When it comes to stereotypical icons of sexism, football players are up there with frat boys and Christina Hoff Summers. But new research published in the Journal of Gender Studies suggests their womanizing, homophobic reputation may not be wholly deserved.
Researchers Eric Anderson and Rhidian McGuire spent one year observing "a highly successful rugby squad, at a high-ranked academic university in England", with a focus on three of the core requirements of old-school, hegemonic masculinity: misogyny, homophobia and excessive risk taking.
Anderson, an openly gay academic, and McGuire, a rugby player himself, spent ten months observing the young men at practice, conducting in-depth interviews with the team, and speaking with their female friends and acquaintances.
Their findings? While there was plenty of banter about which women the players thought were hot and who they hooked up with on the weekend, put downs like "bitch", "slut" and "fag" were rare – and when they were used, were met with reproach rather than "you go boy" backslapping.
The researchers report:
When Anderson interviews Ben, he says: ‘I would never call a woman [a bitch]'. And when asked if he hears his teammates doing such, he responds: ‘No. Absolutely not. And it wouldn't be a good way to make friends, either. There is just no place for that on this team'. Oli agrees: ‘No. Just the opposite. I'd get into someone's face if I heard it. That just does not occur'.
All the players interviewed – even the two who had been observed using homophobic and sexist language – insisted they'd be totally comfortable playing alongside gay teammates, and several were critical of their coaches' use of sexist and homophobic slurs. One player comments:
That's his generation. But it doesn't work for us. It doesn't make us jump up and perform better. It doesn't make me think, ‘Oh, no. I'm not a real man, I need to play harder'. It just makes me think he's a fucking idiot.
A feminist's dream come true? Not quite. Anderson and McGuire note that this is a fairly specific group of young men – white, middle-class and highly educated.
It also seems significant that the study was conducted at Cambridge, a university that attracts some of the world's brightest students, who might be more likely to think critically about gender roles. It's not clear whether the results signal a generational shift in male sporting culture, or just the views of the next generation of left-leaning intellectuals. It also could just be a British thing - a similar study of American students in 2005 found homophobic discourse was rife amongst college athletes.
As the researchers point out, though, it does represent a big departure from previous studies into sport and masculinity – even British ones. And it does suggest that some young men, at least, are redefining what it means to be a man on their own terms.
And if nothing else, it serves as a pleasant reminder that not all college footballers are sexist asshats.
Rachel Hills blogs at Musings of an Inappropriate Woman.