Don Cherry’s recent xenophobic remarks about immigrants and Remembrance Day sparked an international debate. The controversy has also shone a spotlight on toxic male sports masculinity, sporty boys and sports culture, including the platform sports give men to routinely speak without being challenged.
Comments made by correspondent Jessica Allen on The Social, a Canadian daytime talk show, about white boys, privilege and hockey struck another nerve. As reported on CBC, Allen said: she doesn’t “worship at the altar of hockey” and found in her experience that those who did “all tended to be white boys who weren’t, let’s say, very nice.” She added: “They were not generally thoughtful, they were often bullies.”
Although Allen and her network heard from many fans who feel differently, the culture of violence in sport, on and off the field, is normalized, accepted and expected. What is hockey without checking? What is football without concussions? What are locker rooms without posturing? It is part of a culture among boys and men who seamlessly participate in sports, performing familiar scripts of masculinity that seemingly offer few alternatives.
Similar to how Donald Trump justified his predatory comments about women as just “locker room talk,” sport culture is often excused as just “boys being boys,” a kind of safe space where masculinity is unquestioned.
Attempts to disrupt, interrogate or challenge normative masculinity, and especially sporty masculinity, has been met by outrage by those who cannot see nor hear the tribalism and male privilege of masculinized spaces like locker rooms.
The recent football violence NFL player Myles Garrett inflicted upon Mason Rudolph when ripping off his helmet and attempting to assault him provoked less debate and more consensus on the gravity of the assault. Garret’s violent actions punctuate his career in a way that will now define him. Initial attempts to justify his actions as “a win is a win” fell silent.
Garrett later apologized and was held accountable for his actions. He crossed a line, a shared understanding in a culture of violence in sport that was one step too far. The narrative disturbs what was understood to be the rules of engagement. Washington Post sports writer Adam Kilgore describes a “gladiatorial agreement,” as an “understood agreement” among players.
Similarly, boys and men enter into relationships, sports, locker rooms and other masculinized contexts knowing the rules and norms. Crossing that line, however, has consequences.
The cost of not fitting in
The price for coming out of the shadows is costly for those who refuse to adhere to normative masculinity, who resist just being one of the boys, who choose to transgress, who resist participating in the locker room banter, the talk of conquests, the parading of masculinity both figuratively and metaphorically. Think Colin Kaepernick. He took a knee and protested and refused to be silent.
Boys and men are routinely called out for not being like the rest of the boys. Membership has its privileges. Sport can unify, but it can also divide. If you don’t play the game, adhere to the rules on and off the field, you will know it. That is what marginalized masculinity looks like. When white sporty masculinity gets called out, we all hear it and many continue to try to defend it.
Be it normative masculinity, racism, homophobia or misogyny, the lines that delineate being among the boys and one of the boys are clear. Don Cherry was “disappointed” by Ron MacLean’s apology. Cherry felt MacLean “threw him under the bus.”
The Cherry controversy has left many divided. Our complacency has allowed for, supports and indeed heralds “boys being boys.” But this is neither a just nor defensible reason for accepting the performance of masculinity going unquestioned.
The silence and the whisper culture among boys who are voiceless, marginalized and othered is the result of many boys and men not speaking out. For a brief moment we saw complicit masculinity in Ron MacLean, unable and unwilling to speak out. The Don Cherry-Ron MacLean moment showcases a powerful lesson of sporty masculinity with its privilege and whiteness to say what it likes, when it likes, and to own the spaces it has historically dominated.
The landscape in sport and among men and boys is changing. The tensions for knowing what the rules are is unmistakable. Sporty masculinity has remained privileged, has been allowed to parade, to take up space of dominance, privilege and unquestioned rights. The woe-is-me rhetoric that has recently captured our attention has caught some by surprise and left them defending shaky ground that was assumed rights in the past.
Why now? What’s changed? Was that not just Don Cherry being Don? The short answer is: a lot has changed.
Racism, sexism, misogyny and homophobia are no longer acceptable, excused as “boys being boys.” Sport is changing. Racist slurs, violent transgressions and homophobic insults are no longer normalized as just the way it is.
Sport, the context in which athletes come to be known and to be defined, is no longer predicated along outdated rules or codes that were routinely accepted without question. For some, the agency to resist, to push back, to refuse to be silent and to speak out when marginalized is gradually getting stronger.
Among the first football players to kneel during the pregame U.S. national anthem in protest against killings of Black people by police, Colin Kaepernick has been unable to find a team to sign him since 2017. But his NFL workout this weekend in Atlanta signalled a possible change.
Brendan Burke, the son of the general manager of a major hockey league team, who came out as gay to the hockey world in 2009, reminds us of the power of voice. Sport is just one space that has seen movement and change both on and off the field.
It is not uncommon for me to experience people questioning, denouncing or marginalizing my masculinities research: this is evidence of the ongoing uncertainty some men feel when defending arguments of masculinity and suggesting we need to toughen up, don’t be a snowflake, get over it.
If there is anything we can count on, it’s the need that many men and boys feel to defend a particular kind of masculinity. That has yet to change, because to do otherwise is to acknowledge the fragility, the vulnerability and the fear that keeps many men among the boys and remaining “one of the boys.”
Apologizing for getting it wrong, for saying the wrong thing, for racist, homophobic, sexist remarks is a step too far for them, because it is an acknowledgement that men know the culture of masculinity is rife with rigid and damaging rules and codes that too many are simply unwilling to transgress.
[ Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter. ]