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Under the Lights: Toxic Masculinity and Sports

I was a varsity athlete in high school, lettering in Soccer and Lacrosse. I remember locker room culture. I cringe to think about my actions and words then when they come back to me now, and it would be easy to dismiss all of it as “boys being boys”. But it is exactly those sentiments that allow our commander in chief…

Under the Lights: Toxic Masculinity and Sports


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Estimated Reading Time: 12 Minutes

Author’s Note: This post will feature strong language, both my own, and that of others. It will touch on topics of Sexism, Racism, Homophobia, Violence, Toxic Masculinity and more. It also features strong language including racist, homophobic, and sexist slurs. If those are not your cup of tea, I recommend jumping to another article.


I was a varsity athlete in high school, lettering in Soccer and Lacrosse. I vividly remember locker room culture. I cringe to think about my actions and words then when they come back to me now. It would be easy to dismiss all of it as “boys being boys”, but it is exactly those sentiments that allow our commander in chief to speak of grabbing women “by the pussy” and not have it destroy his political campaign. I have at times in my life, contributed to a culture that increasingly disgusts me the more I reflect on my actions as a younger man.

I remember a time when I was around 10 years old that adults in supervision of me and a group of boys taught us utterly offensive jokes that we then told to each other with impunity. The jokes were overwhelmingly racist, despite there being an African American boy amongst us. He, however, was taught a large collection of Jew and Holocaust jokes. This was, seemingly, the way to keep it from being a problem; if you’re equal opportunity offensive, then you’re not actually racist, or anti-semitic. And I, like my fellow 10 year olds, ate it up. These were adults, teaching us how to be men. I bought into it.

I was a varsity athlete and I used this “resume credit” in the attempt to get girls to notice me. If/when they didn’t? I was confused. I was upset. That wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Society taught me that Varsity Athletes got girls. I spent a good chunk of my child/young adulthood believing in and perpetuating toxic masculinity, and memories of horrible actions and treating women (many of whom were my friends) like shit haunt me most of my days now. I’ve had long in-depth conversations with some of them about those actions but there are people I’ve never apologized to. There are people who I’ve no doubt hurt, and (like I believe most men should) I’m extremely certain that at least one of the “Me Too”s filling Facebook’s feeds is about me. Can any man say unequivocally that the same isn’t true for them?

Me Too” is a powerful message making its way through social media where victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault post “Me Too” as a way to help society (especially cis-gendered, straight men) to grasp the scope of this epidemic. It came in response to the New York Times’ reporting on Harvey Weinstein’s assaults on women for decades. Those posts are only coming from people who feel comfortable admitting such a thing. Imagine the scope of how many people aren’t comfortable posting “me too”, or how many people haven’t realized something that happened to them was harassment or assault until they read someone else’s story. Think on how society has conditioned us to accept things as “just how it is”.

At this exact point in time, there is a bright, and unforgiving light being shined on the Old Boys clubs of society, especially in the very public celebrity cultures of entertainment. And today? I’m going to talk about sports culture.

The Old Boys’ Club of Sportscasters

During Sunday’s Giants/Broncos game, sportscaster Al Michaels said the following:

“I mean, let’s face it. The Giants are coming off a worse week than Harvey Weinstein and they’re up 14 points”

– Al Michaels

That is legendary play-by-play sportscaster Al Michaels making light of a very powerful man using his power in order to force women into degrading, dangerous, and awful situations for his own sexual gratification. Weinstein dangled their careers in front of these women, and hurt the careers of those who didn’t comply and their loved ones. Mr. Michaels came out later in the game with the following apology:

“Sorry I made a reference earlier before, I tried to be a little flip about somebody obviously very much in the news all over the country. It was not meant in that manner. So, my apologies. And we’ll just leave it at that.”

– Al Michaels

Chris Collinsworth, Michaels’ partner followed up with “Move on”.

Sorry, guys, but I can’t leave it at that, and I can’t move on. The problem is our ease of moving on after an unacceptable “flip” comment, or accepting apologies which blame those who are upset, rather than the content of the joke itself. Michaels’ joke seemed to be saying that Harvey Weinstein was having a bad week because he was caught. Not that he had been a horrible person for decades, or let alone the bad week of women who were now having their Weinstein stories thrust into the spotlight to be questioned by society with things like “what were you wearing?” “did you tell anybody?” and “did you in any way invite his attention?” No, Al Michaels’ joke was concerned with Harvey Weinstein’s bad week as a comparison for the Giants’ losing their Wide Receiver corp to injury in a sports game. NBC’s response? “It was an inappropriate comment, and was acknowledged with an apology soon after on the telecast,” was a statement delivered to Fox News.

