Gender and Sport

Nancy Theberge. Handbook of Sports Studies. Editor: Jay Coakley & Eric Dunning. 2000. Sage Publishing.

This chapter examines the contribution of sport to gender relations and ideologies, ‘the set of ideas that serve the interests of dominant groups’ (Theberge and Birrell, 1994: 327). These are, of course, connected. Historically, sport has been organized as a male preserve, in which the majority of opportunities and rewards go to men. This arrangement is both the basis of, and a powerful support for an ideology of gender that ascribes different natures, abilities and interests to men and women.

The chapter begins with a brief account of the historical roots of modern sport, which laid the foundation for ideologies and practices that persist today. This is followed by a consideration of physicality as a key element of the connection between sport and gender. The bulk of the chapter is devoted to a discussion of recent research on the contribution of sport to the construction of gender and an ideology of gender difference.

Historical Roots and the Gendering of Modern Sport

The roots of contemporary sport were laid in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Britain and North America. In Britain, the main locus for these developments was the boys’ public schools, which was the setting for the institutionalization of organized games. These games were infused with a Victorian version of masculinity, which celebrated competitiveness, toughness and physical dominance. ‘Games playing in the boys’ public schools provided the dominant image of masculine identity in sports and a model for their future development in Britain and throughout the world’ (Hargreaves, 1994: 43).

Women’s participation in physical activity in Victorian Britain was much less developed and the subject of intense debate about the type and amount of activity that was suited to their supposedly more ‘delicate’ nature (Hargreaves, 1994). Victorian ideals held that women were morally and spiritually strong but physically and intellectually weak. The ‘myth of female frailty,’ a lasting legacy of this ideal, became a defining feature of ideas about women, gender and physical activity (Theberge, 1989).

The model of male athleticism developed in Britain was transported to North America, where it developed in the context of social transformations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With the rise of wage labor and economic concentration under industrial capitalism, many men were no longer secure in their role as breadwinner. As well, the separation of home and work caused men to spend more time away from their families. Along with the rise of universal schooling, this meant that young boys were spending more time with women, their mothers and teachers, and little time with men. ‘With no frontier to conquer, with physical strength becoming less relevant to work, and with urban males being raised by women, it was feared that males were becoming “soft”, that society was becoming feminized’ (Messner, 1992: 14).

Turn-of-the-century gender relations were also transformed by changes in women’s condition. Feminist political activism and women’s movement into the paid labor force and higher education were a direct challenge to the ideology of separate, and gendered, spheres (Cahn, 1994: 7). Women’s growing interest in sport posed a further threat to traditional ideologies. Within this context, debate raged about the challenge posed by the ‘New Woman’ (Smith-Rosenberg, 1985) and the implications of changing gender roles for men and masculinity (Cahn, 1994; Messner, 1992).

One response to the ‘crisis of masculinity’ (Kimmel, 1990: 58) of the period was the establishment of organizations that would provide opportunities for boys to reclaim their masculinity. These included the YMCA, the Boy Scouts and sport. A number of authors, writing of the rise in popularity of specific sports in this period, have traced these developments in part to an effort to establish a homosocial setting in which masculinity could be reasserted. In addition to Kimmel’s (1990) and Howell’s (1996) discussions of baseball, these include Gruneau and Whitson’s (1993) analysis of the making of modern professional hockey, and Gorn’s (1986) examination of bare knuckle boxing.

The early years of the twentieth century were crucial for the development of sport and the construction of gender ideologies. While most of the development was in men’s sport, there was also significant expansion in women’s athletics. One important setting for this was colleges and universities in Britain (Hargreaves, 1994) and North America (Theberge, 1989). Although access to higher education was still restricted mainly to the middle and upper classes, additional sporting opportunities for working-class women were present in the United States in industrial leagues (Theberge, 1989).

As in Victorian England, women’s increased involvement in sport and physical activity in North America in the early years of the twentieth century was the subject of heated debate among physical educators and physicians. While some argued that mild forms of physical activity were beneficial, others saw physical exercise as incompatible with women’s fragile nature and dangerous to their health. This debate was largely resolved by the adoption of a modified form of sport that was less strenuous and competitive than the ‘real’ sport played by men. Examples of the model are shortened race distances in running and swimming and six-player basketball, in which the game is slowed and movement restricted. This version of the game was developed specifically for women, to provide an appropriate alternative to men’s basketball. The adoption of the modified model left intact the association between masculinity and sport that was embodied in the ideal established in Victorian public schools and entrenched in the burgeoning sporting culture of turn-of-the-century North America. This model confirmed the ‘myth of female frailty’ and offered apparent confirmation of the essential differences between the sexes (Theberge, 1989).

