Rutgers University is now fully embroiled in an athletic scandal after the release of a videotape that depicted now-fired head basketball coach Mike Rice verbally and physically abusing players. He threw basketballs at players’ bodies and heads at point blank range, kicked players, and berated them with homophobic slurs. And while the media and surrounding response have both been quick to highlight the ways in which homophobia was used by Coach Rice as a warped motivational tool, there has been a distinct lack of awareness and discussion around the underlying current that pervades in sports and allows incidents like this to continually occur: the culture of hyper-masculinity.
Hyper-masculinity dominates athletics. When we watch a football game, we cheer on the players to “Take his head off!” or “Kill him!” From high school athletics to professional sports, we idolize virility, aggression, and often, outright violence. “Man up, ladies!” “You play ball like a girl!” The language employed by coaches, athletes, and spectators alike demands that our male athletes remain the manliest of men at all times. We expect our athletes to dominate, to win at all costs, to pulverize the other team, and then we stare blankly, pondering how the blatant abuse from Coach Rice was able to happen.
The reaction of Fox News host Eric Bolling to Rice’s firing is indicative of the normalization of hyper-masculinity in sports. His response? “Listen, it’s time to toughen up. Talk about the wussification of America, the wussification of American men.”
That pretty neatly sums it up. The assumption that physical and mental abuse are part and parcel with sports, that homophobia, sexism, and rampant violence are integral to athletic success, that our male athletes are meant to remain militaristic in their masculinity, perfectly encapsulates the culture of hyper-masculinity in sports.
This hyper-masculinity extends past the playing field, and nowhere is that more evident than in the Steubenville gang rape case. Dave Zirin inquires at The Nation as to whether “the central features of men’s sports — hero worship, entitlement and machismo — make incidents like Steubenville more likely to be replicated.”
In fact, there is a statistical link between college men who participated in aggressive sports in high school and sexual coercion in their college dating relationships. It’s clear that the culture of hyper-masculinity works in tandem with the culture of entitlement. We hail our male athletes as demi-Gods and render them untouchable in the haze of our adoration. We shower them with adulation, money, and fame. Male athletes are continually told that with success comes permission; with masculinity comes domination; with winning comes the world on a silver platter. And then we wonder why these scandals happen.
What happened in the Louis Brown Athletic Center in Piscataway, N.J., did not happen in a vacuum. Until we as a society of sports lovers understand that athletic prowess does not excuse abuse, these cycles of violence will continue. Until we change the pervading patriarchal culture in sports that equates violent aggression with success, Coach Rice will not be an anomaly. And perhaps most importantly, until men understand that “being a man” doesn’t have to mean being violent, being aggressive, or being domineering, but can mean being empathetic, considerate, and loving, we can only wait until the next Rutgers or Steubenville comes to light.