Masculinity, Heteronormativity, and Sports

I’ve recently begun playing Ultimate Frisbee.  I grew up playing sports almost year-round, dabbling in track and field, baseball, and basketball but with soccer being my true sport of choice.  I played soccer at some high levels and took the sport seriously, getting pretty good at it.  When I transferred to Earlham College in Indiana, though, I decided to put sports on the back burner so that I could focus on things like student government or improv comedy.

Since that time, I’ve found it hard to get back into sports, not necessarily because it was hard to get back into shape (though we all know that can be a challenge).  More so, I find myself having a really hard time playing a sport if I am not good at it.  That’s the problem I had when starting to play Ultimate.  I found throwing a frisbee incredibly awkward and counter-intuitive, and I had a very hard time reading the field.  I was so frustrated that I almost quit.

Now, I’m not much of a quitter, so that gave me pause.  Why did I find being bad at something so incredibly frustrating?  Undoubtedly it has something to do with the perfectionist genes I inherited from my mother, but as I reflected and wrote about it, I found something a little more startling.

I don’t like being bad at things because I’m a man.  I particularly don’t like being bad at sports because I’m a man.

From the time we are VERY young, boys are told that they should be good at all things physical, and I was always pretty good at sports.  I played sports all the time, and these guys were my heroes:

They taught me what it meant to be a man!  You work hard, rise to the top of your game, and are triumphant!  You walk with swagger!  You don’t take crap from anybody!  You fight to the finish!  And you definitely ain’t queer!

And I wasn’t the only one.  Young boys for generations have had it made clear to them that their heroes should be sports heroes.  God forbid that your son expresses a desire to play dress-up or play with Barbies rather than to play sports!  Gender lines were drawn, and I walked those lines well (even though I secretly loved playing Barbies with my sisters).

The more I played sports, the better I got, and the more attention I received.  When my high school soccer team made it to the state tournament, all three local television stations ran a piece on our team.  When I made it to state in Speech and Debate three years in a row, nobody cared (well, except for maybe my coach and my parents).  The priorities were made very clear.  The single most successful competitive program at my high school?  Academic Team with 15 state titles and multiple top-ten finishes at nationals.  However, when the baseball team won the state championship, there was a huge pep rally (at which the Academic Team was given a little shout out), a parade of sorts, and crazy local media attention.

Thus, as I tried to understand my frustration with not being immediately good at Ultimate, I came to realize how closely tied my athletic ability is with my masculinity . . . and that’s super messed up!  I can honestly say that when I get “skied” or when I simply suck at catching or throwing the disc, I feel like less of a man.  On the contrary, when I have a great defensive play or catch the disc for a point, I am a man in all my glory!  Now, I’m not the sports maniac that I was when I was younger.  In fact, I barely pay attention to sports any more, and I hardly play except for the occasional ultimate, yet I can’t stand it when I try to compete in a sport and other dudes are better than me!  I write it off initially as my being pretty competitive, but when I dig a little deeper, I know it’s more than that.

Unfortunately, our culture ties masculinity and sports so very close together.

They’re seemingly synonymous.  If you’re good at sports, you MUST be a man’s man!  If you’re a woman and good at sports, your sexuality is in question unless you’re willing to hypersexualize yourself.

Additionally, the idea of being gay and a top-tier athlete is out of the question (despite incredible evidence to show this is malarky).  And if you are a gay, top-tier athlete, you had better stay in the closet or face the ire of locker-room culture.

So what’s the problem with sports and masculinity being tied so closely together?  I’ve often heard it said that sports are a great way to encourage healthy living, sportsmanship, and hard work.  Undoubtedly sports have the power to do this!  Don’t get me wrong!  I love sports, and I love the things they can do for young people.  However, when sports move outside of the realm of athletic competition and begin to restrict the boxes of normativity within which we often feel we must live, sports have gone too far.

The problem with restrictive masculinity of any kind is that it is, well, restrictive.  What happens to the men who fall outside of these restrictive boundaries?  What if you’re a guy in high school who is a star athlete but who is attracted to boys?  What happens if you’re a man who sucks at sports?  What happens if you’re a man who hates sports altogether?  By contrast, what happens to our young women who excel at sports?  What about the women who excel at sports and are straight?  Must women hypersexualize themselves to be seen as anything other than a “bull-dyke” in sports?

What use is there in connecting sports, masculinity, and heteronormativity, let alone tying them inextricably together as we seem to have done?  What purpose does it serve other than to restrict the ways in which we as men (or women for that matter) perform our gender?

We need to be willing to challenge such a restrictive gender paradigm!  Let’s call out those who use sexist language relating to sports (someone’s a “pussy” if they don’t “man-up” and play harder)!  Let’s encourage our young men to think of sports as a pastime that is fun and healthy but that is completely divorced from their sexual orientation and their masculinity.  Let’s encourage our young women to play sports in whatever way or at whatever level they wish, reminding them that it says nothing about their femininity or their sexual orientation.  Let’s boycott media that reinforces such strict gender realities as they relate to sports.  And let’s encourage media that questions the connections between masculinity, heteronormativity, and sports.

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