There’s More to Sports Than Macho Football Culture

This week, New York magazine ran a lengthy story by Jonathan Chait, entitled “In Defense of Male Aggression: What Liberals Get Wrong About Football.” I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot this week, and about what it has to say about masculinity and the way in which we raise our boys to become men. I’ve written about this a fair bit on Flavorwire, because I think it’s a socially important issue that doesn’t get talked about as much as it should. As its title might suggest, Chait’s piece has been controversial — but not for the reasons it should have been. Its greatest problem is that it sells sports short.

Like Chait, I also remember when I decided to quit football — Australian Rules football, that is, which fills essentially the same role in Australian society as American football does here. In my case, it was a miserable rainy day — and Melbourne’s winter really is uniquely awful — when every other outdoor sport practice was canceled because the weather was so foul. The football coach, however, insisted that it was “good football weather,” and so off we trudged down to the park to run around as the rain turned to hail and came down ever harder. It was somewhere in between standing shivering because the ball was down the other end of the field, and getting tackled face-first into the mudbath that had formed near the goal-line, that I thought, “Y’know what? Fuck this.” I took up basketball, and although I was never very good at it, I loved it, because it placed an emphasis on skill and grace, and, yes, because it was played indoors.

Australian football and American football share a lot of things: an emphasis on courage and physical strength, an expectation that at some point you’re going to get hit and will have to take the hit “like a man,” a pseudo-militaristic mythology. You can see this veneration of strength in the game’s unique lexicon: commentators speak admiringly of “hard-ball gets” and “putting your body on the line,” and sneer at players who “duck out of contests” or “hear footsteps.” They also routinely lament that the game is “going soft,” and that it’s not as physical as it was in the ’80s. (They’re probably right: all-in brawls weren’t unusual in those days, and one of my earliest memories is watching a player renowned for his toughness run full tilt into a goalpost — he came off unscathed, but the post was rather less fortunate.)

Unsurprisingly, given this culture, Australian football also shares American football’s problems with players’ behavior — there have been several high-profile cases of rape and sexual assault accusations against players and other figures involved with the sport, and much discussion of whether the game has a “problem with women.” In 2005, the league instituted a “Respect and Responsibility” code, which placed much emphasis on respect for women and racial minorities — it’s had mixed results, at best, and if anything, it’s served to demonstrate that trying to change an entire culture overnight is a hell of an undertaking.

Anyway, there’s been plenty of analysis done on the culture that comes with football (of both varieties), and with sports in general, and how this culture can both breed misogyny and allow players to act with impunity — so much so that I don’t think it’s necessary to go over old ground here. And in any case, it’s not difficult to put the pieces together and see how the culture of team sports can veer into harmful territory: testosterone, egos, a pack mentality, plenty of time in an all-male environment, burgeoning sexuality, the ability to get away with pretty much anything… what could possibly go wrong?

But I think there’s a wider point to be made about sports here. Chait is correct when he suggests that sports — and especially physical sports like football — have long been an outlet for teen aggression. This argument has often been used as a pillar of the rationale behind compulsory team sports: the physicality gives boys a chance to be aggressive, the team structure teaches discipline and curbs unruly urges, etc.

These things may or may not be true, but the argument about getting your violent urges out on the field relies on the false idea that aggression can somehow be quantified: “For many… kids,” Chait argues, “identification with football supplies the vouchsafe of masculinity that might otherwise need to be demonstrated in far more dangerous ways.” The thing is, though, that this isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s not like your average male has 100 aggression points, and if you can get him to spend them on a football field, he’s less likely to hit anyone off the field.

If anything, you can also argue that placing kids in a situation where violence and physical aggression are legitimized and encouraged only serves to breed more violence and aggression. I mean, shit, at my school, the bullies and the violent types tended to also be part of… the football team. (And indeed, Chait himself includes a story about a rival player punching one of his teammates at a party, which rather undermines the idea that football somehow leaches away players’ violent urges off the field.)

There’s obviously an argument about correlation and causation to be had here: is it that aggressive kids are attracted to contact sports, or that contact sports breed aggressive kids? I submit that the answer is both, but the combination of the two creates a sort of feedback loop that, if not broken somehow, can end up with some pretty dark places. In view of this, can we really justify continuing to support sports that essentially exist as a way to inflict violence in a socially acceptable way?

