Football’s Dangerous Masculinity

by Ian Sinclair

As the UK’s unofficial national sport and with the season running for nine months a year it often seems like it’s impossible to escape from football. It’s the default conversation topic from the office to the barbershop; the latest Premier League happenings round off television news broadcasts and large portions of our newspapers are dedicated to reporting and discussing every minute detail of ‘the beautiful game’. This cultural supremacy has been demonstrated by the recent retirement of Alex Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United for the last 26 years. Treated in a similar manner to the death of a member of the royal family it was the top story on the BBC website and splashed across the frontpage of all the next day’s newspapers. Even Nick Robinson, the BBC’s Political Editor, felt the need to comment, gushing that Sir Alex was the “greatest living Briton”.

However, considering football’s importance to many people and society more broadly, progressives have remarkably little to say about it. Certainly there is ongoing concern about the ever increasing capitalist nature of the game but what is almost completely lacking is an honest discussion or critique of the ideology of the game – in particular football’s relationship with men and masculinity. As Mariah Burton Nelson notes in her 1994 book The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football: Sexism and the American Culture of Sports, “We need to take sports seriously – not the scores or the statistics, but the process. Not to focus on who wins, but on who’s losing.”[1]

As Men’s Studies scholars have noted about sport generally, the hierarchical and highly competitive world of football is one of the key sites for the construction and reproduction of masculinity today.[2] Through playing and watching the game boys learn what it means to be a man – which values and behaviour are manly and which are unmanly. “Be tough”, “be strong”, “play to win”, “get stuck in”, “don’t be intimidated”, “don’t cry”, “don’t wimp out” – all are common encouragements and admonishments to young footballers. And when they return home to watch Match of the Day they hear commentators praising their idols for “dominating” their opponents and “controlling” the game. Those players that play through great pain are heralded as heroes and those, like Roy Keane, who intimidate and revel in the violence and hyper-aggression are feted by fans and awarded with trophies. “I'd waited long enough. I fucking hit him hard. The ball was there (I think). Take that you cunt. And don't ever stand over me sneering about fake injuries”, wrote Keane in his autobiography about his premeditated revenge take down of Manchester City’s Alf-Inge Haaland in 2001, which effectively ended the Norwegian’s career. “My attitude was, fuck him. What goes around comes around. He got his just rewards. He fucked me over and my attitude is an eye for an eye." A subsequent investigation led to Keane being banned for five matches and fined £150,000, although sceptical readers may wonder how long a prison sentence Keane would have received had the incident occurred outside of a football stadium. Three years later Keane was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame.

While Roy Keane was Manchester United’s enforcer on the pitch, Sir Alex ran the club like a dictatorship. “Fergie’s rule was absolute”, notes Channel 4’s John Anderson. “Loyalty was a quality to be demanded and repaid in equally unswerving fashion, and his word was law.” Pundits marvelled and chuckled at his ability to discipline his players and play macho psychological mind games with his opponents. On several occasions he has been banned and fined for using abusive language to match officials. In a widely reported dressing room incident he kicked a boot in anger that hit David Beckham in the face, requiring stitches. Never mind that this bullying management style would get him immediately sacked from every other workplace in the UK – Sir Alex, we have been told repeatedly in the last week, is the greatest manager ever to have graced the English game. His “achievements demand not just respect, they deserve to be studied and learned from”, argued Robinson. Tony Blair’s own enforcer Alastair Campbell may look up to Ferguson, but what has any of this got to do with those working for democracy, justice and equality except to serve as a guide about how not to behave?

As these representative examples show (I could easily have cited countless others) the type of masculinity constructed and reinforced in the footballing world shows football to be an important, highly conservative influence on contemporary gender relations, largely working to reproduce existing inequalities in society.

