This is our truth, tell us yours
I had cause, earlier this week, to mock the fact that a Professor of Masculinities and Sport had an opinion on concussion and head injuries in rugby union, and used his academic position to assert that his opinion was of more value than, say, the neighbourhood homeopath or the village idiot.
I also, of course, profess a variety of masculinity, one of the multiplicity of masculinities that a Professor of Masculinities might study if he’s not too busy with head injuries. (I’m reminded of a Welsh international who recounted the story of getting a catastrophic face injury and being desperate to get away from the St Johns Ambulance volunteer who ran on the pitch ‘because the last thing you want is an amateur messing about with a head injury.’) Mine is a queer masculinity, shaped and understood as a result of, amongst other things the dangerous collision sports that Eric Anderson, Professor of Sport and Masculinities, would regulate more closely.
My masculinity is complex and interesting, to me, (possibly not, to others) and also problematic; whenever I debate with others about, for instance, sex work, I am often seen as just another man intervening in a debate that some feminists feel should be the property only of women, but I see myself as being a particular kind of man who has something to addto the debate. Trying to open out the debate to accept that, for queer men, like me, growing up in small towns, sex negotiated for favours was indistinguishable from sex for money (in economic terms) is complex, difficult and weighed down with my awareness that I don’t want to claim for myself an experience, of sex work, that is only understood with hindsight.
Masculinity and queerness within sport is also fascinating, but it’s the wrong way round. Sport does not define sexuality; rather, sport becomes just another theatre where we act out our sexualities as one component of our personalities. One of the things I suspect, but can’t prove, is that your sports team is like your workplace – if you’re wise you avoid forming sexual relationships in case they interfere with the work, whether it’s being a good office team or being a good rugby team. I have played rugby in teams where I knew individual players were bi, or gay, or queer, and they knew about me, but we kept that shared knowledge in a separate box, away from being teammates.
Of course, in a sports team, we all fulfill roles, and we learn quickly that those roles are not fixed. By the time I was sixteen I was playing school rugby on Saturday morning, and adult club rugby on a Saturday afternoon, because I wasn’t good enough to get into the local youth team. For my school team I played 8,9 0r 10 – a creative ball player, set free by the lack of physicality of schools rugby. It was easy rugby where I had the time and space to pass, to kick, to improvise and bootleg. For my youth team I would have loved to play 6, the role I dreamed of, the stopper of a rugby team, bottling up the opposition, protecting the creators, but the incumbent was the best youth 6 in Wales, so I played 6 in club rugby, where I learned to use less energy but to be more violent as the game was played at a slower pace but with greater impacts. No-one ever sat me down and asked me why I eschewed leadership roles as a ball player and preferred to intervene rather than direct operations; no-one ever asked why a player with the skill set to play 10 or 12 wanted to be a 6.
Now, that all sounds very technical, and very rugbyish, but the same 16 year old who loved playing against adults and, as an old school 6, enjoyed dominating the blindside with malevolence and violence was the same kid who loved dominating married men in cottages and watching them kneel to suck my cock or to beg to be buggered. The meaning to me is vital; I brought my personality and experiences to the places where I played rugby, and they changed both the way I played sport, and reacted to the possibilities the environment offered. It was a running joke until I retired that I was unusual for a stopper, wherever I played in the front eight, that I could also kick and pass like a ballplayer, but in my head dominant tackles will always count for more than the clever drop passes or the delicate box kicks that I gave up when I chose my role as a man playing rugby.
The law of unintended consequences applies to more of the things we do than just the choices we make about sport. As a blogger who loves the experience of being part of a joint blog with a clever, insightful and wise sex worker, I’m aware that it’s not just on the rugby pitch that I play the role of enabler and space maker, rather than the role of creator. Listen to those who are opposed to sex work, and of course I’m not an enabler. I’m a pimp, or someone whose interest in sex work is all about the money. That’s not how I see myself though – I see myself as doing what I should, as a man,to create space for other voices and for dissident ideas.
A huge professional interest of mine is in creating a model of leadership that is about defining masculinity as enabling and supportive, not charismatic and self-centred. To use a phrase beloved of rugby fans, I believe in a leadership that’s about being the piano shifters, not the piano player. It’s also a model of leadership that is all about listening to the data and the evidence; if the piano is to be moved wishing it was somewhere else isn’t going to work, and neither is fantasizing that you’re strong enough to move it by force of will. Work out the weight, work out how much you can lift, listen to the experts in piano shifting, and then recruit the people you need; that, also, is leadership.
We’ve come a long way from my ire at a professor of masculinities meddling in sports medicine to make a point about his areas of expertise. There are a host of ways rugby could be made safer, or a different version of masculinity constructed, without indulging in the language of bans. One way that I like the idea of is around weight classes or total weight limits for teams; it works in other sports (tug of war and rowing, for instance) and could provide greater opportunities for participation for different body sizes. Another option, especially relevant to Rugby League and top level Rugby Union, is to reduce the use of interchanges for fitness reasons. We’ve reached a point where particular types of player are no longer required to last eighty minutes, and so can concentrate on maximizing explosive power at the expense of endurance. If your concern is collisions, changing the laws to emphasize endurance over explosive power would seem an obvious way to make the change.
Should masculinity be about endurance, not the moment? A favourite phrase of older rugby players is ‘You’re a long time retired.’ As men do we want masculinity to be a practice of endurance, of lifelong achievement, of persistent performance, or about the explosive moment of raw power? I’ve written repeatedly about the idea that politics in the twenty first century is about the moment in the spotlight, the occasion when it feels as if it’s not just the White House interns who want to give you a blowjob. Do we want masculinity to be defined by the narcissists who spend ten years in Number 10 and retire to a life of pampered pointlessness, or by a lifetime in the NUM and the backbenches, like Dennis Skinner?
There’s so much that could be said and done about masculinities and sport but which gets obscured by headline seeking, by pursuing the moment not the entirety. I profess my kind of masculinity is only my way of being, but it’s the product of my experiences, and it’s a kind of manifestofor a future that’s about the lifetime, not the moment.