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Sport and hyper-masculinity in the age of #MeToo

Copyrights: Wikimedia Commons: Wolfmann

Sport and hyper-masculinity in the age of #MeToo

Can sport lead the way to a cultural shift?

It has been one year since the #MeToo movement gained popularity on social media. With more cases of abuse coming to light, a number of industries are experiencing a moment of reckoning. Victims are gaining strength to publicly share their stories. There is increasing public demand for those abusing power to be held accountable. Survivors of abuse have come forward in virtually every sector. That includes sport—as allegations that Cristiano Ronaldo raped a woman demonstrate. 

Cases of abuse are not new; but for many, the #MeToo movement has provided the support system needed to go public, especially since such allegations are often met with backlash against the victim. Particularly in cases against actors, politicians and athletes, some fans have difficulty believing claims that negate the public persona of the star they admire. It leads them to seek another explanation, for example that the victim lied for money or fame. However, research shows that false allegations are extremely rare.

Sport and good character

In the U.S., some perceive sport as a character-building mechanism which inherently discourages bad behaviour. We saw this in the recent testimony of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. After accusations of sexual assault during high school, Kavanaugh defended himself in part through repeated references to sport, with one reporter counting almost 50 mentions of athletic activity in his testimony. When asked whether his high school yearbook reflected his past drinking and sexual exploits, he answered by citing his academic credentials, his service projects – and his participation in sport:

I played sports. I was captain of the varsity basketball team. I was wide receiver and defensive back on the football team. I ran track in the spring of ‘82 to try to get faster.”

The implication is that participating in team sports exonerates him from violent behaviour. This recurrent myth in American culture is what New Yorker writer Lauren Collins calls “the innocence of white jocks”. It is the idea that young, privileged males with good marks and athletic talent should be protected from accusations of committing violent crimes—their public record acting as a testimony to their good conduct. This narrative has intensified after Kavanaugh’s hearing, with a counter-argument known as #HimToo developing on social media and supported by the U.S. president.

Part of the solution

Sport can teach young people discipline, teamwork and many positive character traits. But good character is not born of playing sport. Rather, coaches, teachers, parents and community members need to play an active role in exemplifying these values, and use sport to explicitly teach young people about consent.

There is evidence of American football culture promoting violent behaviour and assault off the field, particularly in high schools and universities. This does not mean that playing sport leads to violence. However, more attention should be placed on the way athletes are treated in schools and their communities, and on changing the hyper-masculine sport culture which can perpetuate a sexist and dangerous environment.

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Published

Wednesday, October 17, 2018 - 10:41

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