Men, Sports, and the Culture of Masculinity

Who defines what it means to be a man? As boys grow up in our culture, they are bombarded with images and messages about this topic from many different sources: movies, advertisements, parents, and peers, to name just a few. Perhaps one of the most influential sources of messages about manhood comes from sports, most notably from the National Football League. According to the Sports Business Journal, the NFL produced $9.5 billion in revenue in 2012. To put this in perspective, America’s pastime, Major League Baseball produced $2 billion dollars fewer in revenue that same year.

The Influence of Sports

In the 1970s Miller Lite Beer was created as a diet beer for women. As you might imagine, it was a marketing disaster; sales never took off. Miller Beer Company decided to re-brand it to men, seemingly a moronic idea. But, they were successful. How? Miller hired a bunch of NFL players to have a yelling match in bars about whether the beer was less filling or tastes great. You know the rest of the story. You see men drinking Lite beer and no one questions their masculinity over it.

Clearly, the NFL is reaching a wide audience, including boys. It garners national media attention both on and off the field. Currently, the national media is focused on the Miami Dolphins for what is happening off the playing field. Offensive Lineman Jonathon Martin has left the team because of what is being called “bullying” by fellow Offensive Lineman Richie Incognito. Incognito allegedly threatened Martin in voicemails and texts, threatened Martin’s family, and used racial and homophobic slurs to belittle Martin. According to reports, Incognito also made Martin contribute $15,000 to funds for a trip to Las Vegas, a trip that Martin did not even attend.

The NFL’s Definition of Masculinity

While many are outraged and disgusted with Incognito’s alleged actions, the hyper-masculine culture of football has, to a certain extent, rallied around him, making Martin seem like the one in the wrong. NFL players have called Martin “soft” and “weak” with some suggesting that he needed to stand up for himself. Some reports say that when Martin brought his concerns to the Dolphins’ General Manager, Jeff Ireland, he suggested Martin punch his bully to solve the problem. Some of these words may seem absurd, but they are all over the media. A boy watching ESPN during this scandal is getting so many messages about what it means to be a man: Men don’t share pain, physical or mental. Men are “bulletproof,” even the nastiest words should not affect a man’s psyche. And, perhaps the most dangerous message, men don’t walk away from confrontation or from bullies. They escalate the situation to solve it; asking for help only opens you up to more criticism. Vulnerability is dangerous. So much of what boys are learning about masculinity from this situation is negative. But not all members of the football culture are criticizing Martin.

The Courage to Be a Real Man

Brandon Marshall, a Wide Receiver for the Chicago Bears, has been outspoken in dealing with his mental health issues, as well as other off-the-field personal issues. Marshall said the following with regard to the Miami Dolphins: “Take a little boy and a little girl. A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is ‘Get up, shake it off. You’ll be OK. Don’t cry.’ A little girl falls down, what do we say? ‘It’s going to be OK.’ We validate their feelings. So right there from that moment, we’re teaching our men to mask their feelings, to not show their emotions. And it’s that times 100 with football players. You can’t show that you’re hurt, can’t show any pain. So for a guy to come into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, that’s a problem.” Marshall recognizes the serious repercussions of a hyper-masculine culture and provided some insight on how to change it: “That’s what I mean by the culture of the NFL. And that’s what we have to change. So what’s going on in Miami goes on in every locker room. But it’s time for us to start talking. Maybe have some group sessions where guys sit down and maybe talk about what’s going on off the field or what’s going on in the building and not mask everything. Because the (longer) it goes untreated, the worse it gets.” (To read more of Brandon Marshall’s statements, go here.)

Marshall’s message may be in the minority, but it is an important one for boys and men alike to hear. Maybe we are taught to mask our feelings and maybe we are taught that it is not okay to be vulnerable. But if an NFL player, one of the toughest, manliest people in our country thinks that we can sit down and talk about what’s behind our masks, maybe it’s okay for us to do the same.

At the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan, we see hundreds of men come through our doors for counseling, but it is often done in secret and still considered “courageous” for them to do so. We hope that the NFL’s handling of this crisis will help American men appreciate that taking off your mask is less burdensome, feels great, and can lead to a more fulfilling life.

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