And nowhere is football’s resistance to contemporary gender norms more obvious than when talking about the total absence of openly gay players in the professional game. The first openly gay footballer was trailblazer Justin Fashanu – also the first one million pound Black player. "A bloody poof!" was how his manager at Nottingham Forest football club, Brian Clough, described him. Justin’s own brother disowned him when he came out in 1990. “He has come out publicly and stated his sexual preferences, so now he will have to suffer the consequences. I wouldn’t like to play or get changed in the vicinity of him”, said John Fashunu. John went on to present the hit TV show Gladiators. Justin killed himself in 1998.

While sports scholars like Ellis Cashmore and Jamie Cleland argue homophobia among football fans has significantly decreased since those dark days the lived experience on the ground gives less cause for hope. In January 2012, Robbie Rogers left Leeds United by "mutual consent". A month later he announced he was gay. In a statement Rogers said that remaining in football after declaring that you were gay was "impossible".

Football is also stuck in the stone age when it comes to women. This shouldn’t be surprising when you consider sports scholars have long explained that professional, organised sport as we know it emerged in the late 19th century in response to a number of challenges to men’s traditional power, not least the rising consciousness and power of women in society. As Michael Messner, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, notes:

Sport was a male-created homosocial cultural sphere that provided men with psychological separation from the perceived ‘feminization’ of society, while also providing dramatic symbolic ‘proof’ of the natural superiority of men over women.[3]

More than a century later and “the locker room” continues to be “the last preserve of the all male world”, according to Michael Kimmel, Professor of Sociology at State University of New York.

Football’s endemic sexism hit the headlines in 2011 when the Premier League’s top commentating team, Sky Sports’s Andy Gray and Richard Keys, were caught making disparaging and sexist comments about a female linesman and to a female colleague in the studio. In another incident Keys, off air and talking about Jamie Redknapp’s former partner, lewdly comments “Would you smash it [have sex with her]?... You could have gone round there any night and found Redknapp hanging out the back of it”. Gray and Keys were dismissed by Sky Sports, but it’s important to note their behaviour only became an issue when a (presumably disgruntled) colleague leaked the footage to the media.

What should be clear from all these examples is that the type of masculinity promoted reproduced in the footballing world is not an aberrant masculinity which can be dismissed as the way other men – criminal and psychopathic men, perhaps – act. Rather, it encapsulates many of the values and behaviours that make up mainstream, perhaps even the dominant, form of masculinity today.

The problem, as Cynthia Cockburn and Ann Oakley cogently argued in 2011, is that these “widespread masculine traits and behaviours are dangerous and costly both to individuals and society.” According to Government figures, in 2009-10 men were the perpetrators in 91% of all violent incidents in England and Wales: 81% for domestic violence, 86% for assault, 94% for wounding, 96% for mugging, 98% for robbery. 2009 Ministry of Justice figures show men were responsible for 98% of sexual offences, 92% of drug offences and 89% of criminal damage. 99% of child sex offenders are male. On the road men commit 87% of all traffic offences, 81% of speeding offences, 97% of dangerous driving offences and 94% of motoring offences causing death or bodily harm.

To summarise, the sport that so many of us support financially and emotionally, and the players we idiolise and cheer on, promote a highly conservative version of masculinity that is damaging, sometimes deadly, to women, children and society more generally. Where, then, are the progressive and feminist voices raised in protest and anger at the gender politics of football? Where is UK Feminista? Where is the Fawcett Society? Where are the critiques in the Guardian’s women’s pages? And where, most importantly, are the men who say they are feminists who want more equality between men and women? As chef and Norwich City fan Delia Smith once shouted: “Where are you? Where are you? Let’s be having you! Come on!"

Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London and the author of The march that shook Blair: An oral history of 15 February 2003 published by Peace News Press. and

[1] Mariah Burton Nelson, The stronger women get, the more men love football. Sexism and the American culture of sports (Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994), p. 8.

[2] For example Michael Messner, ‘Boyhood, organized sports, and the construction of masculinities’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, January 1990, Vol. 18, No. 4, pp-416-44.

[3] Michael Messner, Out of play. Critical essays on gender and sport (Albany, State University of New York Press, 2007), p. 92-3.

