30 November 2012

Changing masculinities in sport

Masculinity has, and always will be, one of the most important features of men’s sport. Since sport started to become regulated in the nineteenth century it has mainly been fought out by men trying to secure dominance over others.  

Hegemonic traits are often “homophobic, misogynistic, and aggressive” (M.McCormack 2011) and these characteristics have always been present in sport. The most popular sports have always featured men going head to head, whether including contact or not. However, there are signs that this way of thinking is changing as media coverage and the public’s perception of sport develops.

‘Soft’ masculinities are becoming more prominent in the world of modern day sport. Metro-sexuality is a word that not many people would even have heard of in the 1980s, but now there are many top-level sportsmen that would be described as ‘metro-sexual’.

(Mark Simpson 1994) wrote that the “metro-sexual man, the single young man with a high disposable income, living or working in the city (because that’s where all the best shops are), is perhaps the most promising consumer market of the decade. In the Eighties he was only to be found inside fashion magazines such as GQ, in television advertisements for Levi's jeans or in gay bars. In the Nineties, he’s everywhere and he’s going shopping.” Examples of this type of masculinity are commonly found across the world of sport. England footballer David Beckham became the poster-boy of football in the early twenty-first century and since then others have followed his example, for example Welsh rugby union player Gavin Henson.

The twentieth century was an age when strength, power and dominance were promoted as important qualities of a man. The 1980s was a decade when homosexuality was frowned upon, as many people blamed gay men for the out-break of AIDs. These feelings were prominent in the world of sport, especially in association football, and the problem of hooliganism grew in the UK as a result of men trying to prove their masculinity and hetero-sexuality. 

The 1985 Heysel disaster that resulted in the banning of British football clubs from European competition was a prime example of this growing predicament, as Liverpool supporters caused trouble at the European Cup final. Although hooliganism was clearly a big problem, the press often jumped to blame events, and sometimes tragedies, on football fans. The Sun produced one of the most controversial front pages in 1989 when they published an article blaming Liverpool supporters for the Hillsborough disaster under the headline ‘The truth’. 

It was not until this year that The Sun apologised for the article when editor Dominic Mohan said: ''It's a version of events that 23 years ago The Sun went along with and for that we're deeply ashamed and profoundly sorry.” This was a prime example of society and the media accusing masculinity in sport for causing unruly behaviour, even though this type of conduct was often indirectly endorsed at the time.

Despite the media often condemning hooliganism, manliness has been encouraged by the press for many years. Sports journalism has been mainly based on men’s sport since the 19th century and people do not only see male contest when they watch sport, but they also view media coverage that is dominated by men. These “gendered institutions” (Creedon 1998) exist on television, radio and print every time sport is covered, for example on Sky Sports and the BBC almost every presenter and commentator is a man, and even though there are more women in the roles during female sport matches/competitions, coverage is still usually controlled by men.

However there are signs that the media’s perception and promotion of masculinity is changing. In an age when physical prowess is becoming less important, more non-aggressive people are finding it unproblematic to fit into the world of sport. “Male advantages erode when society is pacified” (Elias + Dunning 1986) and the modern Western world has definitely pacified in the past twenty years. 

An example of this was the public’s views towards homosexuality in sport. In 1990 professional footballer Justin Fashanu agreed in an exclusive interview with The Sun to come out as gay and was widely ridiculed, both by the public and his peers. In stark contrast, in 2009 Welshman Gareth Thomas came out to the press to become the first openly gay professional rugby union player and mainly received only praise. This made a big impact as Thomas was seen to be very masculine; after all he won 100 international caps for Wales. The press were much more supportive and as a result other sportsmen followed his suit within the next year, one of them England international cricketer Steven Davies. This shows how many people have come to accept that not all men are ‘manly’ and that feminine men are not necessarily “sissies” or masculine girls “tomboys” (Connell 1983).

The promotion of sports such as tennis, cycling, swimming and running has seen a decrease in the need for masculinity. More people feel able to get involved in non-contact, individual sports that do not focus on physicality or fighting skills. Even though the media’s and the public’s perception of sport is still male dominated, there are signs that this is changing and the recognised boundaries of ‘masculinity’ have broadened.