The joke was unacceptable, and the apology showed a lack of understanding or empathy for the problematic nature of the joke. Both of these things are part of a culture of Toxic Masculinity, both the ability and self-permission to say something “flip” of that nature, and then to apologize in a dismissive manner as though that absolves you.

It would be great to stop there, and talk only about Al Michaels’ blunder, but unfortunately, he wasn’t the only one making a statement rooted in sexism on Sunday.

Here Come the Las Vegas Golden Knights

The Las Vegas Golden Knights are the newest NHL team, and are doing quite well early in the season. On Sunday they defeated my Boston Bruins 3-1, however they caused a bit of an uproar for the above tweets sent out before the game. Those tweets were deleted Monday afternoon, and the team apologized. We’ll get to that in a second.

What are these tweets telling us? First of all it’s referencing the 2012 comedy movie Ted where Mark Wahlberg (in his stereotypically Boston manner) tries to guess his anthropomorphic teddy bear’s new girlfriend’s name by guessing the most “white trash” names he can think of. Those are the names used above. The joke is relatively obscure, wasn’t very funny in its original form, and when used in this context is simply saying one thing “the Bruins are girls, and we are men, let’s laugh at them”. Is that simplistic? Maybe. But the joke serves to reinforce society’s perceived “weakness” of women. What was the Golden Knights’ response? Well at the time they tweeted two things (since deleted). The first?

“It’s from the movie, Ted ?

Followed by

That video, by the way, is Ted, the bear, saying “Wow”. These are unacceptable responses for anyone, but especially a public entity. These are juvenile actions that live right in the pocket of locker room culture. They are exactly the kind of things said by teenaged boys as a way that is supposed to make you feel stupid for even bringing it up.

On Monday the team deleted the tweets and posted this publicly:

Before Sunday’s game against the Boston Bruins, we issued a series of tweets quoting a Boston-based movie with a bear as its main character that were in poor taste. By no means were the tweets intended to disparage females or female hockey players in any way. We do not condone sexism in any form and fully support the inclusive culture of hockey that makes our sport great. We accept full responsibility for our actions and apologize to those who were offended.

Is anyone else sick and tired of people and entities apologizing to “those who were offended”? It puts the onus on the receiver. As if to say if you say it to someone who isn’t offended, then is it really wrong?

Yes. Yes it is wrong. You should be apologizing to everyone and working to fix a culture that continues to do this over, and over, and over again.

And I would write this off as part of a rampantly sexist sports culture, but it’s not just sexism.

Football and Homophobia

Also on sunday was a Football game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Los Angeles Rams. One member of the Jacksonville Jaguars who I actually enjoy quite a bit, is Marqise Lee. He’s an unheralded player, and he plays hard and quietly delivers consistently good performances. Yesterday he got in an argument with a referee, the cameras saw him yelling and decided to zoom in.

There are few words that cause the hairs on my neck to raise more than “f****t” and seeing someone that I genuinely look up to as a sports player scream it as part of an insult tirade is truly upsetting to me. Back when Michael Sam was drafted by the Rams, there was a question posed, are we making locker rooms more safe for LGBT athletes to comfortably live in their own skin? Marqise Lee just showed one instance where we are definitely not. What if Michael Sam was on that sideline? You can see people trying to calm Lee down, but how many do you think said to him “hey man, not cool.” in any fashion, at any point? If asked about it I feel confident he’d say one of the things that I’ve heard said so many times about that word, “I’m sorry if you got offended” and “I wasn’t using that word to mean gay, when I grew up the word meant like “stupid” or “asshole”. And that is often a defense that is supposed to mean something. But all it is is saying “I’m part of a culture that finds homosexuality makes you less of a man, and therefore its an insult to use a homophobic slur in place of “you’re a jerk” or “you suck”. Oops. There’s another phrase with problematic origins.

