On “Man” and “Woman” in Sports

Two articles in the past week, “Man Up,” about the situation with Incognito bullying fellow Dolphins football player Martin, and “She’s All That,” a profile on WNBA player Britney Griner not only examine the sports narratives of manhood and womanhood, they show how sports causes misdirection, re-evaluation, and redefinition of what these terms mean. They are prime examples of how sports turns a cultural subtext into a textual narrative we can dissect.

In “Man Up,” Grantland writer Brian Philips examines the situation between Dolphins players 24-year-old Jonathan Martin and 30-year-old Richie Incognito. Martin left the team for emotional help, citing mental health issues, with allegations that Incognito was bullying him with threats, racial epithets, and homophobic texts. Philips is angry at how the idea of masculinity and manhood are wrapped up in the aggression, bullying, and racism of Incognito, as well the macho expectations that Martin is apparently failing to meet. He demonstrates his state through dark satire:

I’m here to start a fight.

Because this — this idea that Jonathan Martin is a weakling for seeking emotional help — this is some room-temperature faux-macho alpha-pansy nonsense, and I am here to beat it bloody and leave it on the ground. Every writer who’s spreading this around, directly or by implication; every player who’s reaction-bragging about his own phenomenal hardness; every pundit in a square suit who’s braying about the unwritten code of the locker room — every one of these guys should be ashamed of himself, and that’s it, and it’s not a complicated story.

Philips is pained by this inability to factor the “plague of NFL suicides” that “hint at the severity of the desperation many players seem to find below the surface of America’s favorite TV show” into the aforementioned group’s capacity for compassion for someone asking for help in a situation they can’t handle. He goes deeper, at the cultural strain that laughs off Incognito and damns Martin:

Your ability to chortle “boys will be boys” doesn’t mean that psychological abuse of the sort that Martin apparently endured can’t widen that kind of fracture.

So-called manliness is based on the younger boyishness — for a 30 year old man who bullies a 24 year old man — which is reinforced through a tautological argument: “boys will be boys.” That is — “boys will be boys, verbally harassing one another to the point of mental anguish, and this is a given because of their sex, because it is in their nature.”

And this is where I want to discuss Brittney Griner’s profile in Elle, because it is so very different from these propositions, these simultaneous redefining and rejecting of “manliness.” First, you really need to see Brittney Griner’s skills on the court. I don’t watch a lot of basketball, but even I can recognize that the effortless way she plays is something special.

They also discuss her coming out:

The worst times were in seventh grade, Griner says. Confiding in neither friends nor family—she grew up outside of Houston, the youngest of four children of a police officer and a homemaker—she’d retreat to her room to cry, she recalls, “Just thinking, like, Why am I even here? Why am I even alive?” Finding basketball in ninth grade gave her a purpose and a passion, she says, not that her adolescence then followed a direct path out of prejudice to bliss. Griner came out to her parents, and while her mother greeted the news with mellow aplomb—she’d always love her girl, she said—her father, Ray, declared that he wasn’t “raising any lesbian.”…Fortunately, her father has since come around, and the two now stay in regular contact.

and her love for Harley Quinn, which I thought was cute (I was kind of annoyed Abraham didn’t ask the obvious question about Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy). But what struck me was Abraham’s pre-meeting feelings about Griner:

When I read the avalanche of “she’s a dude” abuse directed at Griner on social media, I wasn’t surprised. A former basketball player myself, I recognized it as the usual ranting of men threatened by women’s athletic excellence, guys who suffer from something I like to call masculine-anxiety disorder, or MAD for short.

Another dissection of manliness — this time calling a woman a man as a term of abuse. We all know it, but Abraham’s reaction and self-awareness about that reaction is what complicates the issue of gender further:

What surprised me, what with my familiarity with jocky women, was, off court, as I trailed Griner from appointment to appointment, how much she felt like a guy to me. Not because of the style of her clothes and the lack of makeup, and not because I thought she was “really” a man…some combination of sensory stimuli screamed boy to me. So much so that I did a cognitive double take each time I heard someone refer to her as she: Yes, yes, Brittney is a girl, I’d think. She is a girl….The mixture of qualities that make a person read as male or female is somewhat mysterious. As I said, before I met Griner in person, it didn’t occur to me that I’d have the reaction I did.

When I read this I was equally confused. But then I watched a video of her on Conan, and I could see it:

My gut reaction was not that Griner toed the line between masculine and feminine, but brought a whole other dimension to the word. Abraham goes liberal politics deep into the concept of gender, but she stops short on the Olympics:

In sports, however, there is one important forum that doesn’t necessarily take a person’s word for it, and that’s the Olympics….The current approach of the International Olympic Committee…will apply to Griner when she vies for a spot on the 2016 USA women’s basketball team, as is her stated plan. According to the organization’s “Female Hyperandrogenism” policy, top IOC officials can order testosterone testing for women whose gender is for some reason deemed debatable. (Talk about eye of the beholder.) If such an athlete’s functional testosterone level crosses into a “male range,” she can’t compete unless she takes testosterone-suppression drugs.

We’ve talked about transgender competition in the Olympics as well as the crappy politics of testosterone testing, but Griner’s case, compared to the aforementioned Martin, brought a new perspective on the situation for me. Griner is derided as a “man” for her skills, but as a woman she’s policed for those exact skills. I get the sense that she is punished for being a woman in the space of sports. The way vulnerability is derided as weakness in the case with Martin and Incognito, Griner’s lack of femininity suggests not being vulnerable enough, not weak enough, the way a woman should. When Martin isn’t man enough, he’s weak; when Griner is too much man, she’s not weak enough.

In this case, in sports, as in life, the conflations ring the same: manhood is strength is power; womanhood is vulnerability is weakness.

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