Toxic Masculinity Part Five – Initiations

You’re 18 years old and have signed an entry level contract. You’re hot s***. But you’re a rookie, and the rest of the team won’t let you forget that. Sports are notorious for their pranks, initiations, and hazing rituals. Kirby and Wintrup (2002) ask whether initiations can ever really be harmless and do they still belong in sport?

Some athletes have tried to distance themselves from the ‘laddish‘ practices found in sport but it can be hard to voice your disapproval to the rest of the team.  I personally think there’s a different culture between university and professional sports initiations; Chelsea FC has new players stand on a chair and sing a song to the team whereas I’ve heard stories from people joining sports teams at university where their heads are shaved, they have to strip naked, down a bottle of wine and run sprints et cetera. It seems to be how much abuse can we get away with under this umbrella of an initiation?

These brutal initiations send the message that we are in charge – if you don’t like this then you don’t get to be on the team, and players would be reluctant to speak out to their teammates in defence of the rookies. You support your team mates, not some newbies. Some may even be in the mindset of “well I had to do that, so why shouldn’t they?” that reinforces the cycle. (However, when Joe Sakic had his head shaved, he said he would never do that to a team mate).  It serves a purpose of keeping those rookies in line – veterans have their lockers, seats on the coach, they get their food first, rookies must collect the equipment. Likewise, it enforces this toxic masculinity. A rookie can’t speak out and say “I don’t want to do this, I don’t like it, it makes me uncomfortable” because that’s not what you do, you suck it up, be a man and do it.

It keeps the herd together. No one’s above it. It happens to stars, it happens to fourth-liners, even the guys that are black aces. Sometimes, it brings someone down to earth.

Some aren’t particularly harrowing. Classic hockey ones including the rookie leading the team on the ice, but the rest of the team doesn’t follow and instead chuckles away whilst they take a solo lap. Cam Fowler chauffeured Getzlaf and Selanne to home games, Despres clothes were hung from the rafters,  and Lovejoy and Letestu had their furniture rearranged in their hotel room. These a way of welcoming the rookies into the team, you’re one of us now, kid. And it doesn’t stop there, in the NHL there are famous pranksters on teams (Marc-Andre Fleury, Patrick Sharp to name a couple).

Things have improved over the years, at least, but where is the line between hazing and a harmless prank?



Toxic Masculinity Part Four – Violent Language

Returning to the toxic masculinity series, this post will focus on violence in sports, more specifically violent language. Firstly, we need to consider the effects language can have. Language is an incredibly powerful tool used to inspire, persuade, and motivate. Every good sports film has a motivational speech, for Mighty Ducks it was “I’m proud to be a duck”, for Remember the Titans it’s the Battle of Gettysburg speech, and for Miracle well hey…


Often, sports are framed as some sort of battle. These sport-war metaphors include calling players warriors or fighters, encouraging them to give blood for the team, the win is hard fought.  Remember, we’re talking about modern day sports, not gladiators fighting to the death. These phrases can encourage risk taking – keep playing on through injury, making dangerous plays for your team’s advantage. It also seeks to emphasise the masculinity involved within being a Sporting Hero: Traditionally, it’s the men who go to war and it’s the men who play sport because they’re big, strong, protective, brave, valiant et cetera. You’re in pain? Too bad, buddy, we’re in a war. Following 9/11, research looked at fan’s perceptions of sport-war metaphors, and dedicated fans tend to endorse their use rather than reject them.

Sport-war metaphors have been used in real wars, particularly the Persian Gulf War, in information released by the Pentagon and by media outlets. A general in the Gulf War, Norman Schwartzkopf, described the strategic plan of the ground war as “the Hail Mary play in football” and pilots who returned from the Baghdad bombings described it as “a football game where the defense never showed up“.  Comparing a war to a sports game downplays the severity of it. It minimises the innocent lives lost; the casualties of war, and the cost to society. It paints winning a war as something to be triumphant about, as if a trophy ought to be handed over. However, on the reverse, when sport-war metaphors are used in a sporting context, they are there to maximise efforts and emphasise the importance of the match.

In the 1980 Winter Olympics, the Soviet Union came up against the United States of America in the ice hockey semi final match. The Soviet Union had won six out of seven of the previous Olympic competitions, so they were a force to be reckoned with, and the USA team was made up of collegiate athletes. The match came during a tense time, politically, with the two countries in the midst of the Cold War. With Americans fearing the threat of a Russian attack, the match came to be a poignant reflection of the political situation. The United States won the game 4-3 and went on to defeat Finland in the gold medal match. The Soviet Union won bronze over Sweden.

Which is harder, winning a war or winning a football game?