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First published: 21 May, 2013

Category: Culture, Gender equality

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18 Comments on "Football’s Dangerous Masculinity"

By Gavin Barber, on 21 May 2013 - 17:41 |

“Through playing and watching the game boys learn what it means to be a man – which values and behaviour are manly and which are unmanly. “Be tough”, “be strong”, “play to win”, “get stuck in”, “don’t be intimidated”, “don’t cry”, “don’t wimp out” – all are common encouragements and admonishments to young footballers”

Do you have evidence for this or are you basing it on assumption? Both my sons (aged 6 and 9) play football, in mixed-gender groups, and hear no such things from their coaches. Instead they’re taught the values of teamwork and encouraged to enjoy the game. They’d much rather spend their leisure time kicking a ball around in the back garden than anything else, and this seems to me to be a healthy aspect of their development.

There are many, many things wrong with football, both its institutions and its culture - some of which are rightly highlighted here, such as its economics and its attitudes to women and sexuality. This article, however, presents a one-sided and highly selective image of the game and ignores (for example) all the grass roots work centred around football that takes place in communities, and the work of supporters’ trusts in preserving football clubs as institutions around which local identities can be expressed and community values retained.

By Michael, on 21 May 2013 - 17:47 |

Although it was Haaland’s right knee that was stamped upon by Keane, it has been his left knee that has prevented the Norwegian midfielder playing more than 48 minutes’ football since the incident. (Telegraph 2002)

Common misconception that Keane “effectively ended” Haaland’s career. It was his other knee that effectively retired him 2 YEARS LATER Check the other papers at the time if you don’t believe it.

If you’re going to write an article about football, best you check the facts are right.

By Chris, on 21 May 2013 - 18:35 |

LOL, ridiculous PC tosh.

Did you know that in much of the North football is considered unmanly by many, who prefer to follow rugby league instead? A large portion of those people are women - women love rugby league.

There are no logical connections in your argument by the way. You’ve proved nothing, but modern feminists never do, do they?

By Alan St Paul, on 21 May 2013 - 22:49 |

I thought that your book on Blair was excellent, but this is just so one sided that it’s difficult to know where to begin.

What do you say, for example, to the number of footballers who miss significant matches for family events? It seems to me that doing so broadcasts the idea that it is legitimate to put a family death, or your wife having a baby, above your masculine role.

Or how do you respond to the millions of women who enjoy watching football, and the tens of thousands who enjoy playing it? Perhaps they are just deluded?

What comes across is that you don’t enjoy the game and the role it plays in our culture. Fair enough. If you are going to write about it then you need to have something a bit more interesting to say than that. There’s certainly a desperate need for an analysis of masculinity in  our society but this kind of cliched tosh certainly isn’t it.

By Michael Barker, on 22 May 2013 - 07:54 |

For an alternative take on football read John Reid’s book Reclaim the Game: The Death Of The People’s Game.

By Ian Sinclair, on 22 May 2013 - 09:06 |

Hi Chris

As the author obviously I do think my arguments are logical - for example, it seems fairly clear to me that football generally promotes a conversative, traditional version of masculinity. And as Cockburn and Oakley note this masculinity seems to be very damaging to society. How is that not logical? I’d be interested in hearing more from you - how are my arguments not logical?



By Ian Sinclair, on 22 May 2013 - 09:13 |

Hi Michael

Thanks for the clarification. I admit I didn’t research the exact details of Haaland’s retirement in great detail. However, I note Haaland himself connects Keane’s tackle with his retirement: Of co.urse, Haaland potentially has some interest in blaming Keane for his retirement. Either way, the issue is not central to my argument. As someone who obviously knows a lot about football, I’d be interested in hearing what you think of the article?



By Ian Sinclair, on 22 May 2013 - 09:26 |

Hi Gavin

Thanks for your thoughtful comments.
The quotes are based on my own personal experience of playing football when I was a boy. Obviously this was 20 years ago so the quotes aren’t exact. Also, the quotes are broadly backed up by the sociological literature I read to write the article.

