Addressing Toxic Masculinity

By Bill Mefford 

This summer I have gone to a number of football prospect camps held at universities and colleges. Prospect camps attract high school athletes to check out the school's football program and they give college coaches a chance to do some recruiting for their programs. My youngest son is a rising junior in high school and is a very talented football player (I do not mind saying). Most of these prospect camps are fun. Isaiah gets to play football with other kids from across the country and we all get to check out some really good schools. 

The not-so-fun side of this has often been hearing from some of the coaches at these schools. From hearing coaches this summer as well as much of my life, I think I can say one thing for sure: sexism and misogyny are being propagated and spread through many of our football programs in this country. For real. 

Case in point: we were at a smaller Division 1 school this past weekend for their prospect camp and at the beginning of the day the coach was going through the schedule and things the players should know, when he pointed at his athletic trainer and said, "that good-looking blonde over there is our trainer. If you get hurt go see her, but you better be hurt and not just trying to check her out." Then, later in the day, he asked the players if they respected the women in their lives (sisters, moms, etc.), because, "only a real man treats a woman with respect." 

Yeah, I am sure the athletic trainer he had dehumanized got a kick out of that. 

At another stop along the way one coach insinuated that another school on his team's schedule played like girls and he also repeatedly referred to all the girl-chasing you can do at the school, assuming that none of his players are gay and assuming that female students exist for the simple pleasure of being "chased." 

Pile on these two very recent examples all of the times in my life when I have heard coaches level the greatest put down a male athlete can ever hear: that he might be no better at his sport than a girl. 

Now, consider the role that coaches play in the formation of so many young men's lives and you have a perfect recipe for the spread of toxic masculinity. 

Before I continue, I must acknowledge that there are coaches who are not doing this at all. There are very good coaches who are good teachers, who love football (or whatever sport they coach), love to compete, love to win, who give their lives to their sport and especially to the shaping of healthy and respectful young men. These coaches actually believe in treating all people with respect and integrity.

Though not a football coach, my favorite coach is Dean Smith, former head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina. Dean Smith won two national championships, was a perennial contender almost every year he coached and he taught his players to be compassionate and ethical. He was actively engaged in anti-racism work and he regularly spoke out against capital punishment and other injustices. His former players still love and revere him and rightfully so. 

Unfortunately, there have been far too few Dean Smiths in the world. In fact, I do not think I ever played for anyone even close to the integrity of Dean Smith. So, with football in particular being such a purveyor of sexism and misogyny, what do we do to correct this? 

There are no magic pills that we can take to make it go away and I am actually not a huge fan of mandatory trainings (though occasionally trainings can be helpful, I do not think they are a cure-all). But here are a few modest suggestions:

  • As with every form of dehumanizing behavior we must say something. I did not say something to the coach this weekend during the camp, but I am sending him an email today to respectfully point out his sexist and inappropriate statements
  • We should urge our high school or college teams (especially if we are alumni - colleges tend to listen to alumni even more than the players or their parents) to spend some of their preparation or practice time to bring in someone who has personally been impacted by sexual assault or someone who works with sexual assault survivors to speak to the team. I did this with a home church I was part of and it literally changed many of our lives as we never could see our community again in the same way. 
  • There is a disturbing relationship between sexism and fundamentalist Christianity. They are connected through their acceptance of patriarchal organizational systems and the common oppression of women. So, unfortunately, many coaches who regularly traffic in misogynistic statements are also often propagating their Christian faith. I have seen many reports of such behavior being practiced by coaches who proselytize their players. Mixing misogyny and triumphalistic Christianity is hardly new - entire denominations have been built on such a vile union, but it is an especially heinous distortion of Scripture since Jesus came to free people from oppression and was, in so many ways, a revolutionary figure in his treatment of women. The bottom line is that if coaches won't stop being misogynists, then at least we can stop them from proselytizing. It is against the law. Contact me and let me know if you know of coaches behaving in sch a way. We can and must stop this. 

I know there are many other ways I have not listed and so I invite you to share in the comments below your ideas or, even better, the things you have done to address sexism and misogyny in a sports context. 

I am not opposed to sports and I am not trying to strip sports of their aggressive style or desire to win. On the contrary, I LOVE sports! I probably love sports too much. I have been playing and watching sports my whole life and I love connecting with my boys through sports. But it is entirely possible to play with passion and aggression, to want to win with every fiber in your being, and to also treat women with compassion and respect. If sports makes you dehumanize women then you are entirely missing the point of what playing sports is all about. 

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