sport has come to be the leading definer of masculinity in mass culture." Bob Connell, 1995
This statement covers such a huge amount of sociological assertions, a doctoral dissertation would not be able to do it justice. What is "masculinity" defined as and how has that definition evolved? What about "mass culture?" How far back shall we trace "historically recent times," and what was the situation before said times? What are some other definers of masculinity? Does the word only apply to those who are physiologically male, or is it a more general term used to describe certain personality traits?
Instead, it will examine the basic premise of the statement that sport is a major defining factor of what it means to be masculine in today's culture, and how and why that statement is true. It will do so first by giving a general history how we as society define masculinity, then a general history of the relationship between sport and masculinity in the U.S., of what sport has traditionally meant for athletes and spectators and of how this definition has changed and what events or social phenomena predicated the major changes. This analysis will include an examination of how sport has traditionally been used as a "rite of passage" into manhood, and as such, is a major factor in society's definition of what it means to be a man. It will then be argued that this phenomenon -- the initiation into "manhood" -- has come to mean something other than anatomically male; modern definitions of masculine do not only apply to males but are also relevant for females. Finally, this essay will briefly explore this phenomenon in other societies, and establish whether or not the definition of masculinity via sport is a distinctly "American" cultural event.
Lewis Terman examined the perception of athletes as more masculine in 1936 (Oriard 328). He concluded that, via his Masculinity-Femininity test, popular perception of college football players was that they were the most masculine group, both by others as well as based on their self-definitions (Oriard 328). This basic idea is supported by a more modern study of athletes by Thomas Alley and Catherine Hicks published in 2005. Their research demonstrated that "there was a consistent decrease in rated femininity and increase in masculinity" as participants were ranked based on which sports, if any, that they participated in (Alley & Hicks, 2005). This study also showed that although the sports chosen did have an effect on the perceived masculine/feminine nature of the participant, that any sport increased the identification of the participant with "masculinity." The authors attribute this to the traditional designation of sports as a "male domain," the fact that "male sporting events receive far more media coverage [than female ones], and participation in competitive sports violates females' traditional sex-rose and movement patterns." (Alley & Hicks, 2005)
These gender biases are evident in another recent study, this one from 1999. In it, researchers examined the messages about masculinity/femininity and how sports has shaped these gender roles, concluding that participation in sports is seen as a male trait and that "women who engage in competitive sport and men who do not engage in competitive sport are often perceived as acting outside of their prescribed gender roles." (Schroeder and Lantz, 1999) This study asserted that not only did participation in competitive sport enhance the perception of masculinity, but that it actually contributed to "the development of masculine characteristics." (Ibid) The authors assert that "identification with the athlete role is positively related to masculinity and negatively related to femininity." (Ibid) They base this on their findings that socialization "encourages males to participate in competitive sports in order to develop masculine aspects of their self-identify, while women are often discouraged from participating in competitive athletics for fear of 'masculinizing' their physiques, attitudes, and behaviors." (Ibid)
What constitutes these "masculine" characteristics? Alley and Hicks define them as being "agentic, instrumental, and competitive" as opposed to being more "communal or expressive" for femininity. (Alley and 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. (See Alley & Hicks, 2005, Lantz & Schroeder, 1999)
Another development in defining how sports affects masculinity is in whom, exactly, is associated with an athletic pursuit. At one point, this definition would have most likely been only the participants -- the athletes themselves. Today, it seems, simply following the performance of and caring about the achievements of athlete or athletic teams is sufficient to increase "masculinity." (Wann, Waddill, and Dunham, 2004) Participation in sport is not limited to athletes -- instead, the above study finds, individuals participate in sport via their "fandom," and that such participation is predicated on a person's masculinity. (ibid) It appears that one does not even have to be an athlete to increase masculinity via sport.
To sum the initial definition of "masculinity," it appears that both one's peers as well as the participants themselves define athletic participation as "masculine." Participation in athletics is not limited to the athletes themselves; instead, association with or interest in a competitive sport is sufficient to increase the perception of "masculinity." 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.
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. In King Football, Michael Oriard notes that football's influence on the national psyche began in "the 1890s, [when] football's value as an antidote to an increasingly effete civilization was proclaimed..." (Oriard 2001, p. 329) In other volumes, Oriard has noted references to the "manliness" of sport as far back as 1885. (Oriard 2001, p. 189) Other authors have noted that the nation's obsession with sport and competition in the 19th century was due to a "crisis of masculinity," with economic changes after the Civil War making Americans less financially autonomous and an influx of immigrants and the women's movement making males feel less powerful in society all contributed to the nation's focus on "masculine" competitive pursuits like sports. (Kimmel 1990, p. 57) Kimmel notes that events like the first tennis court in the U.S., the first basketball court, the foundation of organizations like the American Bowling Congress and the Amateur Athletic Union all occurred in the late 19th century, giving "masculinism...institutional expression." (Kimmel 1990, p. 59)
Oriard traces the nation's identification with sport, specifically football, as a major factor in our culture's development and ideals of masculinity, citing quotes from sources such as a 1920s Collier's articles saying that football offered protection against society's trend "to softness of the comfortable ease that money can buy." (Oriand 2001, p. 332) Oriand uses the image of football in the popular media (citing Los Angeles Times and Chicago Herald and Examiner articles, among others) to demonstrate that the nation gravitated toward competitive sport during times of perceived "softness," like the 1920s and 1950s, when the public didn't have a world war with which to define itself. (Oriand 2001, p. 335) The trend during these periods of relative affluence was toward protecting football from "sissies" or rule changes that might make it more genteel. The author notes that the violence of college and particularly professional football was celebrated in the 1950s more openly than ever before. Competing desires for danger and safety, violence and beauty, savagery and civilization in their many guises, informed responses to football from its beginnings, and this profound tension touched the very core of conflicting ideas about masculinity. (Oriand 2001, p. 335)
How, exactly, did this definition occur? When and from where were the youth adopting these beliefs?
It has been said that "through sport, boys learn cultural values and behaviors such as competition, toughness, and winning at all costs, which are culturally valued aspects of masculinity" (Messner 1990, p. 99)
One author details his own "initiation" into the culture of physical education teachers; in it, he examines how "the informal culture...served to legitimate and reproduce a 'hegemonic masculinity.'" (Skelton, 1993, online cite)
While not all sports-related rites of passage are as specific and ritualistic as Skelton's, there are certain qualities which all of them share. The anthropological concepts of rites containing the following elements are all quite clearly present in sport: man-boy relationships, conformity and control, social isolation, deference to male authority, and pain. (Sabo and Panepinto 1990) These socialization efforts to make boys grow up more "masculine" are "collective and mutually reinforcing practices, through which patterns of empowerment, habits, and self-expectations of domination are encouraged in successive generations of boys." (Whitson 1990, p. 22) In other words, society as a whole is encouraging youths to demonstrate…