“Man Up:” A Defense for Masculinity on the Playing Surface

By Bruce Thomas

Would you have a problem with a gay teammate? (MLB player poll) 
No Problem (69.8%)
Problem (28.7%)
Big Problem (1.5%)

According to Dictionary.com, masculinity is defined as “pertaining to or characteristic of a man or men” and “having qualities traditionally ascribed to men, such as strength and boldness.” So much of what we have talked about in class has had to do with stereotypes of masculinity, not just in oppressing homosexuals but also causing huge issues among straight men not deemed “man enough.” How does the definition of masculinity change when it is placed in an athletic context? Let’s find out.

In the four major North American professional sports leagues (NHL, NBA, NFL, and MLB), there is a grand total of one active professional athlete that has come out and announced that he is gay: Jason Collins, an NBA player, who came out this past spring. Unfortunately, as a 34 year-old backup center in a young man’s game, he has not yet been signed to a team for the upcoming season. We will never know how much, if any, has to do with teams being scared to bring in the first openly gay professional athlete to their franchise. Personally, I just think Collins is a victim of bad luck: he was a free agent, is getting older, and doesn’t have a lot to offer a team from a skill perspective, so it isn’t likely we will get to see the reaction his teammates, and the rest of the league, would have towards a gay player. Collins was already beloved by his teammates and coaches at previous stops, and his announcement isn’t likely to change that. However, it is sure to be different, for both he and the other players, because of the nature of professional sports. Just like the video alludes to, sports, particularly male sports, are built on masculinity. Everybody wants to be the toughest, the most macho, the “baddest,” the guy people point to and say, “That guy is a monster.”  Jackson Katz talks about the discourse of muscles that is so present in male sports subculture, saying that “size and strength are valued by men across class and racial boundaries” (268). On the playing surface, these things are all compliments. You want people to respect you and recognize your greatness as a competitor. They say that professional athletes are wired differently, and that is probably true. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be where they are at.

This article by Marie Hardin et al. is a great read about the connection between masculinity and sports culture. I agree with her when she says, as cited by Messner & Sabo, that “[t]he relationship between sexuality and athleticism has always been one fraught with assumptions because of associations between homosexuality and femininity, which has been situated as weak and passive.” (186). However, I think she is overestimating the power of the media in regards to the perception other players would have of a gay athlete. Most athletes do not like the media anyway, and while the media does display a “hegemonic masculinity,” they are not reflective of the members of the team that are in the locker room, the people who go to battle for each other day in and day out, the people who sacrifice their bodies for the person next to them. In Nylund’s article about masculinity and talk radio, she mentions that many people she talked to said “that the ultimate compliment would be for Jim Rome to approve of their take if they called” (176). All sports fans have opinions and want to be accepted by other sports fans. It is purely to make themselves feel better and stay connected to the sports they can no longer play. Am I saying it is fair that the media has a tendency to treat homosexuality as deviant? No, of course not. But the media and fans criticize most athletes too much anyway, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, etc., and most athletes will tell you that the only opinions that matter are the ones of the players in the locker room. If you can play, you can play, and the media is not indicative of how other teammates do (or will) treat a homosexual athlete, as the MLB player poll suggests, with 70 percent of the players having no problem with a gay teammate. Not only that, but we have to be cautious to not mix the definition of masculinity off the field with masculinity on it. As fans, we want to see athletes be masculine in the “tough” sense: playing through pain, leaving it all on the playing surface, playing their heart out for their team, sacrificing personal glory for victories, coming to work every day ego free and focused on the common goal. This is how we should define masculinity on the playing surface, and masculinity in that sense is generally applauded, regardless of the athlete’s lifestyle and personality off the field. However, this definition of masculinity doesn’t have to represent how manly a man (or woman) is when he or she is not performing on the field of play.

Women athletes are in a tougher spot, because if they act masculine on the field they are automatically viewed as a lesbian, and that is wrong. Just like with male athletes, women can be “masculine” (tough) on the playing surface but not be a lesbian. Athletes like Serena Williams and Alex Morgan, among many others, have done a great job trying to get rid of the masculine stereotypes of women athletes.

