Art by Vivian Hsia
A group of kids are playing a game of kickball.
One boy goes up to kick the ball and kicks it out of the field. He runs as fast as he can to home plate. He scores. All of the kids on his team cheer loudly and proudly for him.
Then, another boy goes up to kick the ball. He’s nervous; there is pressure to do well. He kicks the ball, but it doesn’t go very far, and an opposing player catches the ball before he can even run to first base.
He looks down in disappointment while the opposing team laughs and yells, “You kick like a girl.”
This is just one example of the toxic masculinity that permeates sports and is instilled among children, specifically young boys.
Toxic masculinity is the cultural idea that, to be a man, you must be strong, dominant and aggressive; if you show emotional vulnerability and respect toward others, you are weak, according to Green Hill Recovery.
Boys learn these messages at a young age through the men around them, peers, media and sports, according to The New York Times.
Coaches, as well as sports leagues, are responsible for upholding these harmful messages and standards for what manhood and masculinity mean, according to Global Sports Matters.
In sports history, there has been a multitude of instances where coaches have exerted abusive language and behavior onto athletes as a means of shaping them to be successful in their sport.
One instance of this was when former Indiana University Men’s Basketball player Neil Reed alleged ex-coach Bob Knight choked him during a 1997 practice. Reed spoke up about Knight’s abuse after another former Indiana player Todd Jadlow came forward with allegations against the coach.
“The very same game, when I stood up, he grabbed me by both sides and told me, ‘You’re a (expletive) senior, and you need to lead these guys,’ and he left bruises,” Jadlow said in an interview with the Indianapolis Star.
Multiple former Indiana basketball players came forward with allegations and after 29 years of working for the university, Knight was fired in 2000.
Despite the magnitude of allegations against Knight, some in the sports industry and sports fans bullied the athletes who came forward and excused Knight’s behavior as a coach just trying to shape his team to be the best athletes they can be.
A.J. Guyton, who played for the Hoosiers alongside Reed, publicly defended Knight when allegations came out.
“In order to become an All-American, you’re going to be challenged by a coach that pushes you to the limit,” Guyton said, according to a Desert News article. “It’s all a process of a boy becoming a man.”
In addition to suffering abuse from coaches, teammates and fans, athletes also feel pressured to prove their machismo by being emotionally guarded and tough, according to Global Sports Matters.
There is a “common belief that conflict, aggression and toughness are core to both manhood and success on the court,” according to Global Sports Matters.
When athletes get injured, they feel the need to ignore their pain and are encouraged to continue to play, despite the potential for further injury. This proves their true athleticism by showing they are willing to sacrifice their body for the team. Coaches, teammates and fans praise athletes when they push through their pain and are deemed weak if they don’t.
“Tolerance of risk and injury is reframed and legitimated as a means of impressing coaches or as a way of establishing identity and kudos within peer groups,” according to Sociology of Sport Journal.
The competitiveness that inevitably comes with sports pushes athletes beyond their limits, and if they don’t reach success in the form of winning or receiving acclaim, their manhood is at stake, according to The Journal.
“The perceived threat athletes feel to their masculinity as they play their sport or attempt to express themselves can lead them to feel insecure, compare themselves to teammates, and set overly high expectations for themselves,” according to The Journal. “Consequently, athletes are more likely to continue to spread toxic masculinity amongst each other.”
Highlighting the harm of toxic masculinity and the role sports play in sustaining it in no way is a claim that sports as a whole are bad or that all male athletes obtain toxic behaviors. It is simply an effort to increase awareness of toxic masculinity and spark a conversation surrounding a topic that poisons American culture.
This issue is systemic, and change must be enacted by the major sports leagues within the country — NFL, NBA and MLB, to name a few.
“If [a] league can make a diehard fan or aspiring [athlete] out of a child, they have a commodity to which they can sell this brutal masculinity for as long as they can keep him hooked,” according to Global Sport Matters.
Just as sports leagues have the power to uphold toxic standards of manhood, they have as much power to redefine what it means to be a man and change the narrative.
In the same way, change can start with us. It can begin with society teaching boys that being loving, emotional and supportive are not barriers to their success but rather stepping stones and that material success isn’t everything.
Coaches, fathers, brothers and mentors can teach boys about kindness, friendship, love and empathy as well as sportsmanship, athletic skills and technique.
Good Men in Sport is an initiative that works toward teaching male athletes positive and healthy masculinity. They have programs for both collegiate athletes and coaches to learn about the impact of “traditionally held aspects of masculinity, sexual consent, inclusion, and race issues,” according to their website.
“We felt that it was important to reach into this world and help young athletes understand how being a good man and a good person can leave a stronger legacy than anything that they accomplish on the field or court,” wrote John Izzo, Good Men In Sports founder, on the website.
Sports breed toxic masculinity, but the cycle doesn’t have to continue.
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