Gender, Sport and Physicality: Ideological Constructions

Susan Cahn (1994: 208) has suggested that the challenges to conventional ideologies posed by women’s athletic participation early in this century led to a ‘resulting sense of gender disorder.’ She comments further that lurking beneath the surface of the debate about women’s athleticism was the ‘nagging question of power.’ Contemporary interest in gender and sport explores in detail the question of power that Cahn identified in an earlier era.

A central theme in this work is the connection between physicality, sport and the construction of gender. Jennifer Hargreaves (1994: 146) describes the association: ‘The acquisition of strength, muscularity and athletic skill has always been empowering for men, whereas for women it is valued far less and in some cases is denigrated.’ The construction of gender difference was a key feature of the promotion of manly sports in nineteenth-century British public schools and turn-of-the-century North America and the basis for the adoption of the restricted model of female athleticism early in this century.

This association continues today. Connell (1987: 85) writes that ‘images of ideal masculinity are constructed and promoted most systematically through competitive sport,’ where ‘the combination of skill and force’ in athletic competition becomes a defining feature of masculine identity. This point has been elaborated by Connell (1983, 1990, 1995) and others (Messner, 1990, 1992; Whitson, 1994).

It is important to recognize that the sense of empowerment through sport is not a universal experience for males. Indeed, for many boys and men, the experience of sport is one of frustration and disappointment (Klein, 1993; Messner, 1992). What is critical about the contribution of sport to the construction of gender is that sport provides an image of idealized, or ‘culturally exalted’ (Connell, 1995: 77) masculinity. Because this is the dominant or most powerful image it is hegemonic, a term taken from the Italian sociologist Antonio Gramsci’s analysis of class relations. When applied to the analysis of gender, we may speak of particular forms of masculinity as hegemonic.

A key feature of hegemony is that it is historically constructed, within the context of particular social relations and institutional forms. For this reason, it is constantly challenged and open to reconstitution. Connell (1995: 77) describes this feature:

I stress that hegemonic masculinity embodies a ‘currently accepted’ strategy. When conditions for the defence of patriarchy change, the bases for the dominance of a particular masculinity are eroded. New groups may challenge old solutions and construct a new hegemony. The dominance of any group of men may be challenged by women. Hegemony, then, is a historically mobile relation.

The analysis of gender and sport is concerned with the ‘mobility’ of relations and the manner in which sport reproduces or challenges hegemonic masculinity. The following sections of the chapter consider some of the main sites in which cultural struggles over the meaning of gender and sport are being waged most dramatically.

Women’s Sport and the Contemporary Ideological Struggle

The condition of women in sport has changed tremendously since the early decades of the twentieth century. Much of this change has occurred in the past 25 years, and is the outcome of several developments. These include the feminist movement that presents an ongoing challenge to traditional gender roles and ideologies, legal and political initiatives that have yielded increased opportunities for women in sport, and the health and fitness movement which has raised awareness of the importance of physical activity. Unlike organized sport, the fitness movement has been promoted among both men and women and been an important influence on rising rates of participation in physical activity among women (Theberge and Birrell, 1994).

The progress that has occurred includes increases in the numbers of women participating in sport and in the variety of activities in which they are involved. These developments are an important challenge to the historical organization of sport as a male preserve. For many women this participation provides enjoyment and a sense of personal empowerment (MacKinnon, 1987; Theberge, 1987). At the same time, the contemporary era is marked by ambiguities and contradictions in the cultural meanings and implications of women’s athleticism.

The ‘contested terrain’ (Messner, 1988) of women’s sport is the subject of a growing body of research in a variety of settings. A theme common to these analyses is that while women are carving out a place in sport, their efforts to do so are constrained by broader forces. The particular dynamics of the struggles vary, owing to historical and institutional factors. Following is an account of recent research in three sporting sites with different histories of women’s involvement but striking similarity in the persistence of cultural struggle. The activities considered are ice hockey, golf and aerobics.

Although women have been playing ice hockey for over a century, and for just about as long as men, recent years have seen impressive increases in the numbers of women in the sport (Etue and Williams, 1996). A particularly notable event is the admission of women’s ice hockey to the Olympics, where it was included for the first time in the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. Historically, ice hockey has been one of the most powerful signifiers of a conception of masculinity grounded in force and physical toughness (Gruneau and Whitson, 1993). The increased participation and visibility of women thus offers an important challenge to hockey’s historical status as a ‘flag carrier of masculinity,’ a term Lois Bryson (1990: 174) uses to refer to sports that ‘quintessentially promote hegemonic masculinity and are sports to which a majority of people are regularly exposed.’

