Success in sports is, arguably, the determining factor of overall success and public admiration of a man today. We find that many men look to the athletic world as a means of escape, liberation, or fulfillment of their lives. While all this may be true, there are many costs associated with the game, both health and relational, and just about everyone who aspires to this type of success falls victim to these costs.
However, despite the fact that many are fully aware, they seem to have little weight in people’s decision to pursue a professional athletic career. On the other hand, this ignorance is justified as some see the costs as just part of the job, and as Michael A. Messner suggests in his essay, “Sport and Gender Relations: Continuity, Contradiction, and Change”,”—these costs—if they are recognized at all—will be considered ‘necessary evils,’ the price men pay for the promise of ‘being on top” (Messner 50).
Although, every job will have pros and cons, considering the costs for athletes, they are arguably not worth the otherwise temporary acquisition of power and control because they can never be “paid off”. Nonetheless, it is understandable why men are impervious to the constant reminders of the sacrifices they are making by choosing to live a life in the professional sports industry. A successful life is one not easily found so no matter where it leads it should be followed, but at what cost?
As Messner says, many in the athletic world suffer greatly from both health and relational issues, but, assuming that the health problems are widely understood, we can look more into the intricacies of the relational costs the athletes have to endure, though, such costs are deemed unimportant at the outset of a career and are, consequently, most pronounced after the individual has faded from the athletic realm. After many years of training and submersion into sports teams and athletics, we can theorize that athletes have come to develop not only a distorted relationship with others but, more importantly, with themselves.
From this, we can reason that athletes have a distorted relationship with others because they have distorted relationship with their own bodies, using it as a means of domination and control over others. Thus, when combined with the culture of the athletic world, we see an extrapolation of the athlete’s learned competition and cultivated masculinity, to the detriment of relationships with others. As children, we understand that the purpose of sport is to play fair and have fun with others (Messner 50).
However, as children grow up, the reality of sport grows with them and we start to see it being treated, not only as a means of fun, but also a competition and dominance as well. As Messner maintains in his essay,”—it was not just being there with the guys’ but beating the other guys that mattered most” (Messner 50). This change is arguably the most noticeable in growing athletes, and reflecting on my own experience, I recall the point at which the game became more about competition than cooperation.
In the beginning, one of the most common arguments was that the team was out to have fun so it did not matter what the outcome was, but as each individual progressed, it became a game solely based on how well one performed on a c ne performed on a competitive level which, consequently, influenced the attitude of that individual. Resulting from the athlete’s decision to use the body as a means of domination and power (Messner 49), they begin to detect an incongruency, or unparalleled, conception of themselves compared to what others see them as, and as a result, develop a distorted relationship with their bodies.
Just as men have a compelling sense to prove one’s manhood, most displays of ability or capability involved a certain degree of competitiveness which is another critical factor in the distortion of interpersonal relationships. One of the most common examples we can use to explain such an increase in competitiveness is the social structure of football and how it works to construct a masculine identity in young athletes as Donald F. Sabo and Joe Panepinto talk about in their essay “Football Ritual and the Social Reproduction of Masculinity”.
Although, there are still other sports which capture many of these same ideas, (resistance to pain, control, and social isolation), football, being a predominantly male sport, is the best example to use in terms of relations with other people. (Sabo and Panepinto 79). Young boys learn this competition because sports evolve from fun and friendliness to being an overt display of masculinity and dominance over others.
Similarly, this same idea is used in the relationship between father and son in Michael S. Kimmel’s essay, “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity” when he says, “The boy has come to identify with his oppressor; now he can become the oppressor himself” (Kimmel 32). We can argue, in light of this, that the learned competitiveness is a release which the athletes use to assert their masculinity. By achieving the dominant status on the field they are symbolizing their ability to overcome authority while maintaining their own.
Subsequently, athletes are also contributing to the major incongruency between the relationship with themselves and other people. Though sport is riddled with extreme cases of injury and personal harm, and in the locker room we can see complete disavowment of the gay community, (Messner 53) we must keep in mind that these qualities are not derived from mere participation in sport but rather the inescapable assignation of masculinity that goes along with it. Nevertheless, athletes suffer greatly from this conformation to athletic masculinity as they give up any potential for emotional intimacy and sensuality.
