Stream the full show on my DJ page on Radio One, including music playlists and the interview with Dr. Sally Shaw about gender inequality in sports management organizations.
So I’ve been thinking about doing a show about sports for a while now, and in that while a bunch more stuff has happened that should be discussed in sort of the same context. Of course the Rugby World Cup had a lot to do with my thinking about a sports show, mostly because I found myself trying to figure out who I would cheer for in any given game based on what outcome would see the least amount of domestic violence taking place. Obviously I’m giving my cheering for a team greater impact on the outcome of the game than it really has, which I think all fans do to some degree, but it does seem like a conversation worth having to talk about why domestic abuse rates and rugby outcomes might be related to one another. So there’s that.
Then there's this. I’m talking, of course, about the assistant coach of Penn State Football, Jerry Sandusky, being arrested for child sexual abuse, and the head coach of Penn State, Joe Paterno, being fired for covering it up. Yep.
The details are pretty gory, and they just get more horrifying all the time, but a big part of the reason this particular case is so interesting and fraught is that Penn State is a college football school, which means a great deal in the states, and that Joe Paterno as head coach is completely idolized. He’s been teaching at that school for 46 years, has won, I dunno, a lot of trophies for Penn State, and had been developing a legacy which included Sandusky. So Sandusky was hauled in after a three-year grand jury investigation and charged with 40 counts of child sexual abuse, with more charges pending. Two other men were arrested, athletic director Tim Curley and university VP Gary Schultz, who are charged with lying to the grand jury during their investigation and covering up Sandusky’s years-long predatory child-rape spree at Penn. Head coach Paterno, who also knew and covered it up, is not being arrested, but has been fired, and the grad student who actually caught Sandusky in the act of raping a boy, actually witnessed it and said nothing, has been neither arrested nor fired. What I find interesting about the Sandusky case is that what’s leading the headlines is not his abuse of numerous underprivileged boys over 15 years, but rather the firing of Joe Paterno and just how the loss of two prominent coaches is going to affect the football legacy at Penn State. In fact, Paterno’s farewell speech to Penn State was not, as you might expect, an anguished plea for forgiveness from the children he failed to protect, but an expression of how sad he was to not be coaching football anymore and how much he’d miss it. There have been protests at Penn State by students and locals in support of Joe Paterno, and lots of commentary is taking the tack that “now’s not the time, this is about football” or how firing Joe Paterno is taking Sandusky’s actions out on the football players. Now this is something we can all agree is bad, bad unequivocally in a way that few things are, the rape of children is a Bad Thing, and yet when it is brought into the context of sport, especially success in sport, it becomes somehow less of a Bad Thing. Or rather, not that it’s not a Bad Thing, but that the Bad Thing done by one of the coaches of the football team has nothing to do with the football team itself. I don’t think I agree that you can, necessarily, separate these two things.
There’s been another, much more minor incident that I think illustrates pretty neatly where I’m going with this line of thought here, and thanks to Bitch Magazine for the original: In Wyoming, a coach has resigned after an outcry following his circulation of a “hurt feelings report” to his team before a playoff game. Under “reasons for filing report” you can select from the following options: I am a little pussy, I have woman hormones, I am a queer, I am a little bitch, I want my mommy, or all of the above, among a few others. It then asks for the girly-man signature of the person filing the report, and the “real man signature” of the person being accused. The coach, as I said, stepped down as coach, but has retained his position as guidance counselor. Super. Great.
It doesn’t take a great deal of close reading of this particular literary gem to uncover the deeply homophobic and sexist assumptions, but I’m more concerned today with what those assumptions say about masculinity. What makes you a Real Man is harassing and abusing one of your teammates, and if you feel aggrieved by that harassment, you are not a Real Man, you are more like a woman, which is of course a wholly undesirable thing for a man to resemble in any capacity. This survey highlights our cultural tendency to situate masculinity in direct opposition to femininity, to believe that what makes men masculine is the rejection of any traits associated with femaleness, including homosexuality. While this is a broad cultural construction, of course, it does seem to be particularly acceptable, even encouraged, in the realm of elite sports.
It’s my hope that I’ll eventually be able to stop making these kinds of disclaimers when I talk about gender and social constructions, but that time has not yet arrived, so know that I am not saying that sport is bad for men and women, or that anyone who plays sport automatically thinks that bullying is great or that women are weak and gay men are a fair target for abuse. Sport is obviously great for some things: it builds teamwork, fosters loyalty, teaches discipline, encourages social development and inclusivity among the team, promotes physical health and fitness. I’m an advocate for participation in sport; I think particularly for kids, participation in a wide range of sporting activities is a good thing. We’re designed to be physically mobile beings. However, a lot of those benefits to sport can also be negatives: loyalty in excess can lead to your athletic director covering up your assistant coach’s dangerous activities; inclusivity among the team often means exclusivity to those outside the team; and discipline, on the extreme ends, means a strict adherence to the unexamined code of behaviour within that team, which is a problem if the code of behaviour is anything like the one represented by that survey. What I’m suggesting is that the way we talk about elite level sports and the men who play them embeds these notions of masculinity in our cultural awareness, that we create a kind of hegemonic masculinity that can be very harmful to all genders.
This hegemonic masculinity and success in sport very closely linked – traditionally in many countries and historically here, women were not allowed to play sports, which were seen as very masculine domains. Many sports, especially the most popular ones (rugby here in NZ, hockey in Canada, football in the States) are designed to be played by male bodies, and as such prize and take advantage of traits that are particular to male bodies: height, upper body strength, sheer physical mass. It’s also no coincidence that those three sports, the biggest and most popular in their respective countries, are also exceedingly violent by design – I guess it’s worth pointing out the military language that accompany many of these sports and the fact that historically sports were actually about war, and people died while playing the games or for losing them, and those origins are still reflected in the language we use to describe the game and commentate the play. So when we start talking about the relationship between success at a violent sport like rugby or football as contributing in some tangible way to one’s manliness, and that this particular kind of masculinity is the only one we value, we, culturally, together, continue to tie masculinity to violence.