For example (Donaldson 1993) makes the point that, despite common beliefs, homosexuality and physical sporting masculinity fit in with one another: “It is not ‘gayness’ that is attractive to homosexual men, but ‘maleness’. A man is lusted after not because he is homosexual but because he's a man.”

Social life is still organised in a certain way; men are usually the ones seen to be more physical and women more restrained. On the whole people still have some sort of gender ideology ingrained in their brains, mainly because of society and the way that the social order dictates thinking. “Most people take it [gender ideology] as a given, it is deeply rooted in their psyches and the way they live their lives” (Coakley 2009). 

As a result sport is still mainly built around masculinity, despite the modern changes. For instance boxing is a sport where men use their fighting skills and physical prowess to earn honour in society, which is exactly what hegemony is. Many boxers also take these characteristics out of the ring into society, Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather’s prison sentences are prime examples of this. Even though women’s boxing is now a part of the Olympic Games (in 2012 Briton Nicola Adams became the first-ever woman to win Olympic boxing gold), sports like boxing and wrestling clearly still promote hegemony. 

Traditional masculine traits are “avoidance of femininity; restricted emotions; sex disconnected from intimacy; pursuit of achievement and status; self-reliance; strength and aggression; and homophobia"(Levant 1995). It could be seen that these characteristics are engrained in a male’s way of thinking early on in their lives and if they do not conform, then they can be cast aside. Many young men still grow up believing that strong men are heroes and weak men become omitted by society, and as a result they relate this to the way they live their lives.

Since the nineteenth century sport has been affected by the view that males should show physicality and controlled aggression. Despite these early ideas, there are signs that society’s view towards masculinity in sport is changing. 

Many sports retain focus on domination and power, although there are now people that go against the norm. Social beliefs and the boundaries surrounding masculinity have altered and the current sporting climate is witnessing a change to the definition of ‘masculinity’. The ‘softer masculinities’  have appeared through men like Beckham, Henson, Fashanu and Thomas as people have become gradually less influenced by gender ideology.

McCormack, M. (2011). Hierarchy without hegemony: Locating boys in an inclusive school setting. http://www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/92609/hierarchy-without-hegemony.pdf.

Simpson, M. (15/11/1994). The Independent newspaper.

Creedon, P J. (1998). Women, Sport, and Media Institutions. Chapter 6: Issues in Sports Journalism and Marketing.

Elias, N + Dunning, E. (1986). The Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilising Process. Blackwell.

Connell, R W. (1983). Which Way is Up? Essays on Sex, Class and Culture. Sydney, Allen & Unwin.

Donaldson, M. (1993). What is Hegemonic Masculinity? Springer.

Coakley, J. (2009). Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies. McGraw-Hill.

Levant, Ronald F. Dr (1995). Masculinity Reconstructed: changing the rules of manhood: at work, in relationships and in family life. New York: Dutton.


  1. Really enjoyed this post, sport is always going mirror society in a wider context it just seems to always be one step behind. I was wondering where you see diving and exaggeration of contact in football. We're infuriated as a player appears to fall down at the brush of a feather and proceeds to writhe around in agony. Is this an import from 'softer masculinity'? I don't think it could be as in rugby no player would allow themselves to look as if their opponent has got the better of them in any way. If sport does mirror society then why has football mirrored the fact that in society when the going gets tough we don't suck it up and try and get the better of the but instead metaphorically fall to the turf and hope we get our own way? Why only football and not rugby?

  2. I'm not sure this is always an import from 'softer masculinity', although this is definitely the case in some circumstances. Diving seems to have originated abroad, although plenty of home-grown players now are some of the biggest culprits e.g Rooney, Young, Bale etc. Society in general has become rather easy-going, especially in this country and I agree that many people do seem to cruise along and just hope for the best. Rugby could have less play-acting, like you say, because of its culture. It did not turn fully professional until the late 1980s and has recently held a greater standing for fair play and sportsmanship than football.