To be clear I wrote “all are COMMON encouragements and admonishments to young footballers”. I don’t deny there are other values and behaviours encouraged by football such as the ones you mention or that what I would call more liberal, progressive coaches and coaching methods exist. I would suggest that older children playing football will come across the encouragements and admonishments I list more often, as will those playing in more serious teams. And it’s important to remember the children being encouraged to play for fun etc are still looking up to people like Roy Keane, Wayne Rooney, Alex Ferguson, John Terry (“fuck off, fuck off, yeah, yeah and you fucking black cunt, fucking knobhead”) etc.

The article is one-sided as you say. That was deliberate. As I mention I wanted to highlight an issue that I feel has been ignored by progressives for far too long.
On “the work of supporters’ trusts in preserving football clubs as institutions around which local identities can be expressed and community values retained”, I’d be interested in hearing more. Do you mean supporters’ trusts connected to Premiership clubs? If so, I don’t think most can seriously be described as “local” - in terms of players, managers, ownership etc.

Thanks again for taking the time to reply.


By Ian Sinclair, on 22 May 2013 - 09:29 |

Hi Michael Barker

I just had a quick look at the link you provide. It looks interesting but doesn’t say anything about football and masculinity. Do you have any thoughts on the argument I made in my article?


By Michael Barker, on 22 May 2013 - 10:12 |

I was just pointing out that just because capitalist ideas permeate most aspects of our lives this does not mean that we need denounce popular working-class sports as conservative. I however do agree that socialist politics should be raised in as many venues as possible, I guess this is hardly a controversial conclusion.

By Ian Sinclair, on 22 May 2013 - 10:21 |

Hi Michael

Thanks for your further reply.

I agree with your argument about not dismissing working-class sports.

However, I am talking about something quite specific - the type of masculinity that is promoted and encouraged by football culture. While it is not monolithic it seems fairly obvious to me this version of masculinity is conversative and traditional - and way behind the times in terms of gender politics.

Do you disagree?



By Ian Sinclair, on 22 May 2013 - 11:08 |

Hi Alan St Paul

Thanks for your comments and thanks for being one of the few people to read my book!

My article is biased, I agree. That was very much a conscious decision. Mainly because I wanted to focus on an issue that I think is ignored by progressives. Also, if I was critiquing the ideology of the scouts or lap-dancing, for example, I wouldn’t feel the need to go into great depth about any positives of these activities. Same with my article on football.

I don’t think the fact footballers have missed matches to attend family events (which I am aware Rooney did recently) challenges my argument. 1. The traditional, conservative form of masculinity that I argue football encourages isn’t anti-family in the broad sense (although I would argue it contributes to the destruction of many families) 2. Although I argue that a particular type of masculinity is dominant in football that doesn’t mean it’s the only one that exists. For example, someone like David Beckham clearly exhibits some of the attributes of what might be called the ‘new man’ - which is different in many ways and arguably an advance on what went before 3. Footballers, like everyone else, are complex people, so will have many contradictory behaviours. The fact they may do many good things does not alter the fact they are promoting particular values and behaviours which I would argue are damaging to society. For example, even someone like that Michael Philpott was presumably nice to his family and friends sometimes! We are not dealing with Disney villians here.
Of course I am aware many women watch and play football. Again I don’t think this fact challenges what I am arguing. For example, women also go to lap-dancing clubs, buy women’s magazines that objectify other women and are the main participants in the dieting industry - all of which, to greater or lesser degrees I would argue, have a negative impact on womens’ physical and mental health. Lots of working-class people vote Conservative. So what?
In terms of football and masculinity, do you think there is a problem here that progressives need to look at? It’s not quite clear what you think from your comments. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.