By the way I just want to reiterate that these events happened in the span of 24 hours alone. We could also talk about Cam Newton saying “it’s funny to hear a female talk about routes” to a Charlotte-based reporter with extensive football knowledge. A popular MMA gear company that uses blatant white supremacy and anti-semitic imagery on its apparel. An Italian professional  soccer coach looking at a youth tournament and saying, “I would say that there are too many black players.” We could go back to fans spraypainting “n****r” on Lebron James’ house. The Ogden Raptors celebrating “Hourglass Appreciation Night” where 18 “hourglass shaped color commentators” gave the play-by-play for the game, half an inning each. We could stop for a second and talk about Brock Turner. And how much was made about his bright future as a swimmer being taken from him because of “20 minutes of action.

Or maybe we could just talk about Colin Kaepernick and how the fact that he isn’t signed to a roster is a joke, and that his protest over the inequality for African-Americans in the United States has been somehow usurped into some sort of insult regarding the military. Did you notice I didn’t link that one? That’s because I guarantee you already have an opinion regarding it.

We can just keep going. Sports are full of these stories. And yes, before one of you comments angrily, there are stories of wonderful camps run by athletes, visits to children’s hospitals, J.J. Watt’s incredible fundraising for Houston, and more, but those aren’t the opposite of the problem. And I think that’s where I run into my hardest wall about all of this. These are actions considered by many “bad”, but “good” actions make up for them — Yes I was caught using “f****t” as an insult, but I ran a great camp for kids last weekend in apology — The one doesn’t excuse the other. They aren’t opposites.

The conversations we need to have are not what’s “good” and “bad” but how we can rid competition from the stain of denigration. How we can get to a place where we don’t apologize for someone being “offended” and start owning our own actions? Universally. What can be done to stop boys like I was from expecting varsity athletics to be a gateway to sex? And how can we rid rampant sexism, racism, homophobia, bigotry, and a general lack of acceptance, from sports and competition? But until we figure out how to answer those questions? I hope we continue to hold people accountable for their words and actions, and expect both real apologies and actions that show true understanding and a commitment to changing in the future.

Society needs to hold hands and jump, into a scary new world, but we need to make sure we’re jumping in the right direction.

We are obsessed with punishment right now in the days of kneeling and Trumpisms. Punishments are quick-fixes. They’re a way of distancing an entity from a problematic action. They do not actually address a single issue regarding how to fix the problem. Al Michaels’ doesn’t deserve to be tarred and feathered for a horrible joke, and someone deserves a reprimand, not being fired from the Golden Knights PR team. We don’t need a statement of apology, we need a statement saying “we were wrong, and we have to be different.”

We have to be different. All of us. We have to learn from, and own, our mistakes. It’s time to start demanding public recognitions of things that were wrong, and apologies that express an understanding of why. We need the Golden Knights to know why that joke wasn’t funny. We need Al Michaels to understand what’s wrong with making light of a horrifying situation for so many people. We need Marqise Lee to be confronted for his use of a horrible word, and to hear him truly understand the problem with it. We don’t need them to just be better, we need them to be different. We fail if we don’t make them understand not just why what they did was wrong, but what they have to do to never make the mistake again.

Armchair change looks like sharing articles and posts that denounce the actions of horrible people without actually attempting to affect true change. I’m guilty of that. Often. So I’ll go first.

I have committed untold microaggressions and acted in racist manners towards friends and acquaintances of color. I have spoken to and perpetuated ideas and statements that are homophobic. I have been inappropriate with women, friends and colleagues, in private, public, and even in the workplace, and committed the kinds of actions that would cause one of them to say “Me Too”.

I have. Have you?

Let’s not just be better. Let’s be different.

We need to continue to work every day to shine the harsh light of day on acts of Toxic Masculinity, in sports and outside, and we need to force it to see itself for what it is. Wrong.


Thanks to Preston Max Allen, Crystal Arnette, Rachel Flynn, Olga Desyatnik, Tori Sheehan, Natalie Lawrence, Jamie Amos, Justin Colombo, Priya Iyer, Marcus Thorne Bagala, Liz Damuth, Megan Bagala, Heather Frase, Addie Davis, Erin Maya, Mara Barr, Rachael Duddy, Emma Poole, Lauren Lukacek, Joseph Reese Anderson, Taylor Coriell, and Sage Young for help with this piece.

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