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Masculinity in sport

Sport has proven itself to be a universal language regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity, and can be used as a way to create social change. Sport has an immense amount of influence on social issues in society such as, gender norms, feminism, race and ethnicity, etc. Sex, gender, and sexuality have been a controversial aspect of sport throughout history, but it has been less stigmatized the past few decades. Specifically, the conception of masculinity in society today. How has sport been a defining factor to masculinity in today’s culture? The general history of sport being a male dominant domain has influenced the social construction of masculinity and to this day challenges gender norms in society. Traditionally, sport was used as a “rite of passage” into manhood, it has a central role in male identity; as well as influence on violence, homophobia, emotional and physical wellbeing. This research paper will analyze the positive and negative effects sport has had on gender identity, gender roles, and social constructs. As well as, establish whether or not the definition of masculinity in sport is exclusive to western culture.

In the 1960s, participating and competing in sport served as an initiation to manhood in society, which in result defined what it meant to be a man. Sport was seen as a path to certain values, attitudes, and skills considered important for being a man. What constitutes these “masculine” characteristics in sport? Alley and Hicks define them as being “agentic, instrumental, and competitive” as opposed to being more “communal or expressive” for femininity (Alley & Hicks, 2005). However, it should be noted that women are adopting these masculine traits more and more today, in competitive sports leagues, in pursuing higher level career positions, and increasing their individual competitive growth in general; these developments have led many researchers to begin to define “masculine” and “feminine” as psychological and not physiological traits (Alley & Hicks, 2005; Lantz & Schroeder, 1999). As much as society has defined it, athletes also define sport participation as masculine. Another development in defining how sport affects masculinity is in whom is associated with an athletic pursuit. At one point, this definition would have most likely been only the athletes themselves. Today, it seems that by simply following the performance of and caring about the achievements of athletes or athletic teams is sufficient to increase “masculinity.” (Warm, Waddill, & Dunham, 2004). The above study finds, individuals participate in sport via their “fandom”, and that such participation is predicated in a person’s masculinity (Warm et al., 2004). Therefore, one does not have to be an athlete to increase masculinity via sport. Women and fans have not always, of course, been perceived as “masculine” simply for their relationships with sport. The changing meaning of sport in our society has influenced these definitions significantly. The word is evolving to mean simply masculine personality traits, such as competitiveness, instead of referring to the basic anatomical differences between males and females.

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In framing sport as a rite of passage into manhood, society makes it not only a teaching tool for values like those discussed earlier (competition, toughness, etc.) but an accepted socialization strategy where all participants are taught the same premises, identical principles, and in the same manner. Regardless of where a youth played a sport, it can be assumed by society that they learned certain ground rules about work ethic, persevering through pain, learning from and respecting superiors, communication, and other tenets of sport. All of these studies and observations, however, are based solely on United States society. The alignment of emphasis on sports and masculinity with the mood of the culture, for example the contrast between the periods of war and peace, are uniquely U.S. phenomena, since no other nation had that exact experience during the world wars. Therefore, the culture highly dictates the effects and influence that sport has on masculinity and on how each it is defined.

An article examining the role of sport in Cuba as a definer of male identity finds a similar pattern to the identification of athletes as more masculine. In Cuba, knowledge of sport, specifically baseball, and the ability to argue about and defend your viewpoint is essential to manhood and pride (Carter, 2002). This ability to recite facts and figures about one’s team of choice and to defend the honor of players and associates of that team is a “defining factor of belonging in the pena (group of fans) and acts as a factor in confirming one’s claims of masculinity” (Carter, 2002, p. 126). Carter mentions that, in Cuba, the ability to defend one’s side with verifiable, quantifiable numbers is essential. He quotes a fan’s explanation of this reliance on statistics, “numbers are non-negotiable. You can’t argue about the numbers. You can argue over who is the better player. There is no question about the numbers…You can argue with a man, with his opinions, but you can’t argue against the numbers. They just are” (Carter, 2002, p. 130). This emphasizes how having readily accessible (mainly through one’s own knowledge stores) defensible statistics regarding a player or a team’s abilities is more important in Cuba than in the States. The author attributes the importance of numbers to the fact that “statistics provide men with a safe means of resolving challenges to their masculinity without resorting to violence.” (Carter, 2002, p.130). Not only the threat of violence, however, is what defines these interactions as masculine. It is, Carter asserts, “the very act of disagreement that is vital to asserting and displaying one’s masculinity” (Carter, 2002, p. 134).

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In addition, another Latin American example of sport as a defining factor in masculinity is the role that soccer has played in Argentina’s political process and the Argentinian idea of femininity, as well as the role of women. In a review of Luisa Valenzuela’s, The Lizard’s Tail, which detailed the era of Argentinian history in which a military junta overthrew the government, the nation hosted and won the World Cup of soccer, and many defining moments occurred. Geralyn Pye notes that throughout the political turbulence leading up to the hosting of the World Cup, even the warring factions in the nation took a pause for the soccer festival; “Nothing would infringe on the spectacle of the World Cup” (Pye, 1994). The military junta which controlled the government focused all of its efforts on making the Cup a success, and in return, displaying to the world and their own nation their power and control (blatantly masculine traits) and their ability to govern and rule. Pye notes that this period of political upheaval and concurrent focus on national sports, “not just the World Cup, but also boxing”,” demonstrates, “the ways in which sport may become part of the political process and symbolize masculinity…with success symbolized by cheering fans” (Pye, 1994). Aside from the political process, Pye notes a phenomenon regarding the societal roles embodied in Argentinian soccer that, “sport…symbolizes masculinity and virility, which women will admire as spectators ‘with their pots and drums” (Pye, 1994). In creating a male only arena for sports, the Argentinians have reinforced Latin stereotypes of women as household workers only, as having only feminine traits and being incapable of the masculinity personified by sport.

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These international examples demonstrate that in most modern cultures, sport plays a significant role in defining masculinity and what it means to be manly. In Cuba, one must be able to successfully and specifically defend one’s team. In Argentina, sport separates the feminine housewives from the powerful and controlling men that run the country. There are other specific cultural examples relevant; these two were selected for portraying masculinity through influence, gender stereotyping, and socialization processes.

To conclude, the definition of masculinity through sport is a valid and established assertion. From redefining what male/female differences are (by allowing females to pursue “masculine” goals such as athletic achievement) to creating a rite of passage for young boys to become included as an adult. Sport provides socializing mechanisms universally. This is not simply a United States phenomenon, but internationally, sport plays a major role in defining masculinity. In Cuba via one’s ability to argue statistics, and in Argentina through evidences of power, whether it is political or societal. “In historically recent times, sport has come to be the leading definer of masculinity in mass culture” (Connell, 1995, p.54). Connell’s statement is supported by significant research about how masculinity is perceived, what influences there are on why it is perceived in this manner, and how these perceptions and definitions shape our culture.

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