Sport – the great masculine secular religion of our times

Gerald Arbuckle

We New Zealanders are rightly proud of our local and international sporting achievements. This is so even if (rarely) our All Blacks lose. We believe that competitive, professional sport contributes to our good health and helps to build our national cultural identity.

Despite these constructive qualities of sport, we need to ponder three not so positive, interconnected trends evident, not just in New Zealand, but globally.

The first disturbing fact is that, as never before, economic and corporate factors have come to dominate professional sport.  Each year professional sport is becoming increasingly commercialised. In Australia television and broadcasting rights for sport are their biggest source of revenue for the media companies.

Corporate values have invaded  our sporting world. As one observer correctly said: “the bottom line has replaced the goal line.” A sporting event is judged in terms of the amount of money it produces for its sponsors. The markers of success are: how many spectators, media contracts, merchandise sales does a game attract. Even stadiums are named after corporate sponsors. Players are judged not only in terms of their physical skills, but also their ability to entertain their admirers by behaviour on and off  the field.  Invariably this increases the financial return to investors .

The second distressing quality of much contemporary sport is its over-emphasis on male power supremacy. The mass media repeatedly proclaims the message of gender domination through their extensive coverage of male sporting events. In Australia, for example, women’s sports occupies only 8 percent of the total space devoted to reporting sports results.

Participation by boys in sport is often a kind of initiation ritual into manhood. They must be tough, show no pain, bond with one another.  Coaches are known to berate unsuccessful teams as “playing like a pack of girls.” The message is: since women are considered to be second-rate in sport, by inference they are less gifted in other areas of their lives.

When “masculinity” is portrayed as synonymous with physical strength and power to dominate women, for a man to be called “effeminate” is an insult of considerable proportions. In most sports men are associated with physical power and contact, but when they enter graceful activities like figure skating, the pejorative label “feminine” is common. Hence, these sports are considered of less importance, not “manly enough.”

A leading thinker in the 19th century, John S. Mill, believed that women should be educated in order to be able to maintain the social norms established by men. A poorly educated woman, it was claimed, would weaken a man’s ability to keep society’s standards at the “right” level.

This male-dominated view of education continues today in some subtle ways, even in the sporting world. It is not uncommon in the business world, dominated by male values, for female executives wishing to advance in business, to have to acquire the cultural language of male sport. If they do not appear at the latest big game accompanied by their clients, they are in danger of being ostracised by their corporate colleagues as irrelevant.

The third alarming quality of corporate-sponsored sport is its connection to violence. The similarities between big-time sport and war are a common culture of combat and competitive placement of force and violence. War terminology is regularly applied to sports, e.g. “might is right,” “battleground,” “combatants,” “winner take all,” “survival of the fittest.”

Praise of ritualized violence is taken for granted in commercial sports journalism. There is admiration for the victors when they have been able to wound the “enemy” such as in boxing and wrestling. As a result, when pressures build up in domestic or other relationships, men can feel that venting them by violent methods is legitimised by society. Violent sports lower the threshold of repugnance in society toward violence in general. War and combative sports can overlap and reinforce one another, not as substitutes for one another.

In brief, as one skilled observer notes, sport has become the great masculine secular religion of our times. How can the positive Gospel qualities of sport  again flourish such as relaxation, gender equality, development of good health, collaboration?


Gerald A. Arbuckle, sm, is the author of Violence, Society, and the Church: A Cultural Approach (2004), which further develops the above themes.



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