On Sport and Hypermasculinism

Against the Current, No. 89, November/ December 2000

Varda Burstyn

THANKS TO AGAINST the Current for reviewing my book, The Rites of Men (ATC 88, September-October 1999). And sincere thanks to Barbara Tischler for a thoughtful summary, within that review, of many of the book’s main ideas.

Ms. Tischler approved of a number of these, but implied that they were not “new.” I found that surprising. For while I generously used the work of other writers, scholars and athletes to illustrate or support my main theses, there are several ideas of political import with respect to the culture of sport that I had not seen expounded anywhere else. It is certainly possible that I’ve missed something. In which case, apologies.

There are five main ideas in Rites that were, to me, the most important part of my undertaking. Barbara Tischler’s review touched on some of them, but not on others. These ideas go beyond a description of the culture of sport — not just the ritual game, but the whole huge corporate culture that has grown around it and permeated our cultural genres and our daily lives — toward an assessment of its larger impact on society.

They are central to the way I theorized how the culture of sport — gendered at its foundation — is linked to (a) broader political consciousness (identity, subjectivity, allegiance, political capacity), (b) broader political discourse (e.g. football as the Great American metaphor for life, politics and nationhood, life as the great competitive game, war as sport and sport as war), (c) population fitness and health (the culture of sport is associated with increasingly poor rates of participation in healthful physical activity except for privileged layers, participation being directly related to place on the economic, gender and race ladders), and (d) state formation and policy (deciding which broader functions of governance and the state are considered worthy, which unworthy of support with taxpayers’ dollars, and the masculinist nature of the neo-liberal and neo-conservative state).

As these ideas are near and dear to my heart, and as your readers constitute a rare informed audience, I would like to share a brief summary of them.

1) Sport as a socio-political fatherhood. While I drew on the work of a number of scholars (Mark Carnes and Donald Mrozek notable among them) in describing the rise of sport amid the exit of the family father from the childhood and adolescent lives of boys in the nineteenth century, my naming of sport institutions as a socio-political fatherhood I think is new — and important.

Sport culture is a ubiquitous and powerful institution of socialization, and allegiance to abstract notions of identity (class, city, nation) in adult political life are shaped by much more primal, parental-type allegiances and experiences in the culture of childhood sport.

The current model of childhood sport generally features the coach as supreme patriarch with unquestioned authority, who regularly abuses his players verbally, and far too often physically and sexually, while offering an authoritarian identification figure and model.

In Sport: A Prison of Measured Time (1978) Jean Marie Brohm, the French Freudo-Marxist, did a brilliant job of explaining the “disciplining” job that sport does for capitalism, but had nothing to say about gender relations or parenting in his analysis. I agree with many of his approaches, but talking about sport without talking about masculine dominance and the state of the family is like trying to explain capitalism without resorting to the categories of class and capital.

2) Militarist (homo) eroticism of sport culture. The militarist eroticism of sport culture — particularly its homoerotic nature and qualities — has had profound consequences for the development of male bonding and class formation in capitalism historically; and it remains the energetic force that imprints boys within and draws grown men to sport today.

A number of writers have explored the homoerotic qualities of sport (notably Brian Pronger, Allen Dundes, Thomas Waugh) in a celebratory, anthropological, sociological, historical and postmodern way. But no one to my knowledge has shown how this disavowed but real homoerotic energy of sport practice and sport culture is both created and mobilized by capitalist media, and by athletic and military associations, to maintain institutions of class and race as well as male dominance, and — within a series of implicit and explicit boundaries — to legitimize interpersonal, social and state violence.

3) The Masculinity Market. There is an economic base to the hypermasculinity (cultural idealization of coercive ideals of masculinity) of contemporary sport culture which I describe in my book.

Again, while many people have written about the impact of the discovery of demographics on television and advertising, I have never read an account — such as my chapters 4 and 5 — which draws together the ways in which the industry of sport, and the commercial gendered culture it produced, developed the mythology of hypermasculinty in order to cohere and maintain a homosocial men’s audience, and hence access to the most affluent segment of society.

Because of the perceived value of organizing a rich, homosocial audience on the part of sponsoring corporations and the commercial media (i.e. because of the corollary need to exclude women from the sport spectacle) sport culture continued as a hypermasculine culture long after other gender norms and practices had changed in the early and, again, in the late twentieth century.

As well, while I drew on the work of many insightful writers, my drawing together of how this gendering of the market has affected the nature of the spectacle and the athletic body — the definition of heroism, the nature of the rituals, the ideal physique (aesthetics and performance) and the gendered dimensions of the ways that athletes have been turned into gladiators — is also unique.

