Toxic Masculinity in Sports
How to Identify It and How to Eliminate It
The sports world has always been dominated by men. As far back as the 11th century, and likely before, sports like jousting were used as tools for men to show off their strength, courage, and overall masculinity for women. This ancient idea has continued to influence the sporting world and it's getting a little old. Toxic masculinity is the adherence to traditional male gender roles, which can put men in a box, limiting the acceptance of them expressing themselves in ways that are seen as opposite to the alpha male ideal. The difference between toxic masculinity and masculinity is that with toxic masculinity, men are shamed for behaviors seen as feminine or for not meeting the masculine ideal. In a society where we are starting to call out racism and sexism on the daily, it's time to address the elephant in the locker room that is toxic masculinity.
Perhaps the most obvious place to look for toxic masculinity in sports is within the NFL and the football culture it creates. Men are expected to be tough and dominant, and it is more socially acceptable for them to be aggressive. In a sport that celebrates the hardest hits and the toughest men, there is a lot of toxic masculinity permeating the air. Drills like Man in the Middle or Bull in the Ring are thought to be mostly extinct, but we are still seeing their effects in older athletes (and in those players whose coaches continue to use the drills). And as if the physical and emotional abuse experienced by athletes wasn't enough, studies are now suggesting that the physical abuse often experienced by men in their sports worlds may correlate with the chance of them assaulting (physically or sexually) their female partners. Many people were shocked by the footage of Ray Rice assaulting his then-fiancee Janay Palmer, but there were others out there who didn't seem surprised at all.
Participating in sports can have lasting effects on young boys and men. Sports can be the best at teaching us lessons like hard work, dedication, teamwork, sportsmanship, but they can also instill the negative notion that boys should "act like men." They shouldn't cry, they shouldn't show pain. They should be the toughest, strongest one out on the field (or court, or rink, etc.). And it can teach them that girls and women will admire and love them, as long as they are good athletes and "men". The ideal of winning at any cost can often be the biggest contributor to toxic masculinity in sports. When an environment is created that puts winning above all else, athletes often push themselves well beyond their limit, especially when the athlete is young, impressionable, and still thinks they are virtually invincible.
Stories of hazing in locker rooms regularly shock the nation, but toxic masculinity occurs every single day on most fields (or courts, or rinks, etc.) with little to no notice. It's time to stop using terms like "man up" or "grow a pair" when trying to get athletes to push harder. Calling young men "ladies" or "pussies" or using the overused "throw like a girl" all feed into toxic masculinity. And hazing, obviously, should not be tolerated in any case. Just because an athlete, or group of athletes, is older or more talented, they should not be able to hold any power over their teammates. Creating a team where every participant feels safe can actually greatly improve moral, which can improve performance.
One of the most tragic ways our society feeds toxic masculinity is when we give our best athletes a pass. In 2016, Brock Turner was found guilty of three counts of felony sexual assault (two counts of rape were withdrawn after getting results of DNA testing), but Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Turner to only six months of jail time. Turner only served three of those months. Both Persky and Turner's father argued that the assault should not derail Turner's life, including his swimming career. Back in 2005, USA Today shared that athletes have a lower rate of conviction and lower averages sentences. In fact, according to their research out of 168 sexual assault allegations, only 22 cases went to trial and only six of those ended in convictions. Far too often we are giving our athletes a pass on behavior that is unacceptable. Giving student-athletes passing grades, sweeping illegal behavior under the rug, in hopes of winning another game.
In order to start combating toxic masculinity in sports, we have to change the entire culture of sports, from the bottom to the top. We can make as many changes as we'd like in youth and high school sports organizations, but if the NFL, MLB, NBA, etc. don't mirror these changes, our youth will still grow up idolizing these professional athletes and mimicking their behavior. In 2017, the NBA took a step in the right direction when they included stricter action against domestic violence in their collective bargaining agreement. Both former and current athletes and coaches are beginning to use their voices for the betterment of the sport (and the destruction of toxic masculinity). Former NFL player and coach Joe Ehrmann helped to start InSideOut with the goal of combating the "win at any costs" mentality in sports. Current and former NBA coaches, like Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers, and Steve Kerr show how letting a team be comfortable in being themselves can lead to great things. The Positive Coaching Alliance is also working hard to promote healthy, positive experiences around sports for our youth athletes. They work with youth and high school sports coaches, athletes, parents, and administrators and provide educational materials to those interested.
We are making strides, but there is still a long way to go. Take a few moments to check out the comment section on any sports-related article or stand on the sidelines of a youth sports game if you don't believe me. What we can do is continue to promote positive coaching, hold athletes accountable for their actions, let athletes develop at their own pace, and continue to call out problematic behavior.