Sports & Masculinity

Sports and masculinity have long been intertwined.

For a long time, boys and men were the only ones who were allowed to play sports. Athletic fields and locker rooms were seen as places where boys became men.

We’ve seen where that can lead. We’ve seen little boys & teenagers told to “man up!”, “rub some dirt on it” and play past the pain. We’ve heard “locker room talk” and know all about horrific hazing that has happened in some high school locker rooms. Each of us can probably name multiple top athletes who’ve been accused of sexual assault, domestic violence or murder.

And yet, in recent years, we’ve seen some pretty amazing examples of male athletes pushing back against stereotypical gender norms. 

“There’s a long narrative around boys dominating the field and boys being trained to be men. And sport and athleticism was yet another arena in which boys and men could publicly demonstrate strength, domination, and power over other men,” says Michael Kehler, PhD, Werklund Research Professor, Masculinities Studies at the University of Calgary. Sports, he says, has become another “bastion of the male elite” where boys and men “establish themselves within the hierarchy of masculinity.”

Before signing your son up for a sport, you should “think carefully about why,” Michael says. Why are you choosing sport over, say, other physical activities? And why are you choosing that particular sport? It is because your son has expressed an interest in the activity? Because you or his father played it? Because you want him to toughen up?

“We need to be award of the intentional ways in which we contribute to our children’s understanding of gender through certain activities,” he says.

It is most helpful to encourage our kids to try a wide variety of activities. “The more that our children have opportunities to try things and express themselves in different ways, then the healthier they’re going to be in terms of their own well-being,” Michael says, “because they see that they don’t need to adhere to those fairly rigid (and what can be very damaging) scripts of masculinity.”

In this episode, Jen, Janet & Michael discuss:
  • Why (& how) sports & masculinity are linked
  • How adult ideas about sport & masculinity influence the sports offer to little boys
  • Hierarchy of sports in the male world
  • Other physical activities for boys
  • Sports, popularity, & social currency
  • Helping boys understand that there are many ways to be a boy or man
  • How coaches affect boys’ understanding of masculinity
  • Why male affection seems more welcome in sport than elsewhere
  • Body image and bodyshaming
  • How to tell if it’s time to quit a sport
  • Masculinity and mental health
Links we mentioned (or should have) in this episode:

Rule of Being a Man: If We Know Them, Why Don’t We Change Them? — Dr. Kehler’s TEDx talk

Men & Boys Cry Too — Building Boys post about incident mentioned at 4:39

How (Not) to Talk to Boys — Building Boys post (mentioned at 21:32)

Coaches Speak About Youth Sports — ON BOYS episode

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