Toxic Masculinity Part Three- Never A Victim

Another aspect of toxic masculinity is that men can never be a victim. Now, the NHL is no stranger to domestic violence issues. Semyon Varmalov, the goaltender of Colorado Avalanche, was arrested in October 2013 for kidnapping and assault of his girlfriend. He was back on the ice 48 hours later though. The charge was eventually dropped by a judge as prosecutors were unable to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt. In another case, Slava Voynov was arrested on domestic violence charges and suspended by the league. Most people would probably agree that beating up your wife is a pretty terrible thing to  do, but the LA Kings still allowed Voynov to attend practice – landing them with a fine of $100,000, which is pocket change really to a franchise worth $550 million. Oh, and Voynov did receive his full salary for the season despite the suspension. He was eventually sentenced to 90 days in jail and three years probation.

Last month, the girlfriend of Habs player, Alex Galchenyuk, was arrested on a domestic violence charge. It has been reported that Galchenyuk threw a party, teammate Devante Smith-Pelly was present, and when his girlfriend, Chanel Leszczynski arrived there was an altercation resulting in the police being called. Galchenyuk was left with a bloody nose, but declined to press charges. However, given that it was a domestic violence case, police are required to forward the information to the prosecutor’s office.  The Montreal Canadiens started the season blazing hot, but things have cooled down since then, especially after losing Carey Price to injury. When knowledge of the assault hit the press, 21 year old Galchenyuk was required to make a statement to the media.


Congratulations, you made the victim of domestic abuse apologise for the incident as though it was his fault. Incredibly, coach Michel Therrien had this to say on the matter “You never want this type of distraction, you never want to hear stuff like this. He’s young, he’ll learn.” He’ll learn. Learn what? That when you’re assaulted you become the scapegoat for the team’s bad form? That he distracted the team because his girlfriend attacked him? Absolutely ridiculous. It reinforces the idea that men can never be victims. He’s a hockey player – he makes his living by hitting people on the ice and he couldn’t control a girl? The league has had many opportunities to show its support for victims of domestic violence of both genders, but had failed miserably each time.

Toxic Masculinity Part Two – Phrases & Injuries

How often have you heard these phrases? Man up. Be a man. You play like a girl. In hockey, Cindy Crosby and the Sedin Sisters are thrown about. These are commonplace phrases, I’m guilty of using them, but they are sexist. Maybe you don’t use them to intentionally hurt, but if you stood on somebody’s foot by accident and it hurt them, would you apologise? They motivate one group by putting down another and rendering them inferior. When you insult another player by telling them they play like a girl – what you are saying is that girls are inferior, your sporting ability is inferior because it is girl-like. This can deter girls from sports, especially typically male ones like rugby or hockey. Serena Williams’ body receives scrutiny for looking masculine – hello, she’s a 21 time grand slam champion athlete with a serve of 128mph, her body is going to be muscley, but that doesn’t mean it’s masculine! Samantha Stosur has also endured comments based on her non-feminine physique “she played like a man, and it’s really hard to play against a man” – whatever that means. Athletic women who do not meet the criteria for being feminine, i.e. dainty and pretty, are assumed to be homosexual and thus are met with homophobic attacks. Without getting too sidetracked into the diabolical treatment of female athletes, this video does a great job at illustrating the double standards for men versus women in sport by the media. The famous campaign of This Girl Can is empowering girls to enjoy exercise.

You’re not here to be a girl about it – Morgan Reilly.

Although ‘be a man’ gives us one of the best songs in Disney history, what this phrase is really saying is that to be good you must fit with these masculine ideals – what you currently are is not good enough. Being a man means you must be strong and stoic. Don’t be a pussy. Because of this doggedness to appear invincible, too often male athletes play on through injuries or take extreme risks. There is a pressure upon footballers to continue to play through an injury which can lead to pain, more severe injuries or chronic ones. Suck it up and carry on. Injuries are awful. They can be anxiety inducing and career ending. Generally, the more masculine a man perceives himself to be, the less likely he is to seek treatment. Injured athletes experience depression at a rate six times higher than that of non-injured players. There are some benefits associated with injuries such as free time to spend with families and to use as an opportunity for development, which ought to be illustrated to athletes. Undergoing rehabilitation can actually strengthen the injured area to a level higher than pre-injury. Why on earth do they play on?


Rugby players are real men compared to footballers; they don’t roll on the ground when they’re injured, they get to their feet, bloody and battered, and carry on. They receive praise for being tough and continuing through pain. Bert Trautmann played the FA Cup final with a broken neck. Jordan Rapana continued playing with a fractured skill that required 60 staples. Paul Wood ruptured his testicle during a game of rugby and eventually had to have it removed. When you encourage and praise men for being Real Men™ it discourages them from leaving the game with an injury which can have serious consequences. Think about concussions – they are a serious brain injury, but people shake them off as being a headache, the odd dizzy spell. We need to dismantle the idea that men are not allowed to be weak. There is more to the issue of playing through an injury, such as desire to help the team and a passion to play, but one has to question whether this mindset of being tough and carrying on is dangerous.


