Developing Gender Identities

Usually when I hear the term “Applied Ethics” I think of a textbook sitting at the bottom of my shelf at home. Now, after working at Sport in Society a little over a month, I think of organizations like ours, Playworks, Squashbusters, AmericaSCORES and the myriad of other Sports Based Youth Development programs that we read and speak about here on a daily basis.

My first project was to research articles for a new section of our website that holds literature related to social justice and sport. Thanks to the comprehensive resources of Northeastern University, I’ve read a fair number of psychology, sociology and philosophy of sport articles that give a diverse view of attitudes towards the modern world of sport.

After a few negotiations with the publishing companies, Human Kinetics allowed us to post two articles from their Sociology of Sport Journal. Though both are interesting, Michael Messner’s Gender Ideologies, Youth Sports and the Production of Soft Essentialism struck a particular chord. I’ve worked at a boys camp in central Vermont for the last eight years and one thing we work very hard to do there is provide a safe environment where the boys can learn about who they are, what they want and how to be the best versions of themselves. You don’t have to be an athlete to be considered a real man and you don’t have to always keep a stiff upper lip when the going gets tough. Kids are encouraged to talk to each other and to counselors about any issue that’s bothering them. It’s a great place, and I value it all the more from what Messner diagnoses as a common problem in youth sports.

Thanks to the feminist movement and a growing progressive trend worldwide, girls are given many opportunities to play sports. Often the field is still a segregated place to play, but it wasn’t long ago that girls weren’t even allowed on to the field what with rigid ideas of womanhood prevalent in the early twentieth century. Now girls are seen as, “flexible choosers in the world.” Things have come a long way for girls and the progress has created an odd side effect. Boys are now realizing a similar sort of prejudice that girls and women have been fighting against; they’re getting profiled with their gender. Boys are: rowdy, aggressive, simple, stoic, sports-loving animals destined for careers that make them money in order to fulfill the other half of the outdated dream of the 1950s. Boys on youth sports teams are more regularly scolded and yelled at than girls, with the justification, “they’re boys, they can take it.” They’re still being taught to be traditional ,“Manly Men.”  All children have complex inner lives that respond to the harshness of the outside world. If we keep pigeon holing boys then we will deny many of them the happiness of being comfortable in their own skin.

This is important for us to consider in this changing world. A few of us here are beginning a project analyzing various SBYD initiatives and developing a curriculum to help programs become more intentional and age appropriate. It’s a huge undertaking but it has the potential to be very helpful. With this information in hand I look forward to working on creating a more aware sports world here with this great community.


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