Completing Plays, Competing Masculinities

In football, the game is played in small segments that are called ‘plays.’ The start of a play begins with each teams positioned face-to-face against each other, and as the whistle blows the teams responsibility is to use their bodies to create the strongest defensive or offensive line. As a spectator of the sport, I have no idea what type of intimacy is enacted during those face-toface moments. However, from knowing many football players, I know that there are curse words, threats, and intentions of inflicting pain are involved.

The purpose of each play is to either score, or gain yards on the field by getting closer to the end zone. When a player completes a play by catching the ball, more often than not they celebrate by dancing, throwing the ball to the ground as a sign of dominance, or by trash talking to the other teammates (who probably tried tackling them).

In these plays, I notice how masculinity is established and policed among the players. As they line up before the play, they are established in a position where all the bodies of their team are aligned and prepared for a battle to see who has the strongest body. These moments are not just showcases of strength, but they are representations of the physical work that is performed off of the playing field to achieve said athletic ability. Therefore, these intimate moments between the opposing teams demonstrates a battle of strength among the men, and a test to see who is the strongest, hardest-working, and most aggressive man under the helmet. As the teams line up, each player sees other bodies that represent this image of aggressive strength, which normalizes this body type as suitable and ideal for a good player. Not only is there an expectation to be upheld by all players to perform this strength, but players are expected to exceed and conquer this strength in the form of a tackle.

As a player catches the ball to complete a play, the victory celebration entails that the defensive players were unfit to challenge their skills. Although celebrating on the field is being policed by the rules, it still happens. What do the moments of celebration mean for these men on the field? Are they celebrating because their masculinity is still intact? Or because they have outdone their opposing masculine ‘others’?

As a high school athlete, I practiced during the same season as football players. As I ran around the track, I would always have football players in my periphery. I believe these norms of hypermasculinity exist in various levels of competition- I would even argue that it begins in Pop-Warner age. Men are praised for their strength, and scrutinized otherwise. They value other men who dominate the field, and would not associate with weaker and less aggressive players. Not only must they perform at their best capability, but in doing so they must show that their highest capacity exceeds those of their opponents, and even their own teammates.

As an athlete, my sport is not gendered to be so masculine. I am a runner, so there is no contact (there really is, just not in the textbook definition of running). Most runners have thin bodies, so there is no hypermasculine ideal to attain other than just running fast. However, as a gay man in all my sports, I have always felt obligated to out-perform other men just to feel like I was good enough to be on the team. My anxiety in these moments demonstrates the relational formation that defines masculinity against femininity. Because I see myself as a more feminine man (in relation to other heterosexual men), I feel like I have always been policed to act more like a man, or to ‘toughen up’, or ‘not run like a fag.’ This relational formation is the foundation for the arena of football. Men must conquer the “weakness” of femininity by performing and policing the norm of hypermasculinity against each other. Finally, this performance is also a site in which social expectations of masculinity are enacted onto hypervisible male bodies such as NFL professionals in order to normalize masculinity for the ideal male body.

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One Response to Completing Plays, Competing Masculinities

  1. Sarah McCullough says:

    Nice strong analysis of the operation of masculinity in football. I appreciate how you relate it via contrast/comparison to your own experience in track. How do you see other categories of identity playing into these dynamics? Does this performance of masculinity have any valences of class or race? Or does it change based on the subject position of the individual at all? Your vivid descriptions of the line-up and the celebration make this a good read.

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