Toxic Masculinity Part One – Suppressing Emotions

This post will focus on toxic masculinity which has become a bit of a buzzword for feminists, but it is an important topic that needs addressing. It holds that imposing masculinity on men can be harmful, particularly as the typical masculine gender role is one associated with violence, assertiveness, independence, and non-emotional. There are several facets to the concept of toxic masculinity which will be explored through the series of these posts.

toxic masculinity

To understand toxic masculinity in a sporting context, firstly we ought to examine how these gender stereotypes begin to influence from birth. Masculinity is difficult to define and measure, furthermore cross-cultural differences also play a role therefore this will focus on the westernized view of ‘being a man’.  Just as femininity encourages women to be thin, beautiful, and motherly, masculinity commands that men be an unattainable ideal of an emotionally-stunted invincible hero. Both are unrealistic and damaging. In a study by Smith and Lloyd (1978), new mothers played with an actor baby who was presented as either male or female and dressed in gender typical clothes (i.e. in pink when ‘a girl’). Results showed that when the child was believed to be male, the women engaged in more physical play, encouraged gross motor activity, and reached for the “male” toys. Girl’s toys are usually pink, dolls, or miniature kitchens, whereas boys toys have wheels, are weapons, or sports related. Another study has shown that men handle a baby less than women – perhaps as boys are discouraged from playing with dolls and girls are praised for being maternal. An important finding was that the majority guessed the child was male due to physical and behavioral indicators like being strong  – the child in the study was actually female.  The scariest thing is that this happens from birth; Rubin, Provenzano, and Luria (1974) showed that although there were no significant physical differences between newborns, parents already described the girls as little, cute, and pretty – these babies were 24 hours old! (No offense to the new parents out there, but newborns fresh from the womb are anything but pretty).

Boys are more likely to receive physical punishments than girls. I don’t believe for a moment that boys are naughtier than girls, however boys are allowed to be more boisterous – it’s not ladylike to fight, when boys are physically aggressive, well it’s just boys being boys. I wonder if any gentlemen reading this have been told that boys don’t cry? Girls are allowed to cry, girls are allowed to seek comfort when they’re hurting, but boys? Big boys don’t cry.

This leads in nicely to one part of toxic masculinity which is emotional suppression. When you tell a boy that he shouldn’t cry, that he shouldn’t seek comfort when he’s hurting, you are damaging his emotional responses. Boys are consistently comforted less than girls and told to control their emotions. An inability to recognise and respond to emotions can have serious adverse effects for a man, such as repressing emotions or externalising them through destructive behaviours. Although women are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health disorder, mean are four times more likely to commit suicide. One has to wonder whether 1) men are not seeking help hence the under-representation of mental disorders in this population  2) this reluctance is, in part, due to their socialisation that expressing emotions is a weakness. Mental health struggles are not a sign of weakness. 

A professional sporting environment is a hub of hyper-masculinity. In a sport like hockey where a fist fight on the ice is part of your run-of-the-mill day, it’s easy to see why men are reluctant to come forwards and discuss their emotions. Nobody wants to be called a pussy. In November 2009, German footballer Robert Enke committed suicide by standing in front of a train. Following his death, his wife confirmed that he had struggled with depression for several years, and recently had difficulty coping with the pressure of being a professional footballer and the death of his daughter. In August 2011, ice hockey player Rick Rypien committed suicide. He had battled depression for a decade or more. Rick was considered small for NHL standards, but never shied away from a fight (if you’re suffering from depression and society tells you it’s a weakness, one way to show them you’re not is by throwing punches).

He played the game with such reckless abandon and a fearlessness. He had cuts and bruises and nicks on his face, it seemed like a new one every night.

The NHL has made steps to raise awareness of mental health and Rypien’s close friend, Kevin Bieksa, has played a pivotal role in tackling attitudes towards mental illness. The Bell Let’s Talk campaign is also a positive step with many players lending their voice to it. Robert’s widow, Teresa, works with the German FA and Hannover 96 to promote awareness and remove the stigma attached to mental health. It can be a big step for men to acknowledge that they need help – Enke was asked by the team’s sport psychologist if he was suffering from depression and denied it – so Teresa makes a great point:

We don’t want sports people to go public and say we have depression. There’s no need to communicate it publicly. The help should be given internally. The coaches and the teams should help and support the player and let them know they can come back from it.

Breaking down these barriers in a sports environment is a positive sign, but is important to recognise that from a young age the masculine ideal of being strong and silent can be damaging and is often reinforced. The steps ought to be taken earlier; information on mental health should be made readily available from a youth level, including how to seek help, because even young people commit suicide.


If you have been affected by any of the subjects raised in this post then please don’t hesitate to reach out for help.