Youth Sports and the Falsehood of Toxic Masculinity

CNN’s article “Why sports can be so toxic to boys and how we unravel that culture” by Elissa Strauss is a troubling interpretation of the landscape of youth sports. Perceptions are important, and they need a foundation of credible data and oppositional viewpoints to have legitimacy.  The CNN article is driven by a cultural misrepresentation that male things are more toxic than female things.  Strauss does not address the more alarming trend; boys’ participation in high school sports is on the decline. According to Forbes, “boys' participation fell year-over-year faster than girls” while girls numbers increased.  The challenges Strauss addresses in youth sports have more to do with the over-indulgence of helicopter parents ready to pounce on coaches, the explosion of club teams, and the rise of social media: the ability of any parent to call attention to a child for the most common thing.  Helicopter parenting and social media are more problematic than a perceived “machismo.” Until recently, parents could not post a goal or assist in real time on social media to hundreds of family and friends.  If we multiply that by the millions of children playing youth sports and the notion of keeping up with the Joneses, we’ve created a narcissistic culture that coaches must confront as they try to develop a sense of team.  Much of the aforementioned has added to the win-at-all-cost attitude and pressure players feel and male and female coaches must confront.

The most troubling element of the article equates the term toxic to maleness and the world of boys’ sports.  “The more boys can be coached by women, the less toxic masculinity” you will see, says Lesle Gallimore in Strauss’s article. Gallimore's rhetoric goes virtually unchecked, as she ascribes to the notion that boys, who do not have female coaches, are less likely to respect women, what the culture has quaintly termed, toxic masculinity.  Boys and girls overwhelmingly see women teachers as leaders in K-12 education on a daily basis. They spend the majority of their day around female authority figures, teachers, and moms.  Sports are one of the few places where boys get to bond with a healthy brotherhood and girls get the opportunity to experience male mentorship.  Some girls even play on team sports with boys and the ones I’ve met like the more aggressive play of the game.

As the male volunteer director of a youth sports program, I volunteer hundreds-of-hours a year to oversee more than 500 boys and girls and nearly 100 male and female volunteer coaches.  The majority of my coaches are male; and it’s not for lack of appreciation for female coaches. Dad coaches are applying to coach their sons and daughters more so than mom coaches. One of my coaches, a woman, coaches two teams for our youth league as well as a high school girls’ team while working full-time.  A number of my male coaches have multiple teams, some coaching sons, daughters, or some combination of son and daughter. These are giving people. 

Dads and moms are doing a great job teaching their players, boys and girls, how to deal with adversity and accept loss with dignity. But let’s face it. Winning is more fun than losing, whether it’s the Yahtzee game in the house or basketball game on the court. And whether or not adults keep score, the kids know who won. 

Strauss’s article is what people like Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in the Coddling of the American Mind might call an agenda to push the “three great untruths:”

  • What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker
  • always trust your feelings
  • and life is a battle between good people and evil people

I’ve worked with hundreds of coaches, male and female, who employ different models of leadership that have nothing to do with gender but the approach the coach takes to sports. I’ve seen many competitive female and male athletes at the middle school and high school level play with an insatiable aggression symbolized in athletes like Serena Williams and Elizabeth Lambert. These tough-minded athletes succeed because they work hard and don’t like to lose.  Those are the same types of attitudes women take to the classroom and career and the reason they are leading the ranks in college education.

The majority of young players simply enjoy being with their friends and the comfort and lack of comfort that naturally comes with team sports.  We cannot bubble wrap our children and only expose them to the behaviors that we specifically want. The notion that “men are socialized to lead by force, whereas women are socialized to lead by way of relationship building,” assumes there is only one form of relationship building, the kind Strauss thinks may happen with women leaders more than male leaders.   

Articles like Strauss’s worry me because they feel like a journal entry and not journalism.  The blanket narrative of toxic masculinity smothers any oppositional viewpoints and covers the cultural bedrock of open discourse.  There is a rhetoric in today's culture that has created a terrible linear projection for boys and men. It begins with the demonizing of boy behavior and the misrepresentation of the once harmless phrase "why can't boys be boys" and matriculates into the adult version. Toxic masculinity is a troubling term that uses a rhetoric of hysteria and fear to quantify the essence of maleness, from boy to man. We're now seeing it creep into youth sports. The overwhelming number of boys and men are not dangerous and not toxic. (And there is no reason to believe males and females do not possess the potential to be toxic in their own ways as a natural part of the human condition.)

The term toxic masculinity reminds me of the designation, interloper, a word used decades ago to associate fear and hysteria with the African American male presence. Someone who will come in and hurt one's women or invade one's space with their ways, as noted in literary works such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Raisin in the Sun, and the writings of great thinkers such as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. There is a bogeyman element to toxic masculinity used to promulgate a stereotype that assumes the worst. Toxic masculinity and interloper may seem exclusive to time and place, yet they are, however, linked to a common rhetoric designed to see the worst in inherent male behavior and presence.  We've seen this in our history before, and it is ugly. Truly, truly, ugly.  There are people of all genders and races who pollute the waters  of life, so there is a toxic element to humanity, but there are more good people than bad people and life is not a zero-sum-game.

Strauss's article attempts to promote the idea that sports could use more female coaches, and that argument is valid if honest instead of facilitating a cultural association that links male and toxic. Saying we need more female coaches because male coaches are more toxic and less relationship oriented is a troublesome view; a blanket statement on the state of manhood as discriminatory as the word interloper.  The narrative of toxic masculinity has become a culturally assimilated archetype that associates fear, hysteria, and maleness.  

I appreciate that my sons have had different types of coaches; some tough as nails and some exceedingly mild. Some I’ve grown to love and others I’ve grown indifferent toward.  Life is full of challenges, rewards, let downs, and people of all sorts. And youth sports offer a tempered venue where boys and girls are introduced to the harder lessons of life and the aphorism of resilience, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

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4 comments

  • I am retired Navy. I get it that some women can meet the requirements for Navy Seal (or Sailor). Most can not meet the physical challenges. As in sports, there are less women that are 6ft+ and 300 lbs. Most Moms and Dads get it. The Media and a few fringe people don’t get it. I do not see many women volunteering to fix roads or build skyscrapers. People in these industries would welcome anyone that can carry the load.

    James M Semerad
  • It is all about control. Taking away a person’s right of identity and supplanting it with an identity that gives the perpetrator a damaging kind of control over the person. Yes, robbing children of their childhoods has become part of the agenda of the day. Parents have to do their research and remember that, ultimately, it’s “your” kid, not theirs.

    Tricia S.
  • Thanks for providing an insightful & educational counterweight to Elissa Strauss’s CNN article. It’s destructive to label masculinity as toxic based upon unsubstantiated gender stereotypes. Equal rights for all genders isn’t a zero sum game. Wonderful job reminding us that championing women’s rights can be accomplished without marginalizing male masculinity.

    Ryan
  • Great article! It’s amazing to me how anything with a “men bad, women good” mentality gets published in a national publication like cnn.com. How do these people continually get a pass, yet issues that face men and boys rarely even get mentioned? Like you said, more like a journal entry than journalism. Thank you for providing a “check.”

    Interesting too about the term “interloper” — insightful observation.

    Mark Sutton

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