INSIDE Chico State
0 November 2, 2000
Volume 31 Number 6
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico




Provost's Corner


Thriving Under Pressure


Calendar of Events






Sports and Male Violence: Sociologist's Research Links the Two

Sociologist Michael Messner
Sociologist Michael Messner

(Photo by Ian Gilmore and Jeff Teeter)

Sports can be violent. Anyone who has watched professional football, basketball, or ice hockey knows that. Does the violence that is glorified in the game translate to more violence off the playing field?

Sociologist Michael Messner, a CSU, Chico alum, has been researching that question. He has written Power at Play, which looks at the dynamics of men's sports and violence and extends other research that indicates a higher likelihood of violence among male college athletes compared with other college males.

Messner, a professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California, presented "Sports, Violence and Masculinity" on October 17, as part of the Building Bridges program.

Messner uses political scientist Michael Kaufman's triad of men's violence -- against other men, against self, and against women. Messner argues that sport is one institutionalized way "in which boys and men learn and are often rewarded for disciplining their own bodies, attitudes, and feelings within the logic of this triad of men's violence."

In his book Power at Play, Messner interviewed a former NFL player known for hurting other athletes during the game. He was rewarded with status when he hurt others in high school games. The rewards continued with college scholarships and a professional career. Hurting others becomes part of the game. The athlete told Messner, "It could be you. It could be him. Most of the time it's better if it's him, so you know, you just go out and play your game." The result of this attitude is what Messner calls the development of the body as a weapon to be used against an objectified opponent.

Homophobia and misogyny perpetuate violence against self when words like faggot and woman become supreme insults. Coaches wanting their players to be more aggressive insult their players by saying that they're playing like women, and athletes often behave more aggressively to avoid this characterization. Messner related a story about Bobby Knight, long-time basketball coach at Indiana who was recently fired for his inability to control his own violent temper. When Knight thought that his players weren't playing aggressively enough one time, he put tampons into each of their lockers to send them the message that they better get out there and play like proper men.

Messner lists four dynamics within male sports culture that underlie men's violence against women:

  • the internal dynamics of male peer subcultures
  • adult male role models
  • the general context of gender inequalities
  • general context of violence

Messner focused on male subcultures, citing sexual talk, homophobic and misogynous group activities, and insecurities about sexual behavior as dynamics that create an acceptance of assault and rape.

Messner found that many athletes talked about their boyhood commitment to sports as a connection to fathers and other older males. In a culture where boys are encouraged to suppress feelings, men spend much of their lives "trying to figure out ways to safely connect with other people without being called a sissy and without being put down, without making ourselves vulnerable and getting hurt," Messner said.

Homophobia and joking about homosexuality operate in male groups as a bond. Messner argued that this bond, like dried Elmer's glue, actually creates a thin invisible barrier between men. "It bonds guys together -- we're guys, we're members of the group -- but it also separates you and keeps a certain emotional distance," Messner said. "Don't show vulnerability, don't talk too much about your feelings or else you will be the faggot in the group. So it keeps you from touching each other, literally in certain ways, and in terms of any kind of emotional vulnerability and closeness."

When a group of high school athletes raped a mildly retarded girl, the issue was not sex, but power and male bonding. The body becomes a tool or weapon "to be used in a sort of sexual performance in the service of an inter-male status hierarchy. Men manipulate women into sex in order to raise their status or maintain their status in the group," said Messner. That group dynamic is similar to the dynamic of acquaintance rape. When you examine acquaintance rape, you have to examine not just the individual, but the group context that fuels the individual's behavior.

"Gang rape…is not about sex as far as the victim is concerned, it's a brutal assault, and a stripping away of dignity, but when it comes to the group dynamic of the guys I think there is something sexual going on in gang rape, and it's not necessarily sex with a woman, because in gang rape the woman is really not there as a human being -- she is the vessel through which men are having sex with each other," said Messner. "The sexual dynamic that gets set up through joking with each other, and competing with each other, is a sort of a heterosexual erotic bond among the men. A woman in a gang rape is often used as a way to consummate that erotic bond among men," Messner said.

This does not mean that all men are committing acts of violence against women, Messner said. "But … even men who are not overtly committing acts of violence against women, may, through their participation in certain groups and activities, be complicit in the creation of a culture, the perpetuation of a culture, that encourages violence against women," Messner argued. And that is important in thinking about intervention strategies and education strategies. How do we change cultures? Messner urged his audience to start by trying to get to the majority who aren't engaged in violence against women and get them to stop being complying in the opposition, intervention and education.

Messner concluded by citing research that most locker room talk is quiet, dyadic discussions of relationships, fears, and doubts, but that loud homophobic, misogynistic, or general bragging conversations are the ones heard. People working with athletes have an opportunity to shift locker room culture to bring the majority to the fore and limit the loud violent minority.

His appearance was sponsored by Sociology, with contributions by Physical Education and Exercise Science, Philosophy, Psychology, the Center for Multicultural and Gender Studies, and Communication Arts and Sciences.

Barbara Alderson


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