And Mckeown, M. (2012) a critical exploration of using football in health and welfare programs: Gender, masculinities and social relations. Journal of Sport and Social Issues. 36(4): 387-409 A

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Football as a (re) assertion of hegemonic masculinity

The dominant and most popular sport in every country has historically maintained male privilege and systematically excluded women through a variety of means such as definition, direct control of womens sport, ignoring and trivialisation (Bryson, 1987; Lopez, 1997). It follows that, as the dominant sport in England, sexism is well-established and deep rooted in football. This is fundamentally still the case, despite increasing levels of women playing and watching football and associated complications of gender relations (Coddington, 1997; Pope,

2011; Caudwell, 2011b).

This situation is well recognised in sports scholarship. Yet, whilst there is some literature about the long history of womens involvement in football, as players and supporters in their own right, this history rarely figures in official academic, sociological and popular histories of the game (Pope, 2011). In addition, when women have been encouraged to take part in football, it has primarily been as spectators of mens football or, occasionally, as a side-show to the mens game. For example, after the highly publicised spate of English ‘football hooliganism’ in the 1980s, football authorities encouraged women to be spectators in the hope that their presence would help socialise (Lopez, 1997); or soften’ (Crolley and Long,

2001) male supporters. This is another example, both of how football has been used to address particular social issues, and also of how football is tied up with gender relations, not

men’ or women’ per se.

We do note some important progress. For example, in 2011 the English Football Association finally supported a limited semi-professional womens league. However, whilst sexism and homophobia in sport is less obvious and more subtle, it is still pervasive. Whilst mens football is systematically promoted, funding and media coverage of the womens game remains poor. As a result, the dominant cultural image of sport is still mens sport (Messner,

2007). This situation underlies the continued importance of developing critical, yet nuanced, feminist and critical sports studies (Caudwell, 2011 a & b).

The idea of sport and football as a key site where dominant forms of gender relations are constructed, maintained and amplified has been particularly important to feminist critiques:
Football is male, masculinity, manliness. So when women demand the right to play, control, judge, report on or change football – and other manly sports – their struggle is

not just about equal access...Its about redefining men and women. Its about power. (Burton Nelson, 1994, p.11)v

This means that football is a primary site where gender is performed’ not where men are men, but where men do (or dont do) being malevi. In particular, football has been seen as a specific gender regime’ which institutionalises and justifies dominant gender relations and inequalities through the reproduction of hegemonic masculinity (Pringle, 2005; Rowe,


When used as a thoroughly relational and dynamic concept, hegemonic masculinity has been extremely useful in gender studies, sports studies and especially in relation to mens health and welfare (Robertson, 2007). However, the concept has rarely been used in relation to understanding the intersection of these three areas together, as we try to do here. Flood (2002a) has helpfully outlined two interrelated notions of hegemonic masculinity – first, as a particular configuration of gender practice related to legitimising male authority and second, as a description of the type of masculinity which is culturally valued in a given society. Demetriou (2001, p.341) refers to it as hegemony over women and hegemony over subordinated masculinities. In both of these understandings, football has been seen as a key site for its social reproduction. For example, one way that cultural hegemony works is through the production of symbolic and authoritative ‘exemplars of masculinity (such as football stars) which few men and boys can ever live up to (Connell and Messerschmidt,


In the current context, far from sport becoming less significant in reproducing dominant gender relations, some have argued that sport has actually become more important and popular (Messner and Sabo, 1990; Messner, 2007). For example, in The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football, Mariah Burton Nelson argues that the more women have progressed in society, and the more they have challenged sexism and traditional gender roles, the more important sport has become in bolstering male privilege. Sport becomes a site where, despite the wider social progress of some (albeit primarily middle class) women, men can still feel and express their superiority, as men:
Fans and players can smile or scream (even hug each other!) without any loss of masculine face. While sport offers a man a place to worship traditional manhood,

paradoxically it also offers a man a place to loosen the rigid masculine role without losing status (Burton Nelson, 1994, p.115, emphasis added).

In other words, the less acceptable sexism has become in society, the more it is concentrated in particular sports as one of the last bastions’ of male domination. Here sport becomes increasingly important as symbolic proof of male (physical) superiority (see also Messner,


[O]rganised sports, with its emphasis on strength and physicality, functions as a popular homosocial situation to counter mens fear of feminization in the new economy and to help men cope with changes in the gender and economic order (Nylund, 2004, p.141)
In this way, for Burton Nelson, culturally dominant sport becomes an avenue for men to
‘express their affection for men and their anger at women in a socially acceptable form’ (1994, p.120). Though it may be too simplistic to claim that this is the case for all men, especially when noting the increasing numbers of men who attend football matches with women, the dominant culture within football remains inescapably masculine. This gender privilege is often performed through sports talk’ (see also Nylund, 2004).
Men use sports talk to establish their niche in the gender hierarchy...Mere recitation of sports names can grant you if you are male entry into the old boys network. Sports talk is the abracadabra that opens the door...When men talk sport it is a competitive conversation - competing with information to establish who is the most informed a verbal one-upmanship. This establishes the hierarchy – the one with the most information usually wins the argument and unity: we are men, talking about mens interests’ (Burton Nelson, 1994, p. 108-9).
To some extent, football initiatives have developed as a way to engage men who are seen to struggle in the context of wider challenges to male authority. However, in Burton-Nelson’s terms, it is in this very context in which dominant sport operates as a buffer against such challenges. However, health focused football projects may represent for men the sort of paradoxical social space that problematically still privileges hegemonic masculinity, yet also opens up possibilities for remodelling dominant gender relations and achieving some positive