The qualities which are not only desired but required in a relationship are abolished within the suffocating and, conceivably, constraining definitions of masculinity. Messner proposes that the athletes develop their identity around the attention they receive from their ability to be the dominant force (Messner 50). However, the connection between the relationships with others versus “the crowd” is debatable because it is possible the feeling is more personal, rooted in primary familial dynamics.
Perhaps, rather than an otherwise vague connection with a group of people, these athletes quite simply see other athletes as individual challengers to their own masculinity. As a result, we can argue that this is what drives them to become so competitive on the playing field, not so much to please the crowd, but to show everyone on the field and in the crowd their true hegemonic masculinity. Admittedly, there have been instances which I personally recall as pure demonstrations of masculinity on the playing field, especially in front of a crowd.
It would be most common to see players, typically ones of higher “importance” on the team simply walk off the field in the event of an injury only to succumb to the overwhelming amount of pain once on the sideline. Regardless, this type of masculinity, as defined by Becky Beal in “Alternative Masculinity and Its Effects on Gender Relations in the Subculture of Skateboarding”, is “the most powerful form of masculinity” (Beal 61) and a result of athletes choosing to pursue success through sports.
Similarly, Kimmel contributes to this definition of masculinity in establishing it as, “a man in power, a man with power, and a man of power” before going on to mention that “We equate manhood with being strong, successful, capable, reliable, in control”, which coincides with everything athletes believe they might achieve through their athletic success. Thus, we can assume that any athlete, in their fight toward athletic success, hopes to prove their masculinity through not only the newfound strength, capability, authority developed in the sports world, but most importantly their fulfilled dreams of success.
In just about everything a man does, we can argue that it is done on the grounds that it will either help construct a stronger masculine identity or be neutral in effect. We can claim that no man, assuming they are concerned with masculinity to some degree, will do anything which might have the potential to reduce masculinity. Therefore, we can accept this as an explanation as to why a large number of men use sports to develop a masculine identity.
A man’s need to display masculinity is, contrary to what Messner argues, rather sustained by the individual relationships or how each person sees them. Given the situation where a male might long to please a crowd there is a chance which some people will not be satisfied with their display, which causes me to believe that the reason men are so persistent in putting their masculinity on display is so that each and every person, making up the “crowd”, are aware of his “masculinity”.
Coincidentally, while they are putting on this display, they are at the same time developing their masculine identities. For example, a person playing in a soccer game may be using what skills they already have, but at the same time they are refining those skills to become an even better and more skilled player because they are using them more often. In the same way, by continually practicing this display of masculinity athletes are developing it even more than they are off the field.
That being said, I also believe that we are able to argue the fact that within every sport there are a number of common behaviors which the athletes must learn in order to participate or even become successful. Among these are the most important, tolerance of pain and acceptance of authority or control which are perhaps two vital concepts associated with masculinity. Messer only reinforces this in saying, “—sport should not be muzzled by humanist values: it is the living arena for the great virtue of manliness” (Messner 48).
Considering this, we can not help accepting that these qualities are reinforced in many of the sport subcultures and reaffirm the fact that sports are associated with masculinity, or masculine qualities. Every sport today involves a considerable amount of pain, or at least a risk of injury, which is why we relate athletics to masculinity. Though there is much more to this manliness than we had originally thought as many of the behaviors we see n men are only half of what we actually see in athletics. Since athletes develop masculinity through sports there is no question as to how these behaviors grow beyond the playing field. One of the most common examples of this is depicted in an athlete’s perspective towards others. Considering that of a football player, we can observe that the most common interpretation of the personality of such a person is known as a “Jock”.
The behavior of such a person, said to be overly competitive and mostly violent, is a result of the developing masculine identity in the sport subculture the athlete is involved in, perceiving others as male objects to be defeated or female objects to be sexually conquered (Messner 50). One observation that can be made of the qualities which define a “Jock” is that they are seemingly polar opposites of what society has defined as “feminine” qualities: kindness, compassion, empathy, sympathy, and as mentioned, the capacity for emotional intimacy and sesuality.
Athletes have learned that in order to be seen as masculine and accepted among other men, they must first “devalue all women” as women embody the traits that are “not” masculine and, second, remove from oneself these very traits that makes them too “feminine” (Kimmel 32 and 33). After a lifetime of repeated success, humans learn the qualities which produce the most success and alter their lives to epitomize those traits. However, by learning to use their bodies for success and to accept athletic masculinity, athletes forfeit any possibility for successful relationships with others.