The challenge to hegemonic masculinity posed by women’s ice hockey occurs in additional ways. The historical exclusion of women from sport has been most powerful in the case of team sports. The major exception is field hockey, which has been organized in schools and at the international level since the 1930s. In the Olympics, women’s volleyball was added to the program for the 1964 Games, basketball in 1976 and field hockey, despite being well organized internationally for most of the century, was added only in 1980 (Theberge, 1989). As noted, ice hockey, the first team sport for women in the Winter Games, was contested for the first time in 1998.

Resistance to their participation in team sports has denied women one of the important forms of community and association that male athletes have long enjoyed (Theberge, 1987). The bonding that occurs in a team setting provides not only enjoyment but an important basis for the construction and confirmation of athletic identities. In my research in women’s ice hockey, this process is documented in an examination of the construction of community on an elite level team. The analysis shows that in a broader cultural milieu marked by ambivalence toward women’s hockey and women’s sport generally, the team provides a context wherein women athletes ‘collectively affirm their skills, commitment and passion for their sport’ (Theberge, 1995: 401). In this respect, the development of hockey and other team sports is an important part of the ongoing challenge to the masculine preserve of sport.

Yet another challenge to masculine hegemony concerns the practice of women’s hockey. The rules of men’s and women’s hockey are essentially the same, with the exception that women’s hockey prohibits intentional body checking, that is intentional efforts to hit, or ‘take out,’ an opponent. There is none the less extensive physical contact, as players constantly try to outmuscle and outmanoeuvre one another in an effort to control the puck and the play in a game (Theberge, 2000).

The prohibition against body checking is generally thought to result in a game in which speed, strategy and playing skills are featured more prominently than in a full contact game, which emphasizes power and force. Some believe that the absence of body checking results in lower rates of injury. Promoters of the prohibition cite the more limited contact game as a better version of the sport, and often comment that women’s hockey need not be like men’s. The legitimacy of this position, and the implied critique of the excessive violence and rates of injury in men’s hockey are, however, overshadowed by a dominant view that men’s hockey is the ‘real’ game. In interviews I conducted with players and coaches at an elite level, supporters of the inclusion of body checking describe this feature as ‘part of the game,’ ‘the way it should be,’ and ‘part of the fun.’ In the end, the effort to promote women’s hockey as an attractive version of the sport is effectively neutralized by the hegemonic position of men’s hockey, which is constructed as the ‘real’ game (Theberge, 2000).

The history of women’s participation in golf provides some contrasts with hockey. Golf was introduced to North America in the late nineteenth century as a sport for middle- and upper-class men and their families. It has long welcomed women, though on very different terms than men (Crosset, 1995). In his study of women on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour, Crosset (1995) characterizes the position of women in golf as ‘outsiders within,’ a reference to the variety of forms of gender segregation that historically maintained distinctions between men and women. These included restricted playing times for women, segregated clubhouses and separate tee boxes (that is, starting points, which shortened course distances) and club rules that prohibited women from wearing trousers or shorts in order to highlight differences between male and female members.

The gendering of women’s golf is particularly influenced by the sport’s commercial basis. Professional women’s golf was organized in the 1940s, and despite its periodically shaky financial foundation, the sport has persisted as one of the few that offers women the possibility to pursue a career as professionals. The ‘image problem’ facing all women athletes has particular consequences in sports attempting to secure public acceptance and corporate sponsorship. These consequences are highlighted in the contradiction between what Crosset (1995) calls the ‘prowess ethic,’ wherein players judge themselves by their performance on the course, and public and media preoccupation with their appearance and sexuality.

Tour members are annoyed by this preoccupation and corresponding inattention to their athletic skills. At the same time, they believe that pressures to obtain corporate and media support require the Tour to present an acceptable image, which is one of emphasized heterosexuality. In order to conform to this image, players devote considerable attention to their appearance, particularly their style of dress. Appearance is also an overriding preoccupation with LPGA staff and publicists, who ‘relentlessly promote the image of femininity, motherhood and sexuality in an attempt to counter the “image problem”’ (Crosset, 1995: 180).

