By Bruce Thomas
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