Confronting Hegemonic Masculinity In Sports
Picture the coach of a professional sports team, behind the bench, instructing their players, a crowd of screaming fans at an NFL football game, a team owner from the NBA sitting in the press box during a game in a fancy arena.
Now picture professional athletes in action competing in a variety of sports – try golf, or soccer, hockey, or lacrosse.
In any of these examples, did you picture a white person? Did you picture a man?
Sport, for the past century, has been a place where society has “constructed and reconstructed” masculine hegemony.
Hegemonic masculinity, a term coined by sociologist R.W. Connell, is a system, and a practice aiming to legitimize and solidify the dominant role of men in society, pegging other groups, including women and non-conforming men as subordinates.
In sport, this state is valued. Hegemonic masculinity in sport takes the shape of “a framework where stereotypically masculine traits are over-emphasized…partly due to an excessive focus on winning.”
When relating hegemonic masculinity to sport, the most valued traits include being “white, heterosexual, privileged/middle class and able-bodied.”
According to Western University scholars who researched hegemonic masculinity as it relates to the ideal hockey player, hockey is one of the main places we see this represented as “the ideal male hockey player exists for their team, sacrifices their body, and puts themselves in danger for their team. They are a machine, durable, young, takes care of their health, and when injured, returns to redeem themselves.”
Any activity in sport that sanctifies aggression, force, or violence, and celebrates ‘masculine’ traits as the epitome of athleticism, or that places greater importance or grandeurizes men’s sport over women’s sport, therby inferiorizing women, is upholding hegemonic masculinity.
So where do we see this?
Fighting in hockey? Absolutely.
Rules excluding transgender women from women’s sports? Exactly.
Adages like, “no pain, no gain,” having “mental toughness,” or the idea of “doing battle” with an opponent? Bingo.
Hiring practices that see only white, heterosexual head coaches in hockey? Ding ding ding.
What is damaging when thinking of hegemonic masculinity in sport, is that it’s a never ending cycle. To exist on this playing field, young men must not only exhibit these characteristics, but must actively work to prove their dominance, heterosexuality, and their confirmation to norms.
This could partially explain why we see so many seemingly ‘nice young men’ using homophobic slurs, seeking sexual conquests, and feigning toughness in sport and locker rooms, when society has condemned these actions on a wider scale.
This ingrained hegemonic masculinity leads to actions and beliefs that are more commonly referred to as toxic.
Some studies on the topic have looked into how the systems of sport uphold men’s dominance, and the inferiority of women in sport. These systems are developed through “definition, direct control, ignoring, and trivialization.”
How many times do men trivialize or ignore the opinions of women in sports media, broadcasting, academia, coaching, and as athletes themselves?
I don’t think I’ve watched a hockey game lately without mass online criticism of broadcaster Cassie Campbell-Pascall, disproportionate to less qualified men working the same game.
How often are men placed into positions of power (coaches, managers, owners, commissioners, directors) even in women’s sports leagues, thus maintaining direct control?
In the NCAA, 60% of women’s teams are coached by men, while only 3% of men’s teams are coached by women. While Title IX moved to level the playing field for men’s and women’s sports, it did nothing to level the field for who leads these players in positions of power. If you look above coaches, in schools that offer NCAA Division I programs, only 7.5% have a woman in the position of Athletic Director.
How often have men dictated the rules, defined the criterion, or judged what is acceptable for a woman in society to do?
“Lest a fallen player display herself in an unladylike fashion.” Those were the words printed in the Montreal Gazette in 1897 justifying why fans would not be allowed to watch women’s hockey. Many years later in 1963, the sport of ringette was invented for girls and women as a winter ice sport in Canada because women were discouraged from playing hockey, largely due to concerns over body contact. And yes, ringette was invented for girls by a man.
While it creates significant cognitive dissonance, many men in sport still cannot detach the toxic aspects of hegemonic masculinity – such as “misogyny, homophobia, greed, and violent domination.”