Of course, for all the positive spin I am trying to put on this issue, we will not know how an active gay athlete will be treated in the locker room by his peers until it happens. During this day and age, I feel as though the athlete will be accepted as long as they are performing and coming to work every day busting their butt like the rest of the team. Unfortunately, though, we have comments like this and this. It will no doubt be a challenge for the gay athlete to be fully accepted in such a macho and heterosexual culture. Pronger, as cited by Brooks and Herbert, examines the “suppression of the erotic and the narrowing of the concept of masculinity in mainstream gay sports” and “asks who wins when gay men embrace the very cultural forms that have been central to their historical oppression” (311). Clearly, in testosterone-driven sports like football and basketball, the balance between on-field masculinity and one’s personal life can get tricky. But, as the poll suggests, there is hope. Kudos to Jason Collins for having the courage to come out, and hopefully other athletes will have the strength to follow suit soon. We can only hope that all members involved in the organization will respect what really matters: the athlete’s performance and character.


Athlon Sports. “MLB Players Poll: Revealing Results about PEDs, Gay Teammates and more.” Survey. AthlonSports.com. n.p., 2013. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.

Brooks, Dwight, and Lisa Hébert. “Gender, Race, and Media Representation.” The SAGE Handbook of Gender and Communication. Ed. Bonnie J. Dow, and Julia T. Wood. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2006. 297-319. SAGE knowledge. Print.

Dan Le Batard Show. 790 The Ticket, Miami, FL. 14 Feb. 2007. Radio. Retrieved from YouTube. 22 Oct. 2013.

Hardin, Mary, Kathleen M. Kuehn, Hilary Jones, Jason Genovese, & Murali Balaji. “‘Have You Got Game?’ Hegemonic Masculinity and Neo-Homophobia in U.S. Newspaper Sports Columns.” Communication, Culture & Critique 2009: 2: 182–200.  International Communication Association. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. 

Katz, Jackson. “Advertising and the Construction of White Masculinity: From BMWs to Bud Light.” Gender, Race and Class in Media: A Text Reader. Ed. Gail Dines, and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2003. 261-269. SAGE knowledge. Print.

Nylund, David. “When in Rome: Heterosexism, Homophobia, and Sports Talk Radio.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 28 (2), (2008) : 136-168. Sage Publications. Print.

SportsCenter. ESPN, April 30, 2013. Retrieved from YouTube. 22 Oct. 2013.

The Artie Lange Show. Sirius Satellite Radio. 30 Jan. 2013. Radio. Retrieved from YouTube. 22 Oct. 2013


  1. The title of your cultural critique really interested me in finding out what it means to be considered masculine. Immediately after reading I looked up masculinity on Google and each definition pointed to the fact that masculinity was a set of qualities that were considered appropriate for males. Examples include not showing emotion and being tough. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masculinity. I noticed in your article you discussed how if women behave in masculine ways they are considered to be lesbians. I totally agree with that statement because just thinking, how many times have heard of female basketball players being labeled as lesbian? I also recall stating the same thing in my cultural critique. I also thought that it was really cool that almost 70 percent of players don’t have a problem with a gay teammate, but since there are only a few players that have come out, no one really knows how they will react. You stated this in your article and I also agree. In my cultural critique I discussed how quite a few players would not want gay players on their team in fear of being watched and being hit on. I often wonder if once a gay member of the team came out would they act different when in the locker room or in the shower. When I think of your title man up, I think about all the times when males get hurt in sports and are told to dust their selves off and get over it. They are supposed to get up and act like nothing has happened and that is considered being masculine. https://www.google.com/search?q=masculine+sports+men

  2. I think that this is very interesting and it very similar to what I discussed in mine. We both discussed sexuality in athletes and also talked about pro athlete Jason Collins and his coming out this year. It is very sad to see that only one pro athlete in the NBA has come out about their sexuality due to the fear of not being able to play anymore. The media is so involved and worried about the sexuality of players, and it is extremely sad to see that Jason Collins is a free agent because of the media. A strong and aggressive player is no longer to play because his team is worried about the media being “too involved.” I enjoyed when you talked about womens masculinity on the field and if they act “too tough” they are considered a butch or a lesbian, which is unfair. I mean isn’t putting everything on the field and doing your best what playing the game is about? I think that sexuality in athletes still has a long way to come. I fear that other athletes will see that Jason Collins is now a free agent because of his sexuality, and will be too afraid to do the same. If the media wasn’t so involved and people would just stop worrying about sexuality and more on talent, then this problem would reduce.

  3. Hi Bruce! Thought you might find this blog interesting: http://www.outsports.com/
    I also wonder if there’s more sexual freedom in college sports than in professional sports and what that difference might be?

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