Masculinity in Athletics: The Good, The Bad, and The Hopeful

Positive Masculinity Contributor - Lucas Pietrantonio

Director of Blog at Positive Masculinity, Former Collegiate Athlete, Co-Leader of STAND at Swarthmore College

For so many years of my life, I’ve played sports. Some of them I was better at and some of them I was definitely worse at (*cough *cough swimming), but for all of them, I was a male athlete. While I didn’t start to really think about what masculinity in athletics looked like until college, as an athlete I was getting bombarded every day by what it meant to be a man.

With a word like “bombard” you might be thinking that all of these impacts were negative, but that’s far from the truth. I mean that they left marks—good and bad—that have stuck with me through today.

First, let’s take a look at some of the good:

- The Coaches

Lots of the coaches that I had understood the preciousness of their role and how much responsibility was in their hands. Many of them would say that “First and foremost, I’m here to develop you as young men,” and they took that seriously. They taught us how to respect not only the game we were playing, but those who made it possible for us to play. From the bus drivers to parents bringing food, we were taught to be appreciative and love them. In a society where many masculine identifying athletes may not have strong positive role models, having someone to look up to, who was dedicated to our development as young men was extremely important. Many coaches also taught us about the importance of the relationships that we were forming as a part of a team and encouraged us to lean on each other when things got hard, something that we as men were otherwise not taught to do. They saw these connections as the lasting outcomes from sports, rather than wins or losses.

- The Teammates

Many of the teammates I met through athletics showed rich emotional intelligence. They were there to lend an ear when I was stressed with work or offer a shoulder to cry on when our senior season got canceled. These interactions showed me how important it is to be in touch with your emotions as a man and encouraged me to examine my feelings even more. Many of my teammates also had diverse interests academically and personally. They loved exploring music, art, chemistry, social action, and much more. This diverse range of curiosities helped demonstrate to me that masculinity can take a lot of different forms and it pushed me to dive into new hobbies/topics that before I may have seen as “unmasculine”. Through their passions and emotional expressions, my teammates were striving to be authentically themselves and seeing this pushed me to do the same.

Now it’s time for some of bad:

- The Coaches

Sometimes, the coaches I had didn’t recognize how long their words would stick with us. They might say things like “Stop pussyfooting around” or recount their sexual encounters, thus reinforcing toxic lessons about what it meant to be a man. They might not have even realized that the things they were saying were problematic or would stay in my mind, but those statements made me question what was important to me. Did being masculine look like putting down women or bragging to friends? How was I perceived as a man? These thoughts led to self-doubt and at times stunted my emotional development and self-growth. I had to overcome the words said by coaches and later try to rid them from my mind as acceptable ways to speak.

- The Teammates

Often, the teammates I had were incredible individuals; however, as soon as a critical mass was in a room together things turned down hill. That’s when the putting down would start or the sexist, homophobic, or misogynistic comments would get tossed around like they were nothing. Those were the moments that frustrated me the most. I knew in my heart that these were good people that I loved and trusted, but situations like that made me want to distance myself as far as possible from them. It left me feeling like I didn’t belong and sometimes I too would get caught up in this behavior to feel like a part of the group and my actions later left me feeling ashamed. I was confused as to how groups could devolve so quickly and people would turn to behavior that only ended up hurting everybody. I was scared that I was alone in noticing this.

And finally, it’s time for the hopeful:

Both my coaches and teammates saw that things needed to change within the world of male sports. My coaches recognized that they alone would not be able to right the way and they turned to us as players for insight into their teams. Seeing this understanding from coaches that changes were needed brought encouragement to the work we as masculine identifying athletes were doing to develop a better community and helped give us the confidence and support that we needed to persevere. Our coaches put us in positions to mentor teammates, lead workshops, or offer direction, while amplifying our voices and spurring their athletes to engage with discussion about masculinity. These conversations gave me and my teammates a space to explore pressures put on us and problems within the communities we were a part of. It was liberating to talk about these subjects and gave us hope that if we got enough people together, we could reshape what masculinity looked like in the context of athletics. At moments, these conversations felt as though they wouldn’t lead to action, but it was a starting place and we knew that more would come. We were confused about how to engage others in this dialog, but we slowly drew more voices into the conversation and heard from many perspectives on masculinity. This slow progress made me excited, kept me going, and helped lead me to Positive Masculinity. I know that my work, both for myself and others, still has a long way to go but I am encouraged to put the energy and time in.

I urge you to think about what the phrase “masculinity within athletics” looks like to you. What have you seen as the good, the bad, and the hopeful? Share with a friend, a teammate, coach, or even a stranger and let’s grow this conversation together.