The tension over image and its embodiment in emphasized heterosexuality surfaced dramatically in the spring of 1995. In a newspaper interview conducted at a major LPGA tournament, long-time CBS television golf commentator Ben Wright made a number of sexist and homophobic remarks about Tour players. These included statements that female golfers ‘are handicapped by having boobs’ and one of the tour’s leading players ‘was built like a tank’ (Reese, 1996). The effort to discredit women athletes by disparaging their appearance and reconstructing them as unnatural women has been one of the main weapons employed in the effort to maintain sport as a masculine preserve (Birrell and Theberge, 1994).

Wright extended his assault by attacking the LPGA for what he—and many others—see as its lesbian image. He told the interviewer, ‘Let’s face facts here. Lesbians in the sport hurt women’s golf. When it gets to the corporate level, that’s not going to fly’ (Reese, 1996: 24). By voicing the unspoken concerns of many observers of women in sport, Wright fuelled the sense of disorder that underlies popular sentiment about women athletes and identified the particular costs of this unease for the commercial success of women’s sport.

The most interesting and important aspects of Ben Wright’s comments were not their substance. It is hardly news to hear women athletes disparaged as manly. Nor is the statement that there are lesbians in golf (as throughout society) inaccurate. What is significant about the incident is the response to Wright’s comments by CBS and the LPGA. On publication of the remarks, Wright initially denied them and received the full support of CBS. When subsequent investigations provided convincing evidence that Wright had been quoted accurately, CBS reversed its position and suspended Wright. CBS and the LPGA then issued statements in which they tried to distance themselves from the incident, which each in its statement referred to as a distraction. With a substantial financial investment in televising golf, CBS has a major interest in upholding the wholesome image of the sport. By first supporting Wright in his denial, and then suspending him when further support would have been embarrassing, CBS throughout demonstrated its concern with avoiding controversy and jeopardizing its investment (Reese, 1996).

For its part, the LPGA has avoided the issue of homophobia by repeatedly denying that sponsors cite lesbianism as a basis for denying support. This position was the cornerstone of the Tour’s response to the controversy generated by Wright’s comments (Reese, 1996). In dealing with the episode, both CBS and the LPGA acted primarily to protect their investments, which they assumed would be jeopardized by public discussion of homophobia. The greatest tragedy of the Ben Wright incident was not his sexist and homophobic remarks but the lost opportunity to expose and attack homophobia and sexism in golf and all of sport.

The ideological struggle presented by aerobics is on initial examination quite different from that in hockey and golf. Unlike these, and virtually all competitive sports, from its inception as part of the ‘fitness boom’ of the 1970s aerobics has been organized primarily for women. For some women, aerobics has provided a safe space in which to pursue physical activity in an all-female setting, free of the competitive pressures of organized sport (Hargreaves, 1994). In this respect, aerobics has been part of the legitimation of physical activity for women and an important vehicle for the empowerment through physical activity of individual women (Whitson, 1994).

Perhaps because it has been so heavily implicated in the changing scene of women’s physical activity in recent decades, aerobics has been the subject of extensive analysis and critique. Much of this attention focuses on the contradictions embodied by aerobics as, on the one hand, a means of empowerment for some women and, on the other hand, a vehicle for reproducing some of the worst features of institutionalized sport, including excessive commercialism, competitiveness and the sexualization of women’s physical activity. The commercialization of aerobics is evident in its incorporation into the leisure lifestyle industry, whose most prominent features include location in private fitness clubs and the marketing of leisure apparel. National and international organizations and competitions and a campaign to gain entry into the Olympics mark the arrival of aerobics into the world of competitive sport (Hargreaves, 1994).

A particular focus of critiques of aerobics has been sexualization. One of the most enlightening of these critiques is MacNeill’s (1988) analysis of the production of ‘20 Minute Workout,’ a popular televised aerobics program of the late 1980s and early 1990s. MacNeill shows how through the use of audio (commentary and music) and visual (facial expressions of participants, camera angles and lighting) techniques, the show reconstructs women’s physical activity as something closer to soft pornography. MacNeill concludes that while aerobics initially contained possibilities for reworking traditional ideologies of gender and physicality, it has been incorporated into dominant ideologies by feminizing and sexual-izing women’s physical activity.

More recent work on aerobics has explored women’s experiences of the apparent contradictions of this activity that embodies both empowerment and domination through sexualization. Pirkko Markula’s research with women ‘aerobicizers’ shows that while many women wanted to meet cultural ideals of the beautiful body, they were far from passive in their submission to the ideal. Rather, they maintained a scepticism, for example by questioning the cultural preoccupation with slimness and their own complicity in its pursuit. Markula (1995: 450) indicates that ‘this questioning leaves many women puzzled: they want to conform to the ideal, but they also find the whole process ridiculous.’

