his love and support for his daughter, Zaya, who is trans.
“How do you have more Dwyane Wades who people assume were all the things they aspire to be and have that person be eloquent enough to speak to the complication of something like manhood and masculinity?” says Davis. “Because, now, people will listen to this person.”
Having a man at the center helps. While previous generations of athletes mostly stuck to typical masculinity and didn’t actively challenge it, Wade, by way of his platform as a part owner of the Utah Jazz, a TNT analyst and an activist alongside Zaya (as well as a trusted friend of some of the biggest NBA stars), is the type of famous man who can create broad social change. At the same time, queer and gender non-conforming athletes in sports continue to push for greater equity, reshaping the conversation in a way that removes gendered fault lines from sport more resolutely.
Major American sports institutions have created a masculinity that perpetuates violence, stoicism, and exclusion, but advocates across the gender spectrum have a more focused aim on the changes needed and how to push back.
The spectra of sex, gender, and sexuality challenge our traditional understanding of sport and competition, but are increasingly central to the conversation around athlete and fan experience.
With legislation and organizing increasing around how these various identities intersect, sport makes a natural landscape for discourse and broadening our knowledge of these conversations. How are perspectives changing, and what can we discover by diving into the multitudes underneath these nuanced topics?