Sports | Mandatory masculinity

An examination of masculine hegemony in sports culture

“Come on, play a man’s sport.” That was what my little league baseball coach told me to convince me to join the team. “Play a man’s sport.” What did that mean? I didn’t know, but sure enough not too long after I was awkwardly standing in left field – the position most often relegated to the worst player on the team – embarking on a short-lived career as a baseball player and a long career as a sports fan.

But while that notion of “playing a man’s sport” has stuck in my mind for a while, baseball being a man’s sport is probably, to some, a dubious concept in our age of full-contact sports and UFC. Maybe my coach didn’t even believe it was a “man’s sport;” he just knew what is typically the most effective course of action to get me to participate: challenge my manhood.

Here I am now: 21 years old and the Sports editor of a newspaper. I often wonder why I got into sports when I was younger and the key moments that I remember are that brief encounter with my baseball coach and similar childhood interactions. As a self-conscious child, I wanted kids to think I was cool and constantly talking about the Millennium Falcon instead of the Atlanta Falcons wasn’t cutting it. When you are a young boy, playing sports or having some interest in them is expected out of you; otherwise you’re not “cool” – a euphemism for “normal” in adolescent-speak. The cooler kids would talk about Mo Vaughn and Drew Bledsoe, so I started to read the Boston Globe’s sports page to join the club. Sports were the tools to gain acceptance into the club and they are one of the first institutions that create the gender divisions we have in society.

Children from a young age are divided up between boys’ and girls’ leagues, as well as boys’ and girls’ sports and the societal expectation for men to be tough is especially emphasized in sports. “I don’t think that that toughness is really innate,” said Katie Esmonde, U4 Sociology and Daily contributor, who is doing her research project on gender in sports. “I think it’s something that you learn and you learn that it’s expected of you. … I kind of think that sports are a microcosm of male culture. Everything about masculinity is really exaggerated within sports. Sports are explicit about what it means to be a man and what it means to not be a man.”

Being interested in sports as a child was part of performing my gender. An interest in sports wasn’t expected from girls. “From childhood, differences between boys and girls are really emphasized,” said Esmonde, “and in emphasizing those differences, they’re created.” At a young age, whether we know it or not, sports were used as a way to define our gendered identities. In Canada, when you step out on the ice as a child, you wear either hockey skates or figure skates depending on whether you’re a boy or a girl. And then sports become a tool for men to prove themselves. “Sports is a great way to prove your masculinity,” said Esmonde. “Patriarchy as an institution is weakening. People aren’t going out and working these really physical jobs – you’re not often going to war in the same way [as they did in the past]. … Masculinity is about power and what does power mean when everyone has access to it?”

The way that sports is such a major part of male culture makes it an exclusive boys’ club in a somewhat literal sense. “A study asked boys and girls what television they watched and the number one was sports for boys,” said Esmonde. “That just isn’t an expectation for girls. I wasn’t encouraged to be a fan as a girl. … They do not expect that for women and whenever I offer my opinion on sports, people just don’t take it seriously or they’re surprised that I’m a fan. … When I watch sports, with the commercials that are involved, I always get the feeling like I’m not supposed to be here because it’s often beer commercials that are explicitly making fun of women or [women] are simply there to be sex objects.”

The only professional women’s league in North America is the WNBA and they still have trouble getting the public’s attention. Only 548,000 viewers tuned in to the WNBA finals whereas nearly ten million people watched LeBron James choose which team he was joining. Women don’t have significant roles in our sports culture. “Their contributions [in sports] aren’t really respected,” said Esmonde. “We don’t watch them on television. They’re barely even on the ticker at the bottom of SportsCenter.” Their accomplishments are ignored because from a young age, sports are such a part of male culture that we view women’s sports as inferior. A common insult thrown around on the field is claiming that somebody is “playing like a girl.” Moments like that help create society’s perception of women’s sports being less legitimate than men’s and reinforce the idea that sports are a male-dominated boys’ club.

Sports are deeply embedded in masculine culture and are used as a way to socialize kids into gender binaries. Boys and girls sports are segregated at a young age and sports are often what defines you and separates you as a male. I care about sports now because I was socially pressured into following and caring about sports when I was younger. It was all about trying to be a man – whatever that means.


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