By Gavin Barber, on 22 May 2013 - 19:36 |

Hi Ian

Thanks for replying. Clearly, given the sheer numbers involved, there will be young people having a variety of different experiences when it comes to playing football, and being coached. My observation from my sons’ experiences (also contrasted with what I can recall of my own, around 30 years ago) is that the general ethos is much more about the values of teamwork and enjoyment. There are lots of people who put in lots of hard work, in their own time, to coach, organise and referee youth leagues. They don’t get personal benefit out of it but they do see the value in doing it for kids’ health and social benefits. I don’t make that point to be sentimental - I use it to illustrate what I would regard as the much more commonplace experiences and uses of football than the high-profile examples that you cite in your article.

Perhaps this is my fundamental problem here - that your article draws reference points from football at all levels but is, in my view, really describing a particular iteration / depiction of the game at its highest domestic level, as portrayed in the mass media, and by Sky in particular. You rightly highlight John Terry as a representation of a particularly unpleasant kind of “masculinity” but I think it’s over-simplistic and not a little patronising (though I’m sure unintentionally so) to assume that because he gets a lot of attention, this equates to people “looking up to him”. This representation of football by the mass media attracts the most attention but, as a season ticket holder at a Championship club, I would humbly submit that it has little in common with the reality of supporters and players at all levels actually experience the game.

For me it is difficult to separate a broad-brush picture of football such as that which you paint, from the issue of class. There are whole books to be written about the extent to which football is or isn’t still a working-class sport, but it is a game with working-class roots and a traditionally working-class supporter base. That has, over the years, made it all too easy for the media, the government, and indeed some theorists, to dismiss and disregard the sport, its players and followers, en bloc, as an homogeneous unthinking entity. I’m sure this wasn’t your intention but in presenting a deliberately one-sided depiction of the sport at all levels, you run the risk of falling into the same trap.

With regard to supporters trusts etc - I wasn’t particularly referring to Premier League clubs, no. I’d agree there is a sad and unfortunate separation between several PL clubs and their localities - clearly the likes of the Manchester clubs, Chelsea etc are operating in a global marketplace and view their stakeholder base as such - though I’d equally argue that there are several clubs who are currently in the Premier League (Norwich, WBA and Swansea spring to mind) who do retain a strong and healthy connection with their local communities.

What I was particularly thinking of was examples such as Portsmouth, where the supporters trust ( have recently managed to gain control of a club which had been serially shafted by various unscrupulous and unregulated owners during recent years. It is now in the hands of supporters via a co-operative ownership model. AFC Wimbledon would be another, similar example of greater vintage. Supporters Direct ( lists many more instances.

Your article asks where are the progressive voices here: the ownership models described above, which have seen brutal unregulated capitalism demonstrably fail, and be replaced by co-operative and community ownership are as fine an example of progressive, sustainable socio-economics as I can think of in 21st century Britain.

With good wishes,

By E.J. Manuel, on 22 May 2013 - 21:40 |

I think there is an interesting article to be written about masculinity and football. I feel from reading this that you came to the conclusion that since football is traditionally the domain of men it must follow that it is the also the domain of ‘‘conservative’‘, ‘‘traditional’’ masculinity. As such your treatment of masculinity is a little stereetypical. I don’t think this is true and I think there is a far more interesting and nuanced article to be written.

Your focus on Roy Keane and Alex Ferguson is problematical here. They are both modern day exceptions rather than rules. The game of football has moved on and the aggressive style that Keane had is no longer relevant to football today when each passing year sees it become more and more of a non contact sport. Kids today (mimicing professionals) are more likely to be seen feigning injury, diving and trying to get opposing players carded, all things that would be considered unmanly and anathema to ‘‘traditional’’ alpha male masculinity. Getting ‘stuck in’, as traditionally called for, would more likely see straight red cards than plaudits and encouragement. The dominant values Kids are taught (not necessarily consciously) are to lie, cheat and steal your way to victory. I would argue that not only are these values reactionary but far more inimical to the emergence of a progressive political identity (masculine or otherwise) than ‘getting stuck in’ or ‘be tough’ ever were. I would also point out that football is one of the only arenas where you will see grown men cry, the famous example of Gazza (from over 20 years ago!) comes to mind.

