Varda Burstyn's The Rites of Men
— Barbara L. Tischler
The Rights of Men: Manhood, Politics and the Culture of Sport by Varda Burstyn (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999) 388 pages, $24.95 paperback.
THE SCENE IS replicated thousands of times on playing fields across the country. Teams square off against each other in something far more serious than mock combat. The stakes are high for players, parents and coaches. Even if the victory means little in terms of trophies or advancement, in this scenario the followers of famed football coach Vince Lombardi are right—"winning is not the main thing, it's the only thing."
For young athletes, male and female alike, the ethos of the playing field is dominated by images of hard-fought victory and suffering as an individual for the greater glory of the collective called the team. Whether in youth sports or the ranks of professional athletes, images of victorious warriors dominate the field of what is supposed to be play.
For many young athletes, the experience of faux combat is more important and memorable than the myriad activities that crowd the lives of young students. If the attention given to sports in the popular media and the value placed by school administrators and the corporate world on athletic star quality are measures of significance, then taking punishment for the team is more important than acting in the school play, singing in the glee club or scoring debate points in the model United Nations, where the ethos is no less collaborative and no less meaningful.
The question for scholars, parents and glee club conductors to ponder is "Why?" Varda Burstyn provides some significant, if not entirely new, explanations in The Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics, and the Culture of Sport.
Burstyn is a critical feminist scholar in the study of the social impact of science and technology. Her work on New Reproductive and Genetic Technologies has appeared previously in this journal (ATC 49, March-April 1994).
In this book, building on the earlier work in the late 1960s and 1970s of such scholars and popular writers as Harry Edwards, Jack Scott and Paul Hoch, Burstyn casts a critical eye on the popularization and commercialization of sports. Beyond the economics and the politics of athletics for profit, Burstyn explores the intimate dynamic of participation as it is writ large on the international athletic scene. "The rituals of sport," she argues, "engage more people in a shared experience than any other institution or cultural activity today." (3)
Of course, most of those who share in the ritualistic experience of a goal, game-winning home run or broken speed record, do so vicariously. We watch, although as Burstyn makes clear throughout the book, the vicarious experience has taken on a life of its own as fans wear team colors, sing team songs and purchase products, from athletic shoes to rental cars and phone companies, that are endorsed by superstar athletes.
While athletes no longer grow up in the towns, or often even the countries, they represent, hometown loyalty is itself a manufactured commodity, thanks to public relations and relentless advertising.
Even the discourse of sport has become pervasive. Matters of literary canon aside, shared references in our culture derive less from classical or western historical sources than they do from popular sporting events. As Burstyn notes, "When the U.S. space probe landed on Mars in July 1997, a NASA spokesman compared the moment to `winning the Superbowl, the World Cup, and the World Series three days in a row.' This was the only metaphor he could find, he explained, that was sufficiently marvelous to convey the wonder of Sojourner's discoveries." (3)
In more popular parlance, if you can't "talk sports" you have very little to contribute to many conversations.
A Man's World?
Burstyn's interest lies in understanding the many reasons that "the culture of big time sports generates, reworks, and affirms an elitist, masculinist account of power and social order, an account of its own entitlement to power." (4)
She seeks to comprehend and clarify the reasons that gender equality runs counter to the ethos of the world of sports, from little league through the professional ranks. This remains true in spite of the gains made by girls and women in amateur and professional athletics. Girls and women continue to comprise a second-class sports citizenry whose place on the athletic hierarchy is largely determined by their ability to replicate the patterns of male behavior on the playing field.
Burstyn frequently reminds us that the male-dominated world of sports is far from stable. In a dynamic capitalist world, the rules keep changing, even the rules defining masculinity and appropriate male behavior on and off the field.
Even though the predominant image of the sports world may remain constant—with its winners and losers, triumphs and defeats, new stars on the rise and older players on their way to making a living doing something other than play—the real game, the sports business, is constantly changing.