Markula’s research also shows that the skepticism that women expressed toward idealized images of women’s bodies was particularly pronounced in their assessments of media presentations of exercising women. As well, the real life classes Markula studied were different from the video classes, in that the instructors were not picture-perfect, the participants did not wear skimpy clothing and many classes placed a higher emphasis on enhancing fitness, as opposed to appearance (Markula, 1995: 450). While the critical analysis of media presentations has provided important insight into cultural constructions of women’s physical activity, the finding that women actively resist incorporation into these images—albeit not completely successfully—is significant.

Markula’s (1995) research demonstrates the variety of reasons that women participate in aerobics, in addition to improving their bodies. These include enjoyment, because it provides a safe environment for being physically active, to meet and socialize with other women, to spend time on themselves, and for the energy it provides. The evidence accumulating from Markula’s and others’ work (for example, Haravon, 1995) provides support for Hargreaves’s (1994: 247) observation that there is a clear contradiction between the popular image of aerobics, which emphasizes fashion and sexuality, and many women’s personal experience.

The above discussion of three activities with different histories and conditions of women’s involvement shows the variety of struggles around women’s athleticism. In some respects, ice hockey, golf and aerobics all constitute significant challenges to masculine hegemony and the male preserve of sport. The team context and the intense physicality of women’s ice hockey challenge some of the most important bases of the association of sport and masculinity. Women’s long-time participation in golf and the professional opportunities available for nearly half a century have placed golf in the forefront of the struggle to improve the condition of women in sport. Aerobics has provided a safe space for women to be physically active and a means for the empowerment of individual women.

At the same time, each activity shows how women’s efforts to make a place and to be empowered are constrained by dominant ideologies of gender, sport and physicality. In ice hockey, these result in a devaluation of the women’s game as an alternative to the ‘real’ game played by men. In golf and aerobics, the athleticism of the activities is compromised by a relentless emphasis on emphasized heterosexuality. In golf, these pressures are directly tied to the sport’s commercial basis and need to sell itself to the media and sponsors. Commercial pressures also operate in aerobics through its incorporation into the leisure lifestyle industry and heavy reliance on the marketing of appearance and sexuality. These three activities are but a sample of possible illustrations of Jennifer Hargreaves’s (1994: 3) observation that ‘female sports have been riddled with complexities and contradictions throughout their history.’

Sport and the Production of Masculinity

A developing body of research also examines men’s experiences of sport and the processes whereby gender is produced. By exploring the complexities of the relationship between masculinity and sport, this work provides a needed corrective to the view that the two are ‘naturally’ associated.

Several themes are emphasized in this research. One is the manner in which men work at attaining physical prowess. The ‘skill and force’ that Connell (1987: 85) speaks of in his discussion of men’s empowerment is not simply conferred upon them; it is something they struggle to obtain. This struggle is both emotional and physical. In his interview study with retired male athletes, Messner shows how respondents’ views of athletic accomplishment emphasized bodily control. ‘Rather than being a surprised spectator of one’s own body, the successful athlete must learn to block or ignore fears, anxieties, or any other inconvenient emotions, while mentally controlling his body to perform prescribed tasks’ (Messner, 1992: 64).

The struggle to gain control over the body is also explored in Connell’s life history of an Australian ‘Iron Man,’ who competes professionally in events involving swimming, running and surf-craft riding. Connell’s subject ‘lives an exemplary version of hegemonic masculinity’ (1990: 93). This version relies fundamentally on his athletic prowess, which in turn is dependent on a training regime that demands intense discipline and motivation. The ‘job’ of the Iron Man is to master his body.

Research among male athletes also shows how the subculture of boys’ and men’s sport emphasizes gender difference, and within this, the celebration of masculine prowess and denigration of women and gay men. One of the best portrayals of this is Gary Alan Fine’s study of Little League Baseball, With the Boys. Fine (1987) suggests that sports teams provide a context in which boys try out versions of behavior they perceive to be manly. In a discussion of the ‘themes of preadolescent boys,’ he shows in rich detail how the culture of the teams is dominated by sexual and aggressive references that emphasize differences between the boys and anyone who is weaker, including women, gay men and younger children.

A similar point is made in Tim Curry’s (1991) investigation of fraternal bonding in the locker room of a men’s US university team. Curry’s analysis shows how locker room culture celebrates masculinity and men’s physical prowess. Essential elements of this process are the degradation of women and gay men and the association of sport with hypermasculinity. While noting the absence of definitive studies on the effects of participating in locker room culture, Curry (1991: 133) indicates that in his view ‘sexist locker room culture is likely to have a cumulative negative effect on young men because it reinforces the notions of masculine privilege and hegemony, making that world view seem normal and typical.’