Feguson has been trading on his reputation for winning far more than any masculine identity since at least the early 2000s. Indeed, as Roy Keane pointed out recently the much commented on ‘hairdryer’ treatment was more a gimmick than a routine part of his managerial style. The mind games with opposing managers was more a myth build on Kevin Keegan’s personality (or possible breakdown) and Newcastle’s collective run of poor form than reality. It should also be noted that Ferguson has a solid working class background which he is proud of, even serving as shop steward. So the idea that his masculinity is innately *politically* conservative is problematical.

It is interesting that you mention David Beckham only in relation to the ‘flying boot incident’. It seems to me that Beckham offers a far different masculinity and one that is closer to a typical masculinity of football than Keane’s. Beckham was more metrosexual to Keane’s alpha male. I don’t think either lend themselves automatically to conservative politics. However, in today’s neoliberal society metrosexual masculinity is hegemonic and therefore becomes politically conservative.

While the quote from the Burton book is relevant it should be pointed out that American sporting culture and English football culture are very different. In Amercia football (soccer) is seen as the antidote to ‘‘traditional’‘, ‘‘conservative’’ masculinity, which is the preserve of American Football. In America, both genders play football, oftentimes together, as it is has a minimium of aggressive contact and potential for horrendous injury. I’m not sure but I do remember reading somewhere before that participation in football (soccer) is greater among women in the US. All this lends itself to a less masculine (and less alpha male masculinity) srrounding culture of football (soccer) in the US.

This is because masculinity is not something that is solely determined by playing football but is formed across a whole range of institutions in keeping with broader values of society. As football is inherently a male activity (at least in Britain and Europe) it does perhaps become a site where it is more easily discerned to the naked eye, as it were. However, just because it acts for a site of hegemonic masculinity (that by definition is politically conservative) it does not follow that all participants or aspects are necessarily politically conservative.

So in a neoliberal society where all community life is atomised, where solidarity is a dirty word and the individual is supposed to reign supreme, football is one of the last sites where young men can feel a sense of community and express a communal identity. It is a place where men can know what solidarity looks like. This is especially the case when you get outside the SkySports hype bubble to the lower leagues, non-league or even pub/village teams. It also cuts across enthnic boundaries and is one arena where people will mix. It does have a universal element that other sports through class or enthic boundaries will never have. This, in and of itself, is progressive and the form of that any collective identity does not have to be reactionary woman beating masculinity. Indeed, it never has been.

By Ian Sinclair, on 23 May 2013 - 12:28 |

Hi Gavin

Thanks for your further, thoughtful comments which have given me much to consider.

I am broadly in agreement with much you say. I agree that it is important not to see football and its supporters as a monolithic entity. To the extent my argument suggests I think this, it’s probably down to me having to generalise for the length and style of article I was hoping to publish. As hardly anyone seems to have raised this in the media in recent times, I view my article as an attempt to start a debate about what I consider to be an important issue. So it is, by nature, quite general and broad.

While I understand not everyone will “look up to” John Terry after the racist incident, to suggest hundreds of thousands of fans and children don’t continue to idolise him seems to be a wilfully naïve to me. 1) He was the England captain and continues to play for England 2) I’m more interested in how football fans give football players ‘a pass’ for behaviour that they would otherwise strongly criticise. So, for example, his racism would have likely got him sacked from every other workplace in the UK. But as it occurred on the pitch he gets a fine and a match ban. And now when he plays for England millions will be cheering him and the team on 3) I mentioned Terry but could have mentioned countless other examples of terrible macho behaviour on the pitch.

As I mentioned before, I am aware that a lot football coaching at youth level encourages fun, teamwork etc. I think this should be encouraged. Has it become more common? I’d like to see the evidence for that. However, I don’t think we can dismiss professional football’s influence on all levels of football – in the sense it is what, if anything, all footballers dream of becoming. It is likely watched by the people coaching the young footballers. And the young footballers will likely watch professional football on television or go to see live matches. It’s not all powerful, obviously, but I would suggest the high-profile examples of football and masculinity I set out in my article have an important influence on the rest of the football world.

