Our sports need a healthier version of masculinity, and men need to create it

12 mins read



That will lead to more temporary shock from unobservant or indifferent men and sometimes fleeting anger. For women, there is no shock, only lasting discomfort, unrelieved pain. They endure the emotional triggering and keep telling their stories of working and associating with abusive and territorial men, hoping we might pursue honest examination of the endemic sexism in sports and the dangerous offspring it produces.

But, nah, a few bad apples can’t spoil the scoreboard. Let’s get back to the games.

The world of sports, often a cartoonish illustration of stereotypical masculinity, fosters an unending cycle of virulence. Confrontation is a necessity of sport, but when are we, as men, going to get in the face of this problem? When are we going to take an active role in shaming and eliminating behavior that we maintain, through negligence, acceptance and silence, as if it’s some hallowed tradition?

“Sadly, these are the types of cases to be expected,” said Don McPherson, a quarterback turned scholar. “We’ll look at it from the side of the victim and treat it like a random act. That’s why the conversation is so short. Forgetting is the goal. But we never get deep into the difficult part, which is that it’s men that perpetuate the problem, even when women aren’t there.”

McPherson is not a different kind of man. He is just a man, dimensionalized: a former athlete, a proud feminist and a compassionate leader who has devoted nearly 30 years to addressing the unchecked problem of male violence against women.

His work and perspectives enable him to be, perhaps, a better man. For certain, he strives to meet a more aspirational standard of masculinity. In our disturbingly patriarchal society, this makes him an original voice, a globe-trotting educator and speaker. In his mind, he’s fulfilling a long-forsaken duty of manhood: teaching boys, young and overgrown, that masculinity does not involve scoffing at vulnerability and taking up as much space as possible. There is a greater aim.

“We don’t raise boys to be men,” said McPherson, whose book “You Throw Like a Girl: The Blind Spot of Masculinity” is an essential exploration of what’s holding men and sports back — and how to overcome it. “We raise them not to be women.”

In sports, such a miseducation 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.

Without sincere acknowledgment of the atmosphere — and of male complicity in sustaining it — the worst of us will keep thinking they have the freedom to tell a woman they are staring at her butt and talk about wanting to “put her up against a wall.” That was the latest allegation, reported by the Athletic last week, about the actions of Ryan Ellis, the former Mets hitting performance coordinator. It was new and explosive information. But in a sense, it was old news, too.

In addition to rooting out the villains, we can create a different vision of manhood, one that would reject and break down the locker room’s noxious norms. We have tools — empathy, mindfulness, vulnerability, evolution, stronger intention, the capacity to love — that can fix the underlying issues, create safer spaces for the women who work with, interact with and even report on men in sports and make it harder for the abusers to remain. But it’s so much easier to reach for the duct tape.

“Women say it’s pervasive because it is,” said McPherson, a former Syracuse quarterback and College Football Hall of Fame inductee who played in the NFL and the Canadian Football League before turning his attention to gender-based violence prevention. “Changing the culture is now about confronting who dictates the way it has been, and it boils down to a White male patriarchy that has also come to include Black men of power. They accept the status quo of patriarchy. They make it a place where women are expected to adapt to stereotypically but not uniquely male behavior because that’s how men say it should be. So to work in this environment, a woman has to take on the mentality of being one of the boys.

“Until we realize that ideology actually hurts us, there won’t be the motivation to solve it. We have to realize that, while maintaining the status quo might not hurt us now, we are hurting our sons by clinging to it. They will not have the example and the methods to adapt to change. And the thing is, through all the hardship we can point to, society continues to change.”

McPherson was a star athlete who never felt comfortable in athletics. He loved to compete, but he hated the demeaning way in which influential coaches of his youth treated him and his teammates. He hated the trickle-down effect. McPherson, 55, grew up thinking most of his inner struggles centered around race. He figured they were about being a Black quarterback and attempting to break barriers. Later, he realized the source was mostly masculinity.

He thinks about his father, a police officer with a genteel personality. He set a great example of manhood. But when he wasn’t working, he was silent. McPherson never understood why his father, who was nothing like the coaches who went overboard with their “motivational” tactics, didn’t call out those men.

“My father, a wonderful man, didn’t say, ‘That’s not how you talk to people,’ ” McPherson said. “I realize that my father’s silence gave those men power.”

Who else has gained power from our silence?

That question haunts me now. I’d like to think there are infinitely more good men than predatory scourges, but numbers alone can’t change long-established customs. There must be a proactive effort to dismantle such evil, but before that, there must be a recognition that 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.

And it’s the selfish, thoughtless reaction — “I can’t believe this! I’m not like this!” and “What can we do to help?” and “We need to be better (specifics sold separately)!” — that ruins any opportunities for honest conversation and real change.

I remember hearing my first inappropriate locker room conversation. I was in middle school, and we were showering and getting dressed after a track meet. The biggest star on our team started making claims about what he had done recently in a bathroom with the prettiest girl in school. He was foul. I was upset because the girl was a friend. I said nothing. I did nothing. As I left, he was talking foul about another girl.

I remember, in high school gym class, that another kid would flaunt what he claimed to be his girlfriend’s underwear. He was skinny, handsome, a real playa. Sometimes he put on the underwear and wore them to the next class. The locker room erupted with laughter. I thought he was weird, and worse, I knew his antics would diminish the respect most of those guys had for his girlfriend. I said nothing. I did nothing.

I wonder often about what men those boys became. I wonder more about what kind of man I could have become if I had the nerve to call them out 30 years ago. I wonder, if there was a formal application detailing the nuances of being a good man, whether I would qualify.

“It seems like, in sports, they never grow up,” said Molly Yanity, a longtime friend and former sportswriter who is now a Quinnipiac University professor. “First, we just say that boys will be boys. Then they’re just old men that you have to excuse because they’re from an older generation. So the easiest way for women to exist in sports is just to assimilate and wait and hope for change. But the question is always the same: When?”

It’s not a question for the athletic gods, and the answer is not to think women can transcend misguided masculinity all by themselves, that they can succeed their way out of being marginalized. The shocking cases of misbehavior and the temporary concern will resurface, until our vision of manhood becomes both broader and more demanding.

“When” is a male responsibility. “When” is our moral obligation. “When” is our shame, and we should carry it as such, a heavy and burdensome disgrace that demands the strength of all to unload.

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