The aforementioned studies, and related work (for example, Gruneau and Whitson, 1993), elaborate the processes whereby masculinity is produced through social interaction in particular institutional contexts (Connell, 1995: 35). These contexts are historically specific. Like the earlier years of this century, the contemporary period is witnessing social changes with important implications for gender ideologies and their connections to sport. These include growing recognition of the problem of violence against women and children, the willingness of the legal system to intervene in domestic violence and regulate sexual harassment in the workplace, increasing automation and the growth of the service sector of the economy and the declining importance of physical work. ‘All of these contribute to the erosion of a world in which a powerful male body could translate into social power’ (Whitson, 1994: 359). These developments are the backdrop for the continued celebration in sport of a version of masculinity that is grounded in physical toughness and emphasizes gender difference and the denigration of women and gay men.

Challenges to Masculine Hegemony from within Men’s Sport

One of the most important contributions from the emerging work on men in sport is the analysis of challenges to hegemonic masculinity. Douglas Foley’s (1990) study of a football season in small-town Texas shows how class, ethnic and gender relations are reproduced and challenged by the rituals and practices associated with football. In a community that was 80 per cent Mexican American, the football team was a focus for working-class and Chicano resistance to middle-class and Anglo dominance. A Mexican coach provided a particularly powerful challenge to hierarchical relations by holding a position of authority on the team. This challenge, however, was shortlived. Following a pressure-packed season marked by a series of issues with racial undertones, the coach resigned, as Foley reports, ‘sick of the strife and the pressure on my family’ (Foley, 1990: 122).

Hegemonic masculinity, or the ‘culturally exalted’ version was challenged by some male Mexicanos who flaunted an ‘anti-sport’ lifestyle at football games and by football players who publicly endorsed the clean living image of the varsity athlete, while secretly breaking training regulations and team rules. At the same time, the traditional hierarchy of gender relations was confirmed by the role of female students as cheerleaders, the elevated status of football players and rituals like an annual ‘powder puff’ game that ridiculed female students, dramatized gender differences and served as an ‘expression of male dominance and privilege’ (Foley, 1990: 119). While acknowledging the significance of challenges to dominant relations that occurred around football, Foley (1990: 133) concludes that ‘such challenges have done little to transform the everyday culture that this major community ritual enacts.’

Race and the Construction of Masculinity

In his recent book Masculinities, R.W. Connell suggests that race relations are an integral part of the dynamic between hegemonic and other forms of masculinities and points to sport as an instance of this relationship. ‘In a white supremacist context, black masculinities play symbolic roles for white gender construction. For instance, black sporting stars become exemplars of masculine toughness’ (Connell, 1995: 80).

The celebration of black athleticism as an exemplary form of masculinity has a long history. Boxing, which perhaps more than any other sport embodies masculine imagery of physicality, has provided a particularly fertile setting for the construction of racialized versions of masculinity. In his biography of heavyweight champion Joe Louis, the first African American athlete to gain heroic status among white Americans, Chris Mead (1985) shows how media accounts faithfully represented Louis as the successful embodiment of his race. Consistent with the ‘race logic’ (Coakley, 1998: 258) of the time that attributed intellectual superiority to white people and animal-like savagery to people of color, Louis’s magnificent skills were attributed to his African heritage which, it was thought, located him somewhere closer to the animal kingdom than the human race. A 1935 account of a fight began with the statement, ‘Something sly and sinister and perhaps not quite human came out of the African jungle last night to strike down and utterly demolish the huge hulk that had been Primo Carnera, the giant’ (cited in Mead, 1985: 62). Later the same year a similar depiction appeared: ‘Louis, the magnificent animal. He lives like an animal, untouched by externals. He eats. He sleeps. He fights. He is as tawny as an animal and he has an animal’s concentration on his prey’ (cited in Mead, 1985: 68).