What you say about the supporters’ trusts is interesting but I don’t think it has much relevance, if any, to what I consider the dangerous masculinity of football. For example, arguably football was even more masculine in the 70s and 80s, before the big money entered the game. And also when clubs had more of a local connection.

It’s slightly off topic but I can’t say I see how clubs such as Norwich (where I grew up) have much of a connection to the local area anymore. For example, none of the players in their recent match against Albion were from the local area. Neither is the manager. The club is owned by very wealthy people. Grant Holt, a key player in the team as I understand it, was earning £15,000 a week BEFORE Norwich made him a better offer. That’s a banker level salary – large swathes of the population make £15,000 year rather than a week. Yet thousands cheer him on and happily pay good money to contribute to his offensively high salary.

Thanks again for taking the time to comment.


By Ian Sinclair, on 23 May 2013 - 15:15 |

Hi E. J. Manuel

Thanks for your indepth comments.

I think I need to improve my writing ability. When I refer to “conservative” masculinity I am not referring to it being politically conservative but, I guess, traditional masculinity (and all that comes with this). As opposed to progressive masculinity. So Alex Ferguson’s personal politics (which seem to be New Labour) are neither here nor there.

You say “there is a far more interesting and nuanced article to be written” on the topic. As I say above, my article is an attempt to draw attention to something that is barely discussed in progressive circles – so almost by definition it is quite broad and generalised. Nobody seems to have written anything on the subject - let alone “interesting and nuanced” articles - so please go ahead and write it and submit it to New Left Project.

Ferguson and Keane may be very ‘good’ and well-known examples of the type of masculinity I am trying to draw attention to but they are hardly atypical. I could have used countless other examples – John Terry, Wayne Rooney, Joey Barton, Ched Evans etc etc.

You say Ferguson is an exception rather than a rule and that the hairdryer treatment was a gimmick. In contrast, the ‘Secret Footballer’, who has played top flight football, recently quoted someone who had played under Ferguson (

“One word, mate,” said my friend. “Respect. You daren’t even breathe when he walked in the room. He was the big man.” I replied: “That sounds like a lot of managers, to be honest. I’ve played for managers like that.” I goaded him a little more, and eventually he cracked.

So a premiership footballer “daren’t even breathe when he [Ferguson] walked in a room”. Which the Secret Footballer notes “sounds like a lot of managers”.

More broadly, the idea that the examples I cite in my article are unusual is frankly ridicolous. Far more likely is that they are the few examples that make it in the public domain. For example, John Terry, the England captain, likely racially abused an opponent. How many other players do you think have racially abused an opponent? Or made comments to an opponent that were derogatory to women or gay people? Or threatened them physically? This is a serious question. I’d like to know what you think. It seems to me you are willfully underestimating the terrible behaviour that goes on in football – which is understandable because much of what I am describing is just normal behaviour on a football pitch.


By Sasori, on 23 May 2013 - 16:50 |

There is a good quote from 70’s Brazilian great Tostao about something similar:
“One of the biggest blasts of hot air, which I’ve been hearing ever since I was an adolescent, is the idea that top level sport is a good place to learn and develop ethical and moral values…It never was. Ambition, the desire to be a hero and to make lots of money are usually much stronger.”

It is interesting that on this website a wile ago there was an article about women’s homosocial cultural reproduction (and the ‘friendship gaze’) of HEAT magazine etc, which framed that culture as somewhat detrimental to women (by promoting consumerism etc). This takes a very different tack, framing the masculinity of football as dangerous to other people. Women are victims of capitalist mediated female homosocial culture, men are not of their own. The same line of chastisement is common in left wing pieces on masculinity, I think that it would be more effective to excise this from pieces like this, as this tone often provokes defensive reactions from readers.

defensive reaction… ↓

What does the author think of similar ‘friendship gazes’ in the promotion of footballing stars like David Beckham as objects of female desire (and male ‘aspirational’ self desire)  and ‘metrosexual’ masculine consumerism. I think that since the advent of the Premier League, somewhat transgressive ‘metrosexual’ consumerist masculinity has been a feature of the football superstar.

