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 perspective that male things are more toxic than female things, which is unfair to the millions of moms and dads who appreciate the work of male and female coaches. Strauss does not address the more alarming trend; boys’ participation in 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.” After all, did your parents post your 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 and commitment. 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 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 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. There are nearly 100 male and female volunteer coaches, and 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, boy or girl, 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 we keep score, the kids know who won. The children also forget about a loss much sooner than the adults.
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 Serina Williams and Elizabeth Lambert. These toughminded 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 happens with women leaders more than male leaders.
Articles like Strauss’s worry me because they feel like a journal entry and not journalism. Blaming toxic masculinity goes unchecked and does not allow any opposition to it. 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 phrase “why can’t boys be boys” and matriculates into the adult version, toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is a troubling term that uses a rhetoric of hysteria and fear to quantify the essence of maleness, from boy to man. The overwhelming number of boys and men are not dangerous and not toxic. (And there is no reason to believe males and females are not toxic in their own ways as a natural part of the human condition.) The term toxic masculinity reminds me of the term interloper, a term used to associate fear, hysteria, and the African American male decades ago. Someone who will come in and hurt your women or invade your 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 no such thing as toxic masculinity; only those who want to promulgate a rhetoric that stereotypes and assumes the worst. 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 and so there is a toxic element to humanity, but I do believe there are more good people than bad people and life is not a battle of good vs. evil.
I appreciate that my sons have had different types of coaches; some tough as nails and some exceedingly mild. Some I’d grown to love and others I’d grown to be indifferent toward. Life is full of challenges, rewards, let downs, and people of all sorts. But youth sports offer a tempered venue where boys and girls are introduced to the harder lessons of life, and the notion that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
About the Author: Sean Kullman has been involved in Youth Sports, middle school, high school, and college teaching, and researching and writing for over 25 years. He is a steering committee member of the Coalition to Create a White House Council on Boys and Men and the father of two boys and has been married to his executive wife, whom he admires more than anyone in the world, for over 20 years.
Youth Sports and the falsehood of Toxic Masculinity
By Sean Kullman
2347 Raven Road
Pleasanton, CA 94566