The concept of the local team has been all but obliterated, as "the ties that have bound athletes to their communities—whether in working-class England or postcolonial Africa—are being unraveled by commercialization and free trade in athletic labour. As the ties of locality, ethnicity, and nation come more and more undone, the ties of gender, of masculinity, become increasingly important." (25)
So long as the governing ideology of the sports business is determined by the demands of commercialization, athletic activity at all levels will continue to be more reactionary than progressive, even as women make gains among the ranks of athletes. As Burstyn notes:
"Sport divides people against themselves. It separates children from children, men from women, and community from community. Sport models and exacerbates social conflict and encourages antisocial and antidemocratic values. And it does this most centrally through its inflection of gender, particularly its offering of ideal types and behaviours for men." (27)
Although Burstyn's contentions are not entirely new, they are compelling, as when she argues that "the culture of sport celebrates many attitudes and behaviours toward nature and our fellow humans that are socially destructive." These attitudes tend to "cancel out much of the positive experience sport can deliver." (13)
This is true because of the dominance of what Burstyn calls a "sport nexus," a "highly lucrative, multibranched transnational economy of enormous scope and influence. The sport nexus is composed of distinct sectors of economic and political interests, associated together in various clusters of overlapping and interlocking organizations, strategies, and personnel."
Just as sociologist C.Wright Mills warned of the overarching power of the military-industrial complex in the 1950s, Burstyn, taking her cues from sociologist Sut Jhally, uses the term "sport-media complex" to refer to an equally insidious network of organizations and relationships that have come to define sports in the modern world. The essential elements of the sport-media complex are the mass media, corporate sponsors, governments, medicine, and biotechnology. (17)
The Olympic bribery scandal in Salt Lake City (and retrospective revelations about Atlanta and the entire International Olympic Committee) is only a reminder of the connection among sports, government, and corporate profits.
The history and prevailing images of sport are predominantly male. Sports figures are said to be heroic in decidedly male terms—athletes are valued because they are "large, strong, often violent, record-setting champions." The male qualities of the athlete are central to the appeal of sports that crosses class, national and political lines.
Burstyn argues that "the ways in which the element of physical content of sports has been gendered are central to its appeal. The actions that the dominant sports forms practise and celebrate are `higher, faster, stronger,' in the succinct words of the Olympic motto. This is at once an industrial and a masculinist motto, for it condenses within its ideal bodies and activities the technomorphism of industrial capitalism (the ideal of the machine) and the biomorphism of maleness (the muscular superiority of males)." (22-23)
Even in the context of presumed male athletic superiority lies the essential fact that athletes are objects serving a purpose other than their own competitive goals. To survive as a professional athlete, one serves the needs of the athletic organization, the government or the corporate sponsor.
Just as Marx argued that practitioners of even the most honored professions have become the servants of capital, so too have athletes been reduced to wage laborers, even if that wage seems exorbitantly high to the fans who root for them and purchase the products they endorse.
Another aspect of the control of sport outside the playing field is the ritualized nature of athletic competition. Gone is the improvised, free-flowing game of childhood that lasts until dark in favor of a highly-controlled spectator sport. Domed stadia make competition possible in any season and any weather conditions, and the demands of the media and the marketplace help to determine the pace of the game.
It is not surprising, then, that every January, the cost of commercial television time gets almost as much attention as the strengths and vulnerabilities of the combatants in football's Super Bowl.
Gentlemen and Savages
Violence and aggressive behavior are endemic to the sports experience. Burstyn argues that the gentleman athlete, the sportsman, has been replaced by a far more aggressive paradigm.
She notes that "in the official middle-class mores of the nineteenth century, to be a good man was to be a man of `character,' one who met the rigorous standards of masculine and class duty. This ideal included being robustly active and exercising sexual restraint according to the dictates of the spermatic economy." (91)
As it became clear that sport was a commodity to be sold in the raucous marketplace of the early twentieth century, the ideal "Christian gentleman" model of the sportsman was replaced by a more aggressive, sexualized and (often) racialized one.
Citing Kevin White's work on the emergence of male masculine models, Burstyn notes that by the 1920s, the qualities of "underworld primitivism"—violence, sexual promiscuity without responsibility, and aggression—had moved into the center of American idealizations of masculinity." (90) Could Mike Tyson be far behind?
At the same time, sport itself was presumed to be the great civilizing force among those who had never experienced the influence of the "Christian gentleman" model. Participation in athletics was a way to civilize the "savages and semi-savages" of America's new immigrant population and the children of crowded city streets upon whom family, community and religion now had less of a strong behavioral hold.
