Male Athletes and Traditional Masculinity

Posted: 2010/10/24 in Athletes, Current Issues, Risk Communication, Sports
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“The freedom of authentic masculinity is an amazing thing to see. It produces a “divine elasticity” in men. Finally they can lead with firmness, then submit with humility. They can challenge with a cutting edge, then encourage with enthusiasm. They can fight aggressively for just causes, then moments later weep over suffering.” –Bill Hybels

It’s not easy being famous, and celebrity status often applies to pro athletes. College athletes also, from time to time, reach this exalted societal role. Although celebrity status for male athletes often brings bigger paychecks, lots of face time on TV and city buses and dozens of adoring female groupies, it also brings greater public responsibility. Particularly in regards to how they conduct their personal lives, the question becomes this: How do athletes deal with maintaining their reputation on the field as well as off the field, especially when it comes to the opposite sex?

This is a challenging, complex question to answer because there’s so much at stake and so many, varying answers. The other day, Dr. Peg Brand, wife of the late Miles Brand, came in to guest lecture to our class. We talked about media portrayals of sexuality and about how they relate to sports and athletes. Athletic sports scandals seem to pop up all over the place. Just last winter, Tiger Woods was caught cheating on his now ex-wife, Brett Favre was accused of sending inappropriate pictures to an NFL game host, and just a few years ago, members of the Duke lacrosse team got accused of raping a stripper who attended one of their parties. These are just a few of the many stories of male athletes abusing their girlfriends, assaulting female fans or getting involved in a myriad of other sex scandals. In fact, these stories seem to be so common, we’re not even surprised when we hear about them.
Although it would be easy to blame big paychecks and huge egos, the perpetrator behind the scenes is most likely the culture that young male athletes grow up in. Surrounded by over-sexualized and false images of what the “ideal” woman is supposed to look like and a victim of media’s limited view of acceptable masculine traits, it is not surprising that, in the heat of the moment, male athletes don’t know how to act.
So let’s look into this modern day culture a little more closely. Advertising and magazines enjoy perpetuatingthe image of the young, attractive, sexual woman. This image [of celebrities posing naked, or nearly naked] tells women how to be attractive and tells boys what an attractive woman should look like. Surrounded by these images, it is no wonder that men expect every woman they meet to be a potential subject for a sexual encounter, regardless of the consequences.
Secondly, the narrow view of masculinity portrayed is that of power, strength, athleticism and physical good looks. On a very stereotypical level, many men are portrayed as bumbling, muscular, sexual buffoons. However, the sensitive male has no place in advertising and magazines. Violence sells; sensitivity (at least when it comes to men) does not.
So how do we go about changing a cultural phenomenon? Dr. Peg Brand, a professor who came to visit a class I’m taking this term, explained that our expectations for male athletes are high. “We expect [football players] to play a very violent game of football and then walk off the field and completely shut that part of them off.” It is a lot to ask of anyone, particularly, men raised in a very violent sexualized culture.
Although there is not a quick fix to these huge issues, some things that we all can do is begin to demand more from our media. By rejecting the images they sell us and demanding more realistic ones, we can begin to sway the media to do what we want, rather than the other way around. As far as men are concerned, we must help them embrace a broader impersonation of masculinity: one that allows them to be strong and powerful, but also enables them to communicate, be respectful and sensitive to those around them.
Next week, we’ll turn the tables around and discuss how the media affects female athletes and offer ideas of how to counter negative stereotyping of women.

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