Obviously, I’m not arguing for the abolition of sports here. It’s complicated — like many other men (and, it should be noted, many women), I enjoy watching pretty much any sport when it’s on the TV. (Except American football, actually, although that’s a decision based on the fact that I find it dull, not on any ideological stance.) And I think it can be argued that at least some boys really do seem to benefit from boxing and football and other hyper-physical activities. Beyond that, team sports can be a hugely positive influence on boys’ lives (and girls’ lives too, obviously, although in this piece I’m focusing more on masculinity).

But the point is, we can do better than Chait’s view of what sports are and what they can do. Specifically, we can do without all the pseudo-militaristic macho bullshit that surrounds sports culture. It’s taken as a truism that this needs to exist: that team spirit is built in adversity, that adversarial relationships unite boys in a powerful and lasting manner. It’s not true, though, because all it does is ensure that boys best suited to such an environment prosper, while those who don’t are alienated and drift away. I’ve had sports coaches of the drill sergeant variety, and I’ve had ones who’ve been positive and nurturing and supportive. Guess whose teams won more? Spoiler: it wasn’t the abusive asshole who screamed at you every time you made a mistake.

The best sports (and, just as importantly, the best coaches) allow all sorts of kids to flourish, from the speedy little point guard to the big shot-blocking center, from the super-fit midfielder to the languidly creative No. 10, from the musclebound home-run hitter to the fat kid who can’t run much but throws a mean knuckleball. All sports feature a balance of brutality and grace — dunking a basketball on someone or putting them on their ass with a crossover dribble, for instance, are conceptually acts just as aggressive as running into them and knocking them over — and anyone without a sort of inner strength and a desire not to be made a fool of will react badly to being done like that. But in most sports, you don’t get to just smash the other player to the ground, because life doesn’t work like that.

The problem with physical sports like football, in particular, is that they privilege one version of masculinity over others. This is a problem because the version of masculinity they encourage is a sort of dick-waving physicality, and also because it means that there’s very few places in these sports for people who don’t fit the mold, physically or mentally. For every high school varsity football hero, there are ten boys who feel awful about themselves because they didn’t make the team. But the thing is that sports don’t have to just be about meatheadedness — they can be creative, and clever, and beautiful in their own way. Old school types tend to sneer at such virtues, and it’s no accident that those are adjectives seen as inherently feminine.

But masculinity isn’t just about hitting people hard. Take a basketballer like Steve Nash, or a soccer player like Garrincha — neither qualify as amazing physical specimens, but both have been brilliant and intelligent enough to overcome their physical limitations. (And, in both cases, it took a coach smart enough and willing to appreciate their talents for them to succeed.) Traditionalists will argue that the demilitarization of sport equates to the sort of liberal wooly-headedness that demands every kid at a track meet be given a first-place ribbon, but that’s not necessarily true; there’s nothing weak about Nash or Garrincha, it’s just that their strength doesn’t lie in their ability to take a hit.

It’s this, I think, that’s the fundamental problem with the view of masculinity that Chait endorses with his piece. If you see sports as “war without the shooting,” you’re relating masculinity back to militarism, and virtue to the ability to take and inflict physical punishment. We live in 2014. It’s certainly an inconvenient truth for some liberals that “testosterone poisoning,” as Chait puts it, does exist, and that some boys have a surfeit of physical aggression to expend, and that some of those boys do seem to benefit from expending this energy by hitting people in a socially acceptable way. But if we’re on inconvenient truths, we also need to acknowledge that if we’re putting kids into a pseudo-military environment, we have a huge job to do in making sure that this environment doesn’t also generate the negative aspects of military culture (and, let’s be honest, soldiers have rarely been renowned throughout history for their progressive attitudes toward women, or, indeed, rival soldiers).

And perhaps more importantly, sports don’t have to be this way. They can be so much more. If we see them only as a surrogate for military endeavor, we deny their ability to allow for self-expression, for skill, for unconventional approaches, for creativity. A soldier doesn’t exactly get to express himself on the field of battle, but a sports player does, and the sooner our sporting culture moves away from veneration of discipline to veneration of skill, the better.