Sport provided a mechanism for enforcing proper social habits for young men who had not been raised to value restraint and "character." Inevitably, the social control potential of organized sport served distinct class interests. As Burstyn notes, "'Get them off the streets and they won't riot or strike' was paired with 'Send them to the gym or playing field and they won't masturbate or fornicate.'"
Proponents of Muscular Christianity and later reform movements saw social salvation in sports. Many reformers hoped to civilize young men by having them channel their aggression onto the playing field in preparation for the discipline that their bosses would require of them in the factory or the bravery their country would require of them in a real war.
Proponents of public and private investment in athletic facilities and competitions for young men "viewed athletics as a way to build strength, create habits of dominance, teach abstract principles of group effort and common goals, promote the values of nineteenth-century Christianity, and thus to harness and control men's sexual impulses in the service of worthy social enterprises . . . sport was sold as a safe, nonsexual activity for men, and an acceptable celebration of the strong male body." (92)
Equality vs. Hypermasculinism
Burstyn argues that the hypermasculinist approach to sports that emerged out of the nineteenth century coincided with the appearance of activism by women for equality in the larger political and social world.
She argues that "conditions were ripe for sport to change toward greater egalitarianism;" yet just as the women's rights and suffragist movements brought about change over many decades with the realization that there is much work to be done to insure gender equality in the twenty-first century, earlier models of sport as a representation of masculinist ideals have been slow to yield to a more egalitarian approach.
"Late in the 1990s," she argues, "women's participation in sport notwithstanding, the core men's sports and the culture that derives from them remain prime sites for the regeneration of masculinist mythologies—fictive master narratives of heroic manhood that homogenize in fantasy and symbol a reality of diverse, contradictory masculinities that are often far from ideal." (103)
Marketing the Meat Market
One aspect of this far from ideal masculine world is the dehumanization and alienation of the athlete. Athletes are compared to physical standards that are presumed to determine performance on the field.
Can a football running back run fast enough if his calves are small? Can a defensive lineman provide enough "muscle" against the opposition if he has skinny arms? Can a pitcher be effective if he is too short or a shortstop get in front of the ball in the infield if he's too tall? How do we explain the 5'4" highly successful professional basketball player Mugsy Bogues?
In short, college and professional sports represent a "meat market" approach to judging athletes. It is not at all surprising to find similar standards and presumptions about physical prowess and body type permeating the ranks of the Little League and Pop Warner coaches.
For those athletes who possess the right attributes and who look good on camera, the sports nexus provides opportunities to use their bodies to sell products in a global marketplace. The appeal is not the jacket or the shoe, but the athlete himself.
As Michael Jordan's image of masculine perfection sells Air Jordan shoes and as he earns millions of dollars for endorsing products that bear his name, the women workers in the Southeast Asian factories that manufacture these items earn wages that at best barely keep them out of poverty. But the plight of sweatshop workers doesn't sell shoes. It's the panache of athletes like Jordan and their appeal to young consumers that keeps Nike in business. The world of sports that Burstyn describes is an overwhelmingly male world that treats women as objects of sexual desire, wives and mothers, and often as the recipients of off-the-field physical abuse. She cites rapes of college women by athletes, abuse against wives and girl friends, and the use of "female," "woman," "bitch" and "pussy" as insults to keep male athletes in line, as examples of violence against women.
In this respect, sports are similar to the military, prison and all-male boarding schools in their all-encompassing anti-female approach to conditioning young men. To be a real man is to be hard, unrelenting and violent.
This condition of the world sports is anything but salutary, in Burstyn's view. She offers several specific recommendations for change: "Diminish the selective brutalization of males inside and outside sport. Change the `sacrificial' nature of sport for both sexes. Shift the emphasis from aggressive and competitive to cooperative and expressive games and disciplines. Pursue lively physicality for the majority."
Burstyn's conclusion states her goal to "reclaim physical culture from corporate culture," in order to "balance `masculine' and `feminine' in our culture and within ourselves (and to) find ways to treat our bodies, our children, and our biosphere with respect and affirmation for our diverse natures, and for the cooperative capacities that make us capable of helping, not just dominating, our fellow creatures." (276)
Unlikely as they are to get much air time on the sports highlights, these ideas are worthy of consideration.
Barbara L. Tischler teaches history at the Horace Mann School in New York City, and is the author of An American Music (Oxford, 1986), and editor of Sights on the Sixties (Rutgers, 1992).
ATC 88, September-October 2000