Boxing remains a prime setting for the construction of black masculinity. One of the clearest contemporary examples is heavyweight Mike Tyson. Following a troubled background that included time spent in a youth detention centre and an abusive marriage to actress Robin Givens, Tyson was convicted in 1992 of raping an 18-year-old beauty pageant contestant and served nearly three years in an Indiana prison. In a disturbing commentary on the strategy employed by the defense team at Tyson’s trial, Steptoe (1992) shows that the imagery celebrated in portrayals of Joe Louis is not a historical artifact. Playing to racial stereotypes, Tyson’s attorney told the jury that Tyson ‘is not a high school graduate. He’s never been trained in public speaking. He’s never been trained in the skills of projecting himself … He’s been trained to do one thing, to defend himself in a ring and to go to battle in a ring’ (quoted in Steptoe, 1992: 92). Invoking stereotypes of black men as hypersexual, the lawyer elicited testimony that Tyson’s activities were part of a ‘sex crazed rampage’ he engaged in during a pageant rehearsal. Steptoe indicates that ‘In effect [Tyson’s lawyer] was saying to the jury: Tyson is your worst nightmare—a vulgar, socially inept, sex obsessed black athlete.’ He was a black man guilty of ‘the crudity of his sexual demands’ (Steptoe, 1992: 92).

The racist constructions of Louis and Tyson are perhaps most notable for their transparency. Additional work examines more subtle and likely more powerful instances of the construction of black masculinity in sport. One of the more sophisticated analyses is David Andrews’s reading of the construction of US basketball star Michael Jordan as popular hero. Andrews argues that, contrary to his promoters’ efforts to present Jordan as having ‘no color’ (1996: 125), Jordan’s racial identity as an African American and the politics of race in America have been central to the construction and reconstruction of Jordan throughout his career. During Jordan’s meteoric rise to stardom in the National Basketball Association (NBA) he was promoted as the exemplar of the natural athlete, a basketball player ‘born to dunk.’ Subsequently, and in accordance with the prevailing racial politics of ‘Reagan’s America’ (Grossberg, 1992, cited in Andrews, 1996), which emphasized inclusiveness and conveniently ignored continuing racial and class divisions and tensions, Jordan’s promoters reconstructed him in specifically non-racial terms. Thus, there was a move away from Nike’s Air Jordan campaign that depicted his amazing physical skills to an advertising formula that emphasized Jordan’s humility, inner drive and personal responsibility, human qualities that presumably transcend race (Andrews, 1996).

After several years of reigning as a public icon, Jordan’s celebrated status was challenged by events in the spring and summer of 1993. In May, the New York Times reported on a late night visit to a gambling casino that Jordan made during a crucial championship series. This event prompted extensive media discussion of Jordan’s well-known fondness for gambling, sometimes for large sums of money. A few months later, Jordan’s father was murdered, while sleeping in his car at a roadside stop. The murder renewed interest in Jordan’s gambling, as the media speculated that the crime was somehow related to this presumed underside of Jordan’s character. Shortly after his father’s murder, Jordan retired from basketball, a move widely assumed to be in part related to the stress of dealing with his father’s death and media preoccupation with the murder. Andrews (1996) shows that in accounts of these later events, Jordan was reconstructed not as the hero who transcends race but as yet another example of an African American male whose character is ultimately flawed.

Jordan’s career came full circle when he returned to the NBA in the spring of 1995. At the time the league was encountering increasing criticism over the behavior and image of a number of its star players (many of these African American), who were described by one writer as ‘spoilsports and malcontents’ (Leland, 1995, cited in Andrews, 1996). On his return, Jordan was hailed as a role model who would reclaim for the league some of the lustre it had lost in the public eye.

In a much more complex analysis than the brief summary here can suggest, Andrews (1996) shows that the meaning of Michael Jordan is about a multiplicity of images, not only of Jordan, but of black male athletes and whites. This is an excellent illustration of Connell’s (1995) point that black masculinities play symbolic roles for white gender construction. Throughout the shifting imagery of Michael Jordan, hegemonic masculinity—white, heterosexual and cerebral as opposed to the presumed natural but undisciplined athleticism of African Americans—has provided the standard against which Jordan was constructed, first as hero, then as fallen icon, followed by renewed heroism. The repositioning of Michael Jordan provides powerful ideological support for a broader politics of racial relations centred around difference and white superiority.

Compulsory Heterosexuality, Homophobia, Gender and Sport

The analysis of compulsory heterosexuality and homophobia is critical to an understanding of gender and sport. Some discussion of this issue in the context of women’s sport is offered in the above accounts of emphasized heterosexuality in golf and aerobics, and the Ben Wright incident on the LPGA. The preoccupation with femininity in sport is one of the most powerful manifestations of homophobia. Lenskyj (1991: 49) explains the association: ‘Since the stereotype of “female-athlete” and “lesbian” share so-called masculine traits such as aggression and independence, the association between sport and lesbianism has frequently been made.’ In a comment similar to Cahn’s (1994: 208) remarks about the nagging question of power underlying the debate about women in sport, Lenskyj notes elsewhere that the popular association between sport and lesbianism is fundamentally an issue of male power:

regardless of sexual preference, women who reject the traditional feminine role in their careers as athletes, coaches, or sport administrators, as in any other non-traditional pursuit, pose a threat to existing power relations between the sexes. For this reason, these women are the frequent targets of labels intended to devalue or dismiss their successes by calling their sexuality into question. (Lenskyj, 1986: 383)