health related outcomes. Similarly, the notion of masculine sports talk as universally competitive is contestable and need not be the experience of all men. Indeed not all men will feel comfortable in spaces that privilege hegemonic masculinity, and many men, as well as women, may feel excluded by such talk. Nevertheless, in the context of health-related initiatives, sporting referents or metaphors may be a useful opening gambit to engage some men in relevant, or even politically progressive, conversations (Spandler et al. 2012).
The health field is further complicated by other important factors in the development of attempts to engage men through football initiatives. Crucially, these include targeting inequalities in health outcomes amongst men generally, but, specifically, men from lower socio-economic groups, such as lower life expectancy. Such developments can be seen in this context to be a response to a failure within neo-liberal economies to adequately meet the health needs of men (or women) whilst having to nevertheless demonstrate the semblance of attempting to do so: a palliative for a gaping wound (see Williams et al. 2009). It is with such insights in mind that a critique of engaging men through football is necessary, although, as we shall go on to argue, not sufficient.
Unfortunately, dominant gendered relations can lead to various assumptions about men, women and sport within sports-based welfare programmes. In an important critique, Flood questions the way that football initiatives bolster certain ideas about essential maleness and masculinity:
We should be very wary of approaches which appeal to mens sense of ‘real’ manhood or invite them to prove themselves as men. These may intensify mens investment in male identity, and this is what keeps patriarchy in place. Such appeals are especially problematic if they suggest that there are particular qualities which are essentially or exclusively male (Flood. 2002b, p.27).
The idea that men as men have a special relationship to sport essentialises and homogenises mens experience and this functions to exclude as well as include. If a particular form of (embodied male heterosexual) masculinity is actively constructed through sport (Messner,

2007), this potentially excludes many gay or bisexual men as well as disabled men (Robertson, 2003). This is especially the case given the continued, if subtle, homophobia within the game and the fact that there are, to date, no out’ gay or lesbian players or officials

within elite male (or indeed female) football (Caudwell, 2011a). This situation has led some to argue that the mere presence of women, lesbians or gay men within the game presents a unique threat to the maintenance of male hegemony (Nylund, 2004, p.150).
Given this situation, football welfare programmes may inadvertently reinforce the idea that football is a mans game’ to the continued exclusion of both some men and women. In this way, sports-based interventions have been viewed as divisive social practices’ which reinforce certain gender based assumptions and fail to address wider structural inequalities (Kelly, 2010). Consequently, commentators have warned that football initiatives should not be promoted uncritically:
Mens relationship with sport is not problematised, it is taken for granted as a neutral (or even inherently positive) relationship that can (and should) be exploited for the purposes of engaging men in discourses about health practices (Robertson, 2003, pp.


Further, and paradoxically, it is precisely the particular masculine and competitive values that are instilled in boys and men - through sport (e.g. acting tough, ignoring pain and playing on) - that are deemed responsible for mens poor health and uptake of health services in the first place (Robertson, 2003)vii. In this way, sport can result in situations in which men are at risk to themselves.
In addition, dominant sport also constructs particular forms of masculinity that help create mens risk to others, by contributing to the ‘construction of violent masculinity as a cultural norm’ (Flood, 2002b, p.28). Echoing Burton Nelsons earlier point, Flood highlights recent research about higher levels of violence and sexual aggression amongst sportsmen, especially those involved in contact and team-based sports (see also Messner, 2007; Flood and Dyson,

2007). A cursory look at recent publicity about the behaviour of some of the top male professional footballers in England towards their wives, partners and fellow players, helps to appreciate this pointviii.

Therefore, Flood argues that it is potentially problematic to use sport as a medium, for example, to combat domestic violence (2002b). He points out that whilst domestic violence initiatives that use football often received positive feedback from men, they do not appear to

result in men actually talking about, or addressing, violence against women. Whilst peer acceptance and collective norms are explicitly utilised in football initiatives to ‘engage men’ it is important to be aware of the tendency for male bonding to be linked with negative attitudes and behaviours towards women. For example, while men remain statistically at most risk of harm from other men, there is some evidence that mens groups often focus more on violence by women ‘as a defensive reaction to the critique of mens violence against women’ (Flood, 2002b, p.30). It has been argued that when dominant social groups separate themselves off, their gatherings have a tendency to solidify their sense of superiority, increase an us and them’ mentality and denigrate others (Burton Nelson, 1994). Historically this tendency has also been noted in other all-male institutions such as the military and all-male schools. It is also a criticism that has been levelled at particular mens organisations such as

Justice for Fathers(Rossi 2004) as well as the mens health movement in general (Broom and Tovey, 2009; Crawshaw and Smith, 2009).
The reproduction of dominant gender relations is, however, complex and subtle. Wider social challenges to the prevailing gender order have resulted in - not only the re-assertion of masculinity - but also its reworking and re-configuration. The next section explores the role of football in this situation.

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