In effect, I argue that while the rise of a new wave of social movements — notably feminism, Black rights and anti-Vietnam War — provoked crises in identity and masculinity in North America, crises that fueled the growth of compensatory rituals of masculine assertion (such as men’s professional sports and the gross increase in violence in the men’s action genre), it was the way that sport organized a profitable audience of men for sponsors that ensured the growing hypermasculinization of the spectacle.

In professional men’s team sports, the film “Any Given Sunday” illustrates a great many of my points about the relationship of media and money to football and the athlete. In my chapter on the Olympics I show how gendered cold war ideological combat, and gendered corporate appropriation, together produced the particular regime of banned performance enhancing drugs now current.

4) High performance for some, couch-potatohood for others. From the point of view of population health and well-being, physical activity is a big issue. Enough of the right kind can cut your chances of acute and degenerative diseases by significant margins, banish depression, make you feel good even if you smoke or live in a polluted environment (to a point) or are going through a divorce.

Ensuring that people get enough of the right kind of physical activity should be a number one population health goal (preventive health measures) for every municipal, state and federal government.

Yet it will come as no surprise to readers of Against the Current that healthful physical activity is apportioned in just the same ways as are capital and power and leisure — along all the usual fault lines of social stratification. You are more likely to be healthfully physically active if you are male, wealthy and white. And everyone knows the reverse corollaries.

What we have seen over the last thirty years is an increasing diversion of public funds into the infrastructure of elite sport, and less and less into the facilities and social supports that make good exercise available to ordinary people.

The proponents of high-performance sport have argued that there should be a seamless web connecting high rates of community and participatory sport to the Olympic and professional teams networks. In reality no such web exists.

Increased funding to corporate sport (sports scholarships, stadium construction) has not been matched by increased funding to community and school sport or other physical activities. To the contrary — and the feminization of poverty has meant that women are especially at risk of health problems correlated to lack of exercise.

The high-performance hypermasculine sport culture has not been good for the majority of people, even if has produced a buff elite and extended sport networks into early childhood. To achieve the heroization, indeed the deification of athletes — a phenomenon that has made media and sponsors rich — we’re losing more and more of the spirit and the activities that can keep us happy, healthy and feeling like gods ourselves.

5) The broader ideological function of corporate sport culture. Corporate sport culture, within broader political culture, functions as a generating field for an ideology of what I have called, finding no other existing term, “coercive entitlement.”

This ideology could be encompassed in the following phrases, expressing values dominant in sport culture: “the sacredness of competition,” “might equals right,” “winning is everything,” “nice guys finish last,” “there’s only room for one at the top.” It is also reflected in the rituals and regimens of contemporary sport culture, which include aggression against others, pain and self-mutilation.

I argue that these values are anti-social, and that they have displaced the pro-social values of play: “it isn’t whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game,” “the level playing field,” “it’s the team that counts,” “being active means staying healthy.”

These still coexist with the anti-social values in the participatory version of these games, though less and less as the norms and goals of professional sport saturate the childhood sport networks.

“Coercive entitlement” is a base ideology for all stratified societies (something has to justify unequal distribution, whether of yams or stock futures), and in all stratified societies games and rituals play out some version of it.

In pre-capitalist Europe, for example, it was God, King, the Church and the armed aristocracy that sat at the top of the hierarchy. Their existence and entitlement to power were accounted for as divine, pre-ordained. Aristocrats and commoners might mingle on feast days, but they played different games (jousting and football, respectively, for example) and kept different stations.

Today, it is the mighty transnational corporations and the elite echelons of powerful nation states that stand at the top, while the ideology of democracy, the official ideology in political discourse, continues to assert the value, the inherit merit, of equality.

Myths of Equality

Sport culture takes these two massive ideological commitments — to stratification and inequality (the corporate model of society) on the one hand, and to democracy and brotherhood (liberty, equality, fraternity) on the other, knits them together in rituals performed, in Michael Messner’s words, “at the extreme of the male body,” trains youth to perform them and adults to venerate them.

Despite women’s inclusion in most sports (an inclusion largely at the bottom, as male sport officials have taken over official positions in women’s sport networks as they joined with men’s) the dominant sport culture remains a hypermasculinist one.

With women’s incursion into sport there has been no commensurate “feminization” of rituals or ideals. That the dominant sport culture acts as a reservoir for anti-feminist as well as anti-feminine impulses has been well-established by others, notably Michael Messner, also Don Sabo, Bruce Kidd, David Whitson, Michael Kaufman, Genevieve Rail, Helen Lenskyj.

What I’ve added to the discussion is the argument that this atavistic sport culture, rooted historically and symbolically in men’s warrior culture, rationalizing and sanctioning elite force/violence, spectacularized and commodified by capitalist media, also acts as a generator of and reservoir for broader anti-social impulses and ideologies, despite its official egalitarian-democratic rhetoric.

