You’ve seen it on television. Crowds consisting of predominantly men, each a different age, size, and shape, coming together as one hive mind as a goal, try, or basket is successfully scored to the commiseration of their counterparts. In those moments, the culture of sport brings people together with a sense of comradery that is almost untouched in mainstream media, but what happens when that culture is used against you?
Hegemonic Masculinity was first developed by R.W. Connell and is defined as the standards set for what a man should be, how we should think and act. These standards are set socially, creating competitive in-group dominance, establishing a hierarchy of men among their peers. Deviate from the standards set, and expect to be knocked back a few places in the pecking order, as it were. Tokened as “Toxic Masculinity” in mainstream media, this form of masculinity takes shape and form in pubs and on pitches, and the resulting environment is one that benefits no one. An environment where sensitivity is taboo, femininity is perceived as weakness, and deviance from the status quo is frowned upon.
I have experienced both sides of the story, both as an outsider and a member. During my time at University, I was involved in field hockey and got to enjoy winning (a lot), losing (sometimes), and partying (always). The men I was surrounded by didn’t necessarily meet the same remit for a ‘Boy’s Club’, they likely fell victim to Toxic Masculinity in their own way, but it was nice to have that sense of team spirit. I made friends for life, created positive habits surrounding physical health, and would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
In contrast, I’m also gay. Being gay and being in sport has a track record that it would rather bury. In fact, the UK has only ever had one ‘out’ football player, and other male dominated sports such as American Football and Ice Hockey have similar statistics. Studies have found consistently that men will use homophobic language when in these circles not because it aligns with their personal worldview, but because the standards set within these circles encourage it. It’s why when I was younger I had no relationship with sport or physical activity, that for some reason unknown to me I was not accepted or welcome. It’s why when I do enter those environments I have to ‘check’ my behaviour and fabricate parts of me that don’t exist, at least until I feel safe enough to let that guard down. Yes, that does include pretending to watch the Scottish Premier League for an hour while sat at the barbers. It’s why generations of young people are faced with an invisible barrier when it comes to accessing sport; they feel they don’t have permission, and they feel they are not wanted.
Despite this, there is hope. Having done my honours project at University on masculinity within team and individual sport across different age groups, I found there are lower levels of Hegemonic Masculinity in younger males compared with older males. One study I found encapsulates this perfectly, and is one that has stayed with me ever since. The study, carried out in 2011, involved investigating inclusivity in American soccer. Using interviews and observation, the researcher sat back and saw a team that was more liberal, relaxed, and inclusive than what had been seen in generations gone by. Symbolising this extended to the wearing of pink football boots without homophobic judgment from teammates, and even compliments being paid to the wearer.
I can’t say that wearing pink football boots is the bravest thing that anyone has ever done (quite the opposite), and sport does continue to be actively dominated by traditional masculinities, however, there have been recent advancements in inclusivity and participation from minorities. Hopefully, with time, males can participate in sport and be men together, in all the different ways a man can be.