We cannot ignore the internal voices of our boys any longer.
“I had anger issues in high school.”
“I felt like an outcast.”
“I’m not supposed to get help.”
There’s a misconception that sports only play a positive role in the lives of our boys and men, but in a world where teenage boys are 3 times more likely to die from suicide1 than teenage girls, and where men are almost 4 times more likely to die from suicide than women2 , we need to examine the impact that sports has on our boys. What are sports really teaching boys about what it means to be a man? About their masculinity3 and their place in this world? About their sense of belonging, connection, and community?
We must examine the issue of sports if we are ever to reach gender equity 4 in our lifetime. We often applaud sports for their positive impact on women and girls because they teach confidence and increased well-being5. But we forget to look at the impact of sports — both youth sports and professional sports — on our boys and men. That impact is not quite so positive 6.
Watch the first 30 seconds of this trailer and you’ll hear the internal voices our boys. You’ll realize that we can do better. We must do better.
Toxic Masculinity: What It Means To “Be A Man”
Sports are trapping our boys into tragic and toxic boxes of masculinity.
While girls are 4 times more likely to experience sexual assault than boys, boys are twice as likely to experience physical assault 7 than girls. We see this paradigm play out in sports. Girls experience sexual assault at the hands of their coaches 8 whereas boys experience physical assault at the hands of their coaches. Look no further than Larry Nassar 9 and Mike Rice 10 as examples.
(To be clear, boys also experience sexual assault11 from their coaches, but it is reported far less often.)
This physical (and emotional) abuse of boys in sports breeds toxic masculinity, and toxic masculinity carries over into abuse of girls. In a study across 16 California High Schools, boys who played football and basketball were twice as likely to have abused their intimate partners 12. We see a similar trend play out among professional athletes. As part of the 2016 agreement between the NBA and the players association, the NBA has instituted a stronger policy against domestic violence13, allowing the NBA to investigate players, regardless of criminal charges. The NFL has yet to follow suit 14.
In a world where toxic masculinity has tragic results, we must face the fact: we have left our boys behind 15. We cannot remain complacent with the current reality of what it means to “be a man.” We must create a new reality. Sports are key to creating this new paradigm.
A New Paradigm: Transformational, Not Transactional
Winning is not everything. Yet, in sports, particularly boys sports, we praise winning at all costs 16. Coaches (and sometimes parents) build their careers on the backs of our children. Rather than viewing sports as an opportunity to develop a well-rounded adult, our boys (and girls) are stepping stones to upward mobility for a coach. Given the stats about the percentage of children who will actually grow up to be professional athletes 17, this view is myopic and damaging.
I want us to create a new sports culture. Let’s create a new paradigm that focuses less on winning the game and more on creating well-rounded adults 18. We must use this as an opportunity to de-gender our sports and view them as transformational — not transactional — experiences.
A New Culture: Breaking Out Of The Man Box
Transforming the culture of sports is key to enabling our boys to break out of the “man box.”
Joe Ehrmann, former NFL player turned coach, is a shining example of how we can use sports to redefine the paradigm of what it means to “be a man.” Ehrmann struggled for years inside the man box that he was raised in. His idea of what it meant to be a man involved control and dominance. He finally confronted this definition through the death of his brother. Ehrmann’s experience and his subsequent journey led him to establish the Inside Out Initiative 19 with the express purpose of transforming the culture of youth sports from “winning is everything” to raising well-rounded adults.
Another wonderful example of how to transform the culture of sports — and help close the gender gap — is the Positive Coaching Alliance 20. The MLB has signed on as a national partner, and now the NBA and NFL should follow suit. It is not enough to simply discipline players for poor behavior.
We need to transform the culture of sports so that our boys and girls learn that winning is not everything.
How you develop matters. How you show up matters. How you improve your character matters. This is the new definition of what it means to “be a man” or “man up.” Phil Jackson, one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time, is a wonderful example of the impact of a transformative coaching culture on youth.
There’s Still More Work To Be Done
This is a watershed moment for our society. We must take action now. We must capitalize on this opportunity to change the culture of sports and close the gender gap. Our challenge is twofold:
1. Transform the Culture of Youth Sports
Examples such as The Inside Out Initiative and the Positive Coaching Alliance change the goal from “winning” to developing well-rounded, emotionally intelligent adults. We applaud MLB for stepping up, now we need the NBA and the NFL to do the same. Follow the lead of coaches like Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers.
2. Start At The Top.
The MLB, NBA, and NFL hold the greatest responsibility to transform the culture of toxic masculinity in sports. They must change and embrace a different paradigm of what it means to “be a man” or to “man up.” Boys look up to professional sports as a marker for what is acceptable behavior 21, and feeder coaches model their behavior after what is acceptable higher up the ranks. When boys look up, let’s make sure they see a new definition of what it means to “be a man.”
Sports are an important part of the ethos and youth experience in America (and impact roughly 14% of our population 22). We must work together to transform the culture of sports so that we have positive outcomes for our children. Sports give us a shot at achieving gender equity for all in our lifetime. Our boys need us. Let’s show up for them.