“Well hey there, little girl! Where’s your dress?” My nephew and I were making our way to the field for his little league football game. The question was addressed to my 8-year-old nephew’s teammate: a little boy in an oversized jersey. “Aww,” the coach continued, pinching the boy’s cheeks. “Look at that face. She’s so cute!”
I couldn’t help but wonder what the not-wearing-a-dress kid learned about the world when his coach joked with him that way. He might have learned that grown-up men sometimes make unprovoked jokes about gender. He might have learned that football coaches insult their players, and the players simply need to toughen up and deal with it because that kind of bullying and hazing are just part of the game. If the kid doesn’t like it, he’s free to follow the example of NFL player Jonathan Martin and give up football altogether.
After a “threatening and abusive” exchange between Martin and teammate Richie Incognito was made public, Martin decided to leave the Miami Dolphins. The voicemails and texts, according to ABC, contained such “expletive-laced rants” that Incognito was placed on suspension. But even after feeling bullied enough to leave the team, Martin told Incognito in a text message that he doesn’t harbor any hard feelings against him. “I don’t blame you guys at all,” Martin wrote. “It’s just the culture around football.”
There’s been a lot of debate over the past few months about the physical dangers of football, and virtually every conclusion is that — surprise — it’s dangerous. And the danger isn’t restricted to professionals. According to Allen Barra at The Atlantic, some of the most dangerous football is happening in the peewee leagues. In fact, said Barra, children’s football injuries may be worse than those sustained by older NFL players “because a young athlete’s brain is still developing.” Barra’s concerns are warranted, but they stop short.
There’s an old phrase, commonly (though incorrectly) attributed to the Duke of Wellington, that might offer some perspective: “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” This phrase refers to Wellington’s belief that his troops were successful in battle because of their sport education. He saw his soldiers’ military prowess to be a direct result of the training they received from playing cricket on the fields of Eton College.
Translation: Teaching a boy to win cricket has something to do with teaching him how to win war. What happens on the playing field is preparation for what happens off it.
In his book Inclusive Masculinity: The Changing Nature of Masculinities, Eric Anderson examines how contemporary notions about masculinity came to be enmeshed with youth sports. In the wake of the second Industrial Revolution (roughly 1870–1914), fathers moved outside of the home for work, leaving their sons to be raised and educated by their mothers. As a result of the structural and emotional distance that widened between boys and their fathers, the stage was set for the 20th century’s infamous crisis of masculinity. Within this “gender-panicked culture,” Anderson argues, “sport was thrust upon boys” as part of a “political project to reverse the feminizing trends” gaining ground since the father’s abrupt departure from his home. Anderson’s interpretation might be overstated, but, even still, it’s hard to ignore the connection between gender coding and sports education.
My nephew’s coach understands this code intuitively. Boys don’t wear dresses like girls. Boys aren’t cute like girls. Regardless of his intention, his dress joke reinforced the heteronormativity of the football field by jokingly reminding his players that certain gender boundaries have been articulated and must be obeyed. Football, like most sports, is coded by identifying the out-groups and defining itself in opposition to those.
American football came of age during an era that witnessed the decreasing distinctiveness of roles traditionally associated with masculinity. As 20th-century wars waged, the boundaries of traditional manhood began to blur, and as a result, the functions that once belonged exclusively to masculinity began to be taken over by historically marginalized — and feminized — groups. Fearing their masculinity was being appropriated by out-groups, men latched onto aggressive sport as a way of reminding their sexually progressive culture that strength and domination still belonged to men.
It’s understandable that sports culture is often characterized by heightened displays of hypermasculine power given its inextricable connection to martial culture. According to journalist JR Moerhinger, the contemporary game of football came into its own during the Cold War. “Football as we know it,” he wrote in an article for ESPN, “grew out of that unique moment when violence on an apocalyptic scale was imminent.” Lee Lowenfish, lecturer of sports history at Columbia University, doesn’t go as far as Moehringer, but still notes the connection. “Football,” said Lowenfish, “is a super-macho activity where players become warriors.” But rather than fight for democracy, football players fight for their own identities as men.
If it’s true that manhood must be won, rather than thinking of masculinity as being in crisis, we should begin to think of masculinity as crisis: that at the core of masculinity is the need to set itself up in opposition to weakness, a trait traditionally found in women and gay men.
The “masculinity as not X” formula is an integral aspect of peewee football, said Wade Davis, former NFL player and executive director of the You Can Play Youth Sports Initiative. “I was never told gay men can’t play ball,” he recalled of his experiences with youth sport. “I was just told gay men do X, Y, and Z, and I knew that football players didn’t do those things.” While his coach never spelled it out for him, Wade learned intuitively that gay men were soft like women, and that if his masculinity was to be achieved, he would have to find a way to set himself apart from that weakness. Wade calls this “passive homophobia and sexism,” and sees it as one of the negative side effects of the gendered values young athletes are learning to prize.
The “no pain, no gain” value system that is perpetuated throughout youth sport is negatively affecting impressionable young men, said Caroline Fusco, associate professor in the kinesiology and physical education department at the University of Toronto. The “heteronormative spaces” of peewee ball, she argues, are places where boys are taught to “police their emotions to project the dominant masculine ideal.”
The trouble with football is that it locates masculinity within the same space as violence, war, and exclusion, and in turn, suggests to young boys that their bodies are weapons — that their manhood itself is a weapon. The coach may or may not reinforce these ideas, but the crisis is already there on the playing fields of Eton, in the very stuff that makes the game what it is.
So where does that leave us? Do we pull our kids out of their peewee leagues because of the critical masculinities confronting them in those spaces, or do we simply dismiss the suggestion that the entire American Sports Complex is fraught with problematic notions of manhood?
At this point, it’s not likely that we can majorly revise or erase the physical violence that is integral to the game of football. We can, however, try our best to combat the ideological violence that continues to be perpetuated in youth spaces. And since, as Fusco noted, whatever happens at professional levels filters down and gets perpetuated by young athletes, we need to make certain to address any ideological violence that might be occurring in the NFL. Which means, for starters, taking a serious look at not only the Incognito/Martin scuffle, but the greater context of the locker room.
If we start to unpack what it is about “the culture around football” that makes it acceptable for players to threaten to rape a rookie or physically assault his real mother, then we should begin to realize that the ethos framing that Great Ol’ American Game demands reconsideration and, if and where possible, reform.