Why Men Play Sport


Author Peter West

Why do many men take sport so seriously? Author Peter West believes attempting to answer this question may provide new insights into what it means to be male. The following is an extract from Peter's latest book Fathers, Sons & Lovers which you can purchase direct through our merchandise section.
Why play sport?

First, if you ask men about their lives, they talk of their various areas of involvement: work, a partner, children, and leisure. In most of these areas, especially work and family, the pressure is on men to be reliable and dependable. 

However, sport is one area of life where men can safely release the pressure. Men are allowed to have fun in sport, and to go to extremes. They get into huge arguments about cricket teams, about which team will win, which kind of football is the best, who will win a medal. So many men and boys find release in sport. If boys are causing difficulties in a school, the remedy is suggested – ‘They should be out kicking a ball’. And the same attitude was held nearly a century ago. 

Men who win a football grand final have been known to undergo great emotional excesses, and are commonly seen laughing, crying, hugging. Sport is seen as a place in which men are allowed to show almost any emotion. In Australia, scenes of great emotion usually belong to sport rather than to politics, business, or other areas of a man’s life. And these emotional scense are accepted by most men as understandable. Sport is such an important outlet for men’s emotions because it provides an avenue of release, sometimes the only release, acceptable to men. 

Second, sport is also a place where men are expected to achieve. When images masculinity are presented in the media, they are often of muscular men who have excelled in sport. In earlier times, swimmers, cricketers and footballers were held up for admiration. Boy Charlton, Don Bradman, Ken Rosewall… Schoolboys looked up to these icons of masculinity, and talked of their achievements. In wartime, they talked of Australia’s war heroes. But then, as the writer George Orwell said, sport is war without bullets. Sometimes the language of sport borrows the language of war: we hear about battles, warriors, and some very real-life injuries. Sports vary in the violence they contain: some, like boxing, can be fatal. 

Today the icons of Australia masculinity still tend to be sportsmen rather than politicians, artists or musicians. There are ironmen and there are cricketers – heroes to boys and men. And footballers – usually depending on the locality (for a hero in Collingwood might be barely known in Bondi). 

Sport is important because it allows males to prove their masculinity. And masculinity is always under challenge. You never make it as a man; you just keep the critics at bay for a while. You can always be challenged, you can always be attacked. So you have to keep proving your masculinity. 

Third, sport is also a way in which men exhaust themselves. I asked a young man why he left work as a roof tiler and came straight to the gym. ‘If I’m not doing anything, I think too much’, he said. ‘I wear myself out at training and when I get home I crash on the lounge’, said a first-grade footballer. Some men seem to prefer being exhausted to being idle or inactive. Perhaps they have been conditioned into thinking they have to be active all the time, as if a man who sits and thinks is wasting his life. That’s an odd idea, for if you don’t think about your life, it’s hard to have the life you want. 

Finally, men seem to play sport to be with their fathers. As Stephanie Dowrick argues, boys go and search for masculinity, and the first place they find it is usually their father. 

But as psychologist Sam Osherson says, most men know nothing of their father’s inner life. And many men carry a kind of father-hunger around with them for much of their lives. Mike Messner, an expert in the sociology of sport, suggests that: 

      most men never learn to express love to their children directly.

      More often, men show their love indirectly and symbolically, through actions such as working to support the family and teaching athletic skills to sons. As a result, Sam Osherson argues, sons frequently become ‘trapped’ into performing deeds and accomplishments as a means of demonstrating and seeking affection.

And again;
      for the boy who seeks and fears closeness, the rule-bound structure of organised sport promises to be a safe in which to seek attachment to others, but it is an attachment in which clear boundaries, distance, and separation from others is maintained. 
Playing sport is often a way in which a man seeks his father’s love and affection, according to Messner. The link between fathers and sport is rarely understood. Boys and men want their father’s love. It was always so. But in our time, fathers are often not there when their sons need them. To get a father’s love, males try to find the father emotionally. And one common area of contact is sport, because men become emotional around sport. Watching sport or talking of their sporting achievement, they yell, laugh and cry. A son wants his father’s love, so he goes into sport to share his father’s emotional life. Some males play sport to bring home the prizes that might win them the affection of their father, or of other men in their life. This search for the affection of other males seems more important to many men than their search for love in a sexual relationship. 


Boys seem unsure about how to make an acceptable masculinity. They seem to be turning increasingly to highly masculinised sports such as martial arts and body-building in an attempt to prove their masculinity. They want to be close to strong, physical masculine figures; they find them reassuring. So it is no suprise that the sport of body-building is booming among adolescent boys. 

Boys reflect the intense attention given to bodies in countless TV shows and advertisements. Girls and boys read magazines that show finely sculpted bodies which seem to attract admiration from men and women alike. 

Masculinity is always created in a context of some kind. In Australia, sport plays an important role in the way most boys and men affirm their masculinity. It is a vital part of becoming a man. Men who are well muscled and look sportsmanlike tend to get ahead and be perceived as sexy and successful. People who wish to understand what it means to be male have to understand that sport is the crucible of masculinity. It is where lessons are learned that a boy uses to govern how he lives his life. Winning at all costs could be one of those lessons – one which might cause a man trouble in business or in personal relationships. Parents should try to be tolerant of a boy’s talents: a boy who doesn’t have the talent for football can’t succeed at it. Instead, he should be encouraged to find what he is good at. Schools, too, should distribute praise and other rewards to boys throughout the school – not just the ones who are good at the sports currently in favour. 

Our society should let every boy enjoy the fulfilment that sport can bring.

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