Sports for dummies: How sports contributes to toxic masculinity

Michelle Fredrickson

I was at the gym in my apartment complex the other day, and there was a guy lifting weights – 10 pounds in each hand. As I ran on the treadmill, I heard two girls on the machines next to me making fun of him pretty loudly for only lifting 20 pounds. “What kind of a guy can only lift 20 pounds?” one of the girls snickered.

This bothered me for several reasons. First of all, getting started in fitness is not easy for people, and mocking them openly for not already being strong does not help anyone. Secondly, it is a reminder that while sexism against women is rampant, sexism also harms men with unrealistic expectations.

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The girls pointed to the screen, where a baseball game was on. “That’s a real man,” one of the girls said.

This situation got me thinking about the idea of toxic masculinity, and how the ever-present sports industry tells men what it means to be a man.

Toxic masculinity, for anyone who is unfamiliar with the term, refers critically to the way society has constructed ‘manhood’ to equate with aggression, dominance and a lack of emotion, and how men not possessing these specific qualities are dubbed ‘weak’ or ‘unmanly.’

It seems very clear that sports culture is both a symptom and a cause of this social issue. We see athletes on the field and on TV and they are celebrated as paragons of masculinity. Even on college campuses, local athletes are campus heroes. Male heroes are often people who are celebrated for physical prowess. I do not have an emotional attachment to any of these athletes, and so when I look at these heroes I see them differently. I have no desire to emulate their behavior.

That said, I do understand why people want to emulate their heroes. I have heroes of my own that I want to emulate – J.R. R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling and many, many characters in many, many books. Those are my heroes. Athletes are societal heroes, and there is a lot of pressure for men to imitate them.

A study published in the Journal of Sports Behavior found a significant association between a college student self-identifying as a ‘jock’ and conforming to strict gender roles of masculinity.

Another study on masculinity published in the Journal of American College Health found that college-aged men feel a great deal of pressure to conform to masculine gender roles and be ‘manly’ – that is, be unemotional, strong, muscular and aggressive. This puts men under what this study calls ‘gender strain’ – an emotional strain between a true identity and this idealized masculine identity. Furthermore, the study found that the sporting culture exacerbated this relationship, as sports showcase the masculine as the paragon.

This is a pervasive problem in society. It is not a problem with men. As evidenced in my gym experience, women perpetuate these expectations of masculinity just as much as men do.

It is not a problem that is going to go away until society begins to value other people – thinkers, scientists, philosophers – as much as it values athletes.

A response to this column can be found here. 

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Collegian sports columnist Michelle Fredrickson can be reached by email at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @mfredrickson42