Of course not all sports are committed to this hegemony to the same degree: as George points out, baseball doesn’t use this kind of language, and neither does cricket. But we do not tie our masculinity or national identity to cricket in quite the same way as we do to hockey, football, and particularly rugby. We are willing to overlook all kinds of unhealthy behaviours because they point to traits that are valued on the pitch, or because what happens on the field matters more than what occurs off of it. There are numerous examples that success in those sport is more important than development of healthy social identities – like that Fijian player who left the military to play in this last World Cup, or Richard Loe and the eye-gouging thing, or breaking that Aussie’s nose – lots of examples that if a player is good enough, all manner of negative or dangerous behaviour can be overlooked. I personally find this a bit tricky, because if we stop talking about sport and we talk about music instead, I have a slightly different opinion on the matter – no one knows what Michael Jackson did or did not do to those boys except the boys themselves, now, but damned if I’ll stop listening to MJ, you know? On some level I really do feel like someone’s personal problems do not preclude them from being successful artists, writers, musicians, or whatever, and that their artistic achievements can and should be separated from their personal shortcomings. But for some reason I don’t feel quite the same when it comes to sport – and again, that’s because we don’t tie the same kind of national identity to our music as we do our athletes – like we know MJ was American, but does he embody American national identity, in the way so much Kiwi identity is tied up in rugby and the All Blacks? I don’t know if we talk about them in the same way, and for cultural constructs like sport and music, the way the cultural discussion is framed is very relevant. And as it stands right now, power, violence, hardness, a lack of emotion, and a willingness to sacrifice your body for the play or for the team are all situated very firmly within the frame of manhood.
One of the most immediate indicators of the relationship in the popular mind between sport, violence, and masculinity is to examine the rates of domestic violence as related to sport events. There’s quite a bit of research being done on the violent actions of the players of violent sports off the court or out of the ring, obviously there have been a lot of fairly high-profile cases, people like Mike Tyson and obviously OJ Simpson. What’s less high-profile is the violence that occurs outside the game as well which is perpetrated by fans of the team – there are reports of spikes in domestic abuse, street violence, etc, when teams lose, particularly if those teams are expected to win. So this is what I was thinking about during all those world cup games -- normally I am an underdog supporter, because I don’t actually care who wins and an upset is more interesting than a game which closes 50 to nothing, you know? But the consequences for the women and children that live with the male fans of the team expected to win are far greater if that team loses. There are of course a number of causes for this kind of thing, namely the emphasis on alcohol consumption that accompanies the watching of the games, as well as the hyper-masculinity of rugby culture, which defines Kiwi culture to a not insignificant degree, and particularly for Kiwi men. I’ve spoken to the women at Rape Crisis Dunedin who also cite a rise in reporting in the weeks after the event due to the lag between the incident itself and the reporting of it. This is both violence perpetrated by the athletes themselves, once the game is over, and the violence of the spectators who view their manhood and their national identity as being specifically linked to the outcome of the game and the way it was played.
Sport being a social and cultural practice, there are all kinds of embedded assumptions about who gets to play what and when, how their involvement is viewed by the wider community, and the success or failure of particular demographics in particular sports. Work and leisure activities and the rights to them are divided along gender, class, and race lines – men are seen to do more productive work outside the home, and so are entitled to the leisure activity of sport, whereas work performed in the home, traditionally by women, affords no such leisure time and so participation in sport can be viewed as a waste of time, or at least less of a right. Or else sport is seen, for certain male demographics, as being relevant to their productivity, and so is less leisure than a honing of necessary and masculine skills, whereas women do not require and are discouraged from developing, those same traits of competitiveness, goal orientation, etc. Similarly with race – poor young black men playing basketball, say, can be viewed as either a waste of time that should be spent finding work, or the only way to escape the intergenerational poverty that is the birthright of so many. Because discussion about sports is tied up with our cultural assumptions about work and productivity, these conversations can be rather fraught.
But, gender likewise being a social construct, sport could potentially be a place where fixed notions of masculinity and femininity are re-examined and redefined, rather than affirmed and enforced.
This is where I think men’s place in feminism is – in the mentoring of other men to reject the kind of hyper-masculine, exclusive, usually violent view of manhood, which is harmful to all genders. There’s lots of research indicating that most men do not agree with domestic violence, obviously, but very few will speak out to or against another man they know to be engaged in it. Speaking out can be extremely difficult, of course, especially if it’s someone you look up to or who has more status or prestige within the organization, as evidenced by the silence with which 15 years of systematic predation and rape were met. This, to me, is the greatest shame, because bystander intervention and peer pressure is one of the few reliable ways to prevent and discourage rape and abuse. As it is overwhelming, though not exclusively, men who are perpetrating those acts of violence, bystander intervention is particularly effective when those bystanders are male. For a start, though, men could begin by not encouraging other men to make violent or rapey jokes, which have the opposite effect of bystander intervention, which is to normalize and encourage the idea that manliness is tied up with violence and power. It’s very difficult, I know, and there are always going to be times when you’ll have to pick your battles, you know – feminist women have known this for ever – but culture changes one thought at a time, and we just keep talking until the masculinity and femininity mean different things, until the conversations about changing the constructs are common knowledge. We could, all together, alter the prevailing definition of masculinity to include openness and respect instead of power and privilege, and I think we, all genders and orientations, would be better people for it.