Sports Culture

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Sports Culture, Part One: Boys on the Playground

If you were a boy, you know that at some point playground culture became sports culture. If you were able to master the first, that did not always mean you could succeed at the second. Play moved into competition as early as society could get us to internalize the idea that we were vying with other boys for affirmation and the emblem of "manhood."

The boys who were "real boys" (those who would grow up to be "real men") were the best at competitive play. They were "winners." They were the one's who most successfully internalized the competitive spirit that our culture needs to keep its economy and military going.

Internalizing that model of manhood is how most of us actually came to believe that "competition is good." And we have built a society so dependent upon competition that it's hard to even think about how we could live well without it. It's one of those unquestioned basic truths, even if what competition is good for is not human relationships but production and profits. It's sure "good for business." It can produce lower prices and cheaper goods, more sales and faster computers, larger portfolios and bigger empires, but its current cost is our humanity.

On top of all that, a competitive attitude toward others is a key ingredient in homophobia. It keeps us separate. And competition between men keeps them unconnected and fighting with each other at the other person's expense in order to get society's "rewards."

Male sports are one place we learn all this. We also learn who the "losers" are. If we didn't master sports' skills, we not only were left out, but were picked on by the other boys. If we couldn't throw a spiral pass if our life depended on it, stood in right field praying that no one would hit the baseball there, didn't want to punch or get punched, or threw a ball "like a girl," we were the targets of this "manhood." If we were the youngest, smallest, thinnest, or most gentle and caring boy in the class, we could expect "fag" jokes from the other boys.

It could have started even before the sports culture hit. The elementary school playground usually had bullies who lived out their insecurities on the smaller boys. It was full of boys who had internalized masculinity's "beat or be beaten" requirement for acceptance. In most cases, the boy who tried to remain in touch with his full humanity was just out of luck

And if you also began to realize that you "liked" boys, that you fantasized about them, especially the one's who fit the culture's model of the "real man," confusion was added to fear. Whatever those feelings meant (and who was there to explain them?), they set a boy apart even further from the ideal man.

In reality we were all afraid of each other on that playground. Some of us remember the fear. Others buried the fear under the role of the bully or sports star, or by staying inside and mastering the subjects of the mind, like reading and math. These would somewhat begin to replace physical accomplishments as we entered the "grown-up" world.

Of course, "real men" can't admit such fear, even to themselves. But it was there. And it is still there on athletic teams at all levels. It promotes homophobia and the gay bashing that continues in most sporting venues.

I'm convinced that the level of competition in sports today requires homophobia. Teamwork for men means the ability of one group of men to band together to beat, defeat, or kill other men, whether that's on the athletic field, on the battlefield, or in business. And true winning as currently defined is always at another man's expense. This means that though we are "improving" the "level" and opportunities for women's athletics, they must be kept separate from male activities. "Beating a girl" is an insult for "real men," not an accomplishment.

I am not talking about play, but sports. Play is free, fun, a letting go of oneself and one's ego. It's the child-like activity which does not concentrate on techniques, talents, abilities, and the evaluations of others. It gets caught up in light-hearted, "unproductive" fun. But how often do we begin a game in play and realize that we have flipped into the issue of winning and losing, of "beating" the other person. That's the conditioning.

Sports are the opposite of play today. They are either the big business of college and professional athletics or they are farm leagues for younger children which provide competition for future players on the "next level." And they need homophobia, the fear of getting close to your own sex. You can't treat people this way and be really close.

This attitude is carried over into our most intimate relationships. Play is the key to good sex, not techniques, talents and comparisons. Play takes place when we are comfortable with ourselves. And it is childlike. But everything in our society tries to take that out of us, and the hurts of the playground and the demands of our athletic system are part of what changed us to keep us from playing and connecting on a real human level.

The boy who was "left out" because he didn't fit was the one most in touch with his humanity. He was also most aware that sports culture was trying to tear his humanity from him to prepare him for what our fear-driven society, not human beings, needed. If he could have been able to fight all that, he would have been the one with real courage, the real hero. And often he fought as long as he could, against all odds.

Source: Robert N. Minor, Ph.D. is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas and author of Scared Straight: Why It's So Hard to Accept Gay People and Why It's So Hard to Be Human. He may be reached at or on the web at

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