The condition of gay men and sport also offers important insight. The exemplary masculinity celebrated in sport is determinedly heterosexual. Some indication of the processes whereby this is accomplished is included in above accounts of the subcultures of Little League baseball and the locker room of a US university team. One of the major themes in both settings is denigration of gays and emphasis on the difference between gays and ‘real men’ (and boys) who do sport.

While work in the sociology of sport has in recent years identified the problem of homophobia, there is less information on the experiences of gays and lesbians and the relations between heterosexuals and homosexuals in sport. The limited literature includes Laurie Schulze’s (1990) examination of lesbians’ readings of women’s bodybuilding, which shows the contradictory meanings that lesbians assign to this activity. My research on an elite women’s hockey team shows a degree of inclusiveness that unites lesbian and heterosexual players (Theberge, 1995, 2000). Additional insight is offered in Mike Messner’s (1994) interview with decathlete and gay activist Tom Waddell, who describes the isolation he felt as a closeted gay man in sport and his vision for a break from the homophobic world of sport through the Gay Games.

Perhaps the most extensive analysis of homosexuals in sport is Brian Pronger’s (1990) phenomenological interpretation of the experiences of gay men. Pronger suggests that the emphasized heterosexuality of sport separates gay men from this culture and provides then with a distinctive viewpoint. This viewpoint is the basis of a strategy Pronger calls ‘ironic,’ meaning that while many gay men find the male locker room and athletic competition to be sexually charged, the relentless heterosex-ism of male sport forces them to act as and take the viewpoint of an outsider. Pronger suggests that in this response gay men reinterpret the athletic experience in ways that offer the potential to transform the heterosexist culture of sport (see Messner, 1992: 101).

Gender, Sport, and Challenges to Hegemonic Masculinity

The preceding discussion has offered an overview of the main themes in the literature on gender and sport, illustrated by discussions of representative research. This work focuses heavily on the contribution of sport to gender relations and the construction of gender ideologies. The key issues discussed are the manner in which sport reproduces or challenges hegemonic masculinity and the social conditions that underlie and enable these processes.

The discussion has stressed that the gendering of sport occurs within particular historical contexts and institutional conditions. The organization of sport in the latter part of the nineteenth century as a male preserve in which Victorian ideals of masculinity were celebrated remains the basis for its constitution today. Despite considerable advances in the conditions of women’s participation over the past hundred years, sport remains a powerful vehicle for the construction of an ideology of gender difference. This ideology is grounded in the association of gender and physicality. While the accomplishments of women athletes should put to rest any vestiges of the myth of female frailty, contradictions and ambiguities about the meaning of women’s athleticism continue. Challenges to masculine hegemony are countered by the continued marginalization and heterosexualization of women athletes and women’s sport.

A particularly important development in recent scholarship on gender and sport is the analysis of men and the production of masculinity. This work elaborates the complexity of the processes whereby masculinity is constructed and achieved. It also explores the challenges to hegemonic masculinity posed by subordinated and marginalized men and alternative forms of masculinity. These challenges, along with those arising from women’s sport, make clear the historical basis and mobility of gender relations.

The gendering of sport is inseparable from the dynamics of race and class. Although in need of development, work on minority men in sport is more advanced than that on minority women. Smith (1992) and Birrell (1990) have both noted the need for greater attention to the sporting experiences of women of color. This work is essential to the production of a more complete analysis of the dynamics of race, class and gender relations.

There is also a need for more research on the experiences of gays and lesbians in sport. While the significance of homophobia and heterosexism in sport has been identified as a political issue, we know much less about the dynamics of their operation in the everyday world of sport.

One of the most widely used textbooks in the sociology of sport identifies gender as the most popular topic in the field in the 1990s (Coakley, 1998). As the author, Jay Coakley, notes in the sixth edition of Sport in Society (1998: 211), this is because authors have come to realize the importance of understanding the significance of gender issues in sport and the political implications of these issues. This chapter has attempted to indicate the basis for Coakley’s assessment of the significance of the topic. The study of gender and sport is one of the most dynamic and important areas within the sociology of sport.