For the Love of Sports
A tug of war between masculinity and athletics and remembering why we play
What can coaches and athletes learn from Mbuti tug of war? What is there to learn? You play to win. That’s the point, right? The Mbuti — one of the oldest indigenous groups in the Congo region of Africa — know that survival requires balance.
They will pick up a rope with men on one side and women on the other. Let’s say the men are losing. They are digging their heels in the earth. They lean back and try to pull the rope closer, but the force of the women is too strong. They are going to lose! It will be a bitter and embarrassing defeat as the women celebrate their dominance over the men.
Not with the Mbuti. One of the women will let go of the rope and run over to the side of the men, cheering her new team on in a deep voice, mocking yet playful. If the women begin to lose the war, a man will run over to their side, adding his own cheering, but high-pitched. This will go on, men and women switching sides, imitating one another, making a game of the hostility that often tears people apart, until they find a balance of forces that crescendoes and melts into unified laughter.
Glorified and commercialized sports don’t often end like this, particularly with men. I recently heard a soccer commentator criticize a player for being friendly with an opponent after a loss. Sports have many benefits: cardiovascular fitness, improved social skills, leadership experience, physical and mental health. At the same time, they too often perpetuate a cutthroat culture of misogyny and violence. People will say, “It’s just a game.” It’s not. For many boys, it’s life, and the implications are lifelong.
Boys and men’s sports are under fire. They have been referred to as a miseducation that “creates a cozy ecosystem for sexual abuse and harassment, for all forms of violence and mistreatment of women, a climate reaped from the early belief that we’re merely allowing boys to be boys” (Brewer, 2021). For decades, authors have discussed the “problem of masculinity” and sports (Messner, 1992). Boys have heard the message, and they keep playing the game. It’s clear that message is problematic, and it’s past time to change it.
My academic side wanted to use a lot of great sources and perspectives to compose a novel and moving argument about sports and masculinity, but I learned that the MenEngage Alliance and the United Nations Population Fund already had. Anyone involved in youth sports should read the brief. There may not be unanimous agreement with every policy recommendation, but every boys/men’s coach should be held accountable for the example they set and the lessons they teach. Chew on this:
Concerns about the ways that modern sport has been developed and mobilized to enforce negative versions of manhood and unequal gender relations should not take away from the positive, pro-social, and life-enhancing aspects of sport, exercise, and physical play. In order to encourage those positive aspects of sport, it is important to challenge and transform sport’s hyper-masculine, violent (as opposed to aggressive), winner-take-all, and gender inequitable aspects.
Policies and programs to transform negative aspects of masculinity should not be anti-sport. Rather, it is necessary to work with women’s rights partners, educators, coaches, parents, and athletes, to transform sport to reach its true potential for promoting physical and mental health, as a place for the fulfillment of equality, for learning self-discipline and responsibility to others, for teaching empathy and compassion, for instilling values of hard work and meeting challenges, and, quite simply, for the sheer enjoyment of it. (Kaufman et al., 2014)
I say yes, yes, and yes. Sports are good for the world. They bring people together. They build character. They hatch joy. The answer is not to demonize them but to get the demons out of them. To do this, men especially need to take a stand for the sports they love. You don’t want to see football numbers continue to decline and programs get cut? You’re tired of being called an entitled lax bro? You swear not all hockey players are goons? Prove it.
Jerry Brewer (2020) puts it well as he questions who has gained power from the silence of good men: “Good men fail women, too, with their passivity and conflict avoidance. When women call out the sexism and misogyny, when they detail the abuses, good men search for absolution more than they scrutinize the environment they maintain.” It takes courage for a man to call out the sexism and misogyny of other men, but in the right culture, it’s a total game-changer. I learned this playing men’s sports.
The upperclassmen on my college soccer team had us identify harmful masculine stereotypes — the “man box” — and commit to breaking them. They encouraged us to join an athletes against violence group, and they recommended courses like “Boys to Men” that forced me to reconsider what kind of man I really wanted to be. All of this strengthened our bond as teammates and emboldened us to challenge damaging behavior and language.
Were we the greatest guys of all time? Nope. Our brains were still developing, and we were guilty of countless transgressions like most college students. Still, that experience set me on a path that has led to more good than bad. Those teammates were my brothers, and the team was transformative. I wish I could say we had a championship to show for it (you’ll have to read Season of Life: A Football Star, a Boy, a Journey to Manhood for a story like that), but even the shiniest hardware grows dull and trivial over time. Learning to be a better person, a better coach, teacher, friend, brother, husband, father… that is an achievement that only grows sweeter.
If women held the majority of men’s coaching positions — or even half (the audacity!) — we’d make progress a lot quicker (Strauss, 2020). Until that happens, men are most definitely on the hook. Good men should promote gender equality, challenge homophobia, and prevent sexual, physical, and emotional violence in their personal relationships. Call me crazy, but I feel the winds shifting. “Boys and men continue to appreciate sport not simply to prove manliness or to exercise domination, but because of the sheer joy of physicality, personal challenge, comradeship, and collective enjoyment” (Kaufman et al., 2014). We have to remember why we play sports.
The Mbuti break it down for us in their game of tug of war (not to mention the breaking of gender roles). It’s about sweat. It’s about energy. It’s about the dissolution of inhibitions. It’s about finding balance and joy. It’s about freedom.