This broader function has political consequences with respect to matters not normally thought of in gender or sport terms. I argue that, through hypermasculinity, the idealization of coercive entitlement in corporate sport culture cultivates right-wing ideological impulses. It “authoritarianizes” democracy and legitimates minority entitlement to wealth, and to force (violence).

Anyone interested in understanding the haunting deficits in the subjective factor in U.S. and indeed in Canadian politics today had better understand this. Sport masculinizes social values — higher, faster, stronger; bigger, tougher, meaner, more and more elite.

Through sport’s ideological (cybersocial darwinist) lens, “law and order” and “patriotic” ideologies are strengthened. And these shape the economic and political choices that citizens and political representatives of communities and nations make.

In the United States in the last ten years, hundreds of billions of dollars of public money have been taken away from health, education and welfare — the “soft” departments of the state, the ones “we can’t afford.” But that money, drained from services that would now have to be taken up privately in the home, was not returned to taxpayers to help them pay for their added costs.

Instead it went into growing the police, courts, prisons and the military — the departments of the state that date back to its very foundation in antiquity (an armed body of men) and that have always been dominated by men — the hard, necessary departments, the ones “we can’t afford to do without.”

In California, to take one well known example, about ten billion dollars has been diverted from the “feminine” (social service) to the “masculine” departments of the state, and whole regions’ economies have become involved in, and dependent on, prisons. Mike Davis has written eloquently about this, declaring the California system a veritable gulag.

Bill Clinton grew the arms industries (which, not incidentally, supply the police-prison complex) to the biggest in U.S. history. Privatized prisons are now traded on Wall Street. The United States is armed to the teeth and, though I don’t recall the figure exactly, something like forty percent of its economic activity is sunk into the larger militarized nexus.

At the same time, breathtaking concentrations of commercial media conglomerates have created a cretinous level of news reporting and analysis that makes it impossible to conduct a national discussion on any meaningful issues.

What you may not have noticed is that the other public works that have been funded to the tune of billions of dollars in the last twenty years have been sports stadiums.

I spent last year in Cincinnati, Ohio, a perfect example. The city already has three stadiums, to house their baseball, football and basketball teams. But they are completing two new stadiums at present, plus the massive new elevated highway project that the new construction requires along the northern bank of the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati.

Why all this? No corporate boxes in the old stadiums, no glamorous restaurants, no de luxe dressing rooms for the players. It’s a well-known story. The price tag? $1 billion dollars and counting. Source of revenue? Sales taxes in Cincinnati and Hamilton County, and federal funds for changes to I-75.

Meanwhile, NPR plays ads in the summer that inform Cincinnati residents that thousands of Cincinnati children will be going back to school without pencils and paper, and to please drop off their donations of school supplies at the local Krogers or Barnes and Noble.

In Cleveland, a city I discuss in my book, $450 million came out of the education budget, but the city found $520 million went into the new stadium for the Cleveland Browns. This is circuses without the bread.

State formation under hypermasculinist neoliberalism and neoconservatism has been driven by a broad state-economic strategy — for the state subsidizes these sectors almost entirely — that is not rational from a long-term political economic perspective.

While this militarizing strategy (police and prisons represent the forced militarization of everyday life for less privileged populations, the ongoing erosion of civil rights for everyone) generates profits in the short run, it seriously erodes the social supports and media diversity necessary to the maintenance of an industrial democracy.

There are many alternatives in deploying public dollars that would yield much better results in social and economic development and environmental sustainability. But these are not pursued.

Sport is definitely not “just a game,” and sport culture is definitely not just “fun and games.” Powerful U.S. industrial, financial and political leaders have set on the their course, making decisions within optic-shaping cultural experiences, among which the culture of sport is profoundly important.

Sport culture is a very important actor in the processes that create what some people have called “deep ideology” — the place in every individual, in common with other members of her or his society, where certain emotions (feelings) attach to certain values (beliefs), and in turn power certain life choices.

Gendered sport culture, through intense, organized physical activity, intervenes at that level in childhood socialization; draws on it for adult spectatorship; and reaches into it during other moments in life — interacting with a spouse or a child, or casting a vote.

Physical experience can engage and empower for good, or for ill. We can’t expect to socialize our kids in hypermasculine and dominance-oriented sport culture and expect them to emerge budding neo-Marxists.

Physical culture is a powerful school for value transmission. Changing it so that it transmits pro- not ant-social values means changing a major institution of social parenting. If we want to raise citizens capable of self-determination and the political action that makes this possible, I believe we have to pay attention to issues of childrearing, and hence to sport and its culture.

ATC 89, November-December 2000