None of the above gender stereotypes are helpful to the healthy development of boys, but in the sporting world, these toxic aspects of masculinity are the glue that holds the fabric of competition together.
Hegemonic masculinity has normalized concussions. It has normalized ‘playing through the pain.’ It has normalized not seeing women’s sports televised. It has normalized discussing the strength and skill of men in sport, while discussing the appearance and personal lives of women in sport.
Hegemonic masculinity has normalized stoicism, and the inappropriateness of men displaying sadness, grief, sensitivity, or ‘weakness’ in any form.
It has normalized coaches screaming at refs, and parents screaming at children on the ice and field.
We’ve normalized that masculinity is directly related to bodily performance, promoting ableism, as well as the exploitation of bodily capital in youth and amateur athletics.
It has normalized a gender pay gap. We have normalized that the best women’s athletes are not deserving of a living wage to play professional sport, while tiers and tiers of men are able to earn money from sport because of their anthropomorphic structure.
We’ve normalized the sexual exploits of athletes in men’s sports.
And despite the benefits of youth sports, we’ve normalized the exclusion of any person who does not fit this heteronormative, hyper-masculine mold. When these athletes drop out of sport, the reasoning is often that it ‘wasn’t the right fit,’ or they ‘weren’t tough enough.’
I remember back to a season of Junior hockey I was playing when I was 17. In the game, my team was losing by a goal. I was playing defence in front of our net, trying to move out one of the biggest forwards from the opposing team when he dropped his gloves, pulled off my helmet, and gave me a beating. I held on, but didn’t fight back or drop my gloves, and was eventually knocked to the ice. Our team received a power play, during which we scored to tie the game, and minutes later scored again to take the lead, eventually winning by that single marker. I was on the ice for both of our goals. After winning the game and coming into the dressing room elated, we sat down to hear our coach speak. He praised the win, but then turned to me and said, “we won even though one of our biggest players was too much of a f$#%ing pussy to drop the gloves. If you ever do that again it will be the last time you see the ice.”
Hegemonic masculinity: A system where those in power utilize systems and practices that identify non-conforming men as subordinates, and aim to highlight the inferiority of women.
At our ‘rookie party’ that year (another archaic system of assimilating younger players into the constructs of toxic masculinity through forced drug, alcohol, and sexual behaviour disguised as team bonding), that same coach, a 40-somthing-year-old man, showed up to deliver the entire team trays of vodka filled Jello-Shooters. Minutes after arriving, he coerced a 15-year-old girl to allow him to suck multiple Jello-Shooters off of her stomach and chest while dozens of teenagers, including his entire team, watched.
The indoctrination into the toxic culture of hegemonic masculinity had begun for several young men that night.
At some point, we need to confront this harmful cycle, or risk losing more young men into this system.
I’ve often thought of these two events, and have envisioned my response and reaction to this man knowing what I know now. How could I have confronted these ideas? I wish I had acted, somehow, in some way, during either event, but in that environment, you don’t speak. You conform to survive. At least that’s what I thought at the time, because my own initiations were more brutal and demeaning than I’d like to admit.
Strangely enough, our coach was soon fired…but not for the above actions. He was fired for an inability to produce wins. Within the framework of hegemonic masculinity, excessive focus is put on winning.
The definitions and gendered expectations we place on men, and the practices and structures we have invented to keep men in power at the expense of women and non-conforming men, have limited the possibilities for many youth, of all genders, to experience sport in a positive way.
As it has been stated, “the real problem with toxic masculinity is that it assumes there is only one way of being a man.”
The idea that men are naturally or inherently strong, and must demonstrate this physically, mentally, and emotionally at all times is wrong. In sport, if we continue to perpetuate this lie, and not allow fundamental human emotions, and a dynamic development of what masculinity or femininity, or a non-binary version of both or neither means to an individual, we will be continuing to promote a system of oppression and hegemony.
There is no right way to be a man.
But there are definitely wrong ways.