Is the author familiar with women’s football. The exact same values of physical aggression and personal honour; of minimising harm to yourself in service to a larger institution, of homosocial bonding and irrational loyalty, are a feature of women’s football. In my opinion the women’s Olympic semi-final between the USA and Canada was perhaps the most brutal international of the last few years. Is this ever framed (by anyone but the daily mail) as promoting a ‘toxic femininity’ etc, or anything other than inspiring empowerment, why is this.

The Michael Messner quote above I would dispute because, at least in the US, women’s (international) football has a (slight) majority male audience, (I’m not sure of the gender breakdown for UK but I don’t think it was overwhelmingly female) these people just want to see sport that affirms certain values and is good, I don’t think that it is all that gendered nowadays. iirc about 19% of Premier league fans attending games are women, what does this mean for Messner’s “psychological separation from the perceived ‘feminization.’” Even if that quote is 100% true, what is wrong with that, has anyone from the left ever seriously critiqued spaces of female homosocial culture as problematic in a similar respect.

There was also an article in the NLP about the nascent female MMA scene, the article framed this as a step forward for female empowerment through sports and hoped that the sport could gain a female following and not become over-sexualised due to its potentially majority male audience. Does the author think that female MMA and other physical/violent sports promote a ‘toxic femininity’ and should be opposed. Often I find that the very same values that are opposed in male sport by many on the left are celebrated in female sport.

I would also dispute the figures on domestic violence, iirc John Archer and others have found that (when self report studies are used) men are perhaps 30% of those injured by a domestic partner (although men are over-represented in those who severely injure and kill a partner).  Furthermore, there is no universe in which a crime associated with women (child abuse say) would be addressed by an article saying that ‘Mother and Baby Magazine’ was somewhat responsible for the cultural reproduction of female violence towards children. The debate would, in reality, naturally focus on the different roles, pressures and circumstances that result in women committing more child abuse. Why is this so seldom seen in debates about male violence.

Lastly, there are similar ‘muscular Christian’ football cultures where people ‘get stuck in’ to challenges and are encouraged to shrug off injury etc (minus some of the sexism and homophobia) in the social democratic Scandinavian countries where violence is not as common as in the UK. Scandinavian men participate in violence tainted homosocial cultures and then go home to be primary carers of their children while on ‘daddy’s month’ parental leave. This would seem to indicate to me that football and/or ‘muscular Christian’ values are not a major factor in the reproduction of violence, or at the very least it is more complicated than that.

By Ian Sinclair, on 24 May 2013 - 19:37 |

Hi Sasori

Many thanks for your comments. Much of what you say complicates in a good way what I argued and given more space I would have liked to give space to some of the arguments. I can only hope you and others will write articles with your arguments and publish them somewhere.

In terms of women’s football, I think we need to make clear the difference between sex (male and female) and gender – the behaviours and traits associated with masculinity and femininity. So women can exhibit masculine traits and men can perform feminine behaviours. I have no knowledge of women’s football but I would suggest the closer it gets to the men’s game the more damaging the masculine behaviours encouraged by the game will be.

I very much think many men are victims of the type of masculinity promoted in the footballing world. Patriarchy’s victims include many men. R. W. Connell’s idea of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ looks into this, I think.

Football is, of course, is constantly changing and becoming more modern but I don’t think we should exaggerate this. So David Beckham may represent a different, metrosexual masculinity and more women may be watching football more than ever. But Robbie Rogers still thinks remaining in football after declaring that you were gay is “impossible” and we would have been oblivious to Andy Gray and Richard Keys’ sexism if it wasn’t for someone leaking footage to the media. I see football, like the army and like restaurant kitchens, as one of the few spaces in society where men’s dominance is seen as normal. Gender relations in society are changing but these spaces, I would argue, are playing a very conservative role in the process.

Thanks again for your comments.


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