We saw the full spectrum of masculine sports behaviour over the past week or so.
First up the demeaning of a young female Norwegian soccer player, Ana Hegerberg, by a boorish (male) French DJ, Martin Solveig, when – at the high point of her short but very distinguished career – he thought it acceptable to ask her to do a suggestive dance (presumably for the delectation of all the men in the room).
With Nordic sangfroid she declined the offer and turned away – showing the grace and steel with which she earned her Ballon d’Or. Showing the idiot up for what he is and what he represents.
Last Sunday we saw toxic masculinity of a different kind, with the highlighting of four (male) Chelsea fans spewing abuse at Raheem Sterling of Manchester City. I don’t know whether the abuse was racial or just hateful, but it was disgusting to witness. The malice written across their faces had no place anywhere near a sporting occasion, and it was all because the young player wore a jersey of a paler colour than theirs, or because his skin was of a darker tone. It turns out he has been getting the same abuse for years when playing for his country, from England ‘supporters’.
The worst of it that this type of behaviour is not uncommon.
The Tottenham supporter who threw a banana skin in the direction of the Arsenal player, Pierre Aubameyang, last weekend didn’t have it in his hand by chance. He (and again, you can be sure it was a he) had it at the ready.
Contrast that with the benign masculine behaviour we learned about on Monday: that the young (male) Mullinalaghta St Columba’s players had paid a private visit to their local graveyard when they’d won the Leinster Senior Football club title – before beginning their celebrations. This is what they do after games, apparently, communing with and giving thanks to the generations who laboured before them, who had less success, but were still worthy of honour and consideration by those who have been more fortunate.
And the following day they took the time to visit the local primary school to share their moment of glory with the next generation, gracing (there’s that word again) little boys and girls with their god-like presence. The children, as John McGahern put it, happily lost in the circle and dream of their fame.
This isn’t to make any cheap shots about different sports or different countries, or to hold Ireland or GAA people up as paragons of virtue. We know all about toxic masculine behaviour in Ireland – we saw a heinous example in County Offaly not so long ago when a soccer referee was viciously attacked.
And we know from Lee Chin, Sean Óg Ó Hailpín and others about the racial abuse they have endured on GAA pitches. We know about the homophobic taunts that Donal Cusack has endured and the abuse that travellers such as Andy O’Brien of Wicklow have received because of their ethnic background. Drew Wylie, a member of the protestant community, has been the victim of sectarian abuse for years, according to team mates in Ballybay, County Monaghan.
And if we think that sexually explicit and demeaning WhatsApp group comments about young women are confined to sportsmen of one sport, creed or locality, we’d be deluding ourselves.
Likewise, we know how belittled Camogie and Ladies Football players feel about their treatment as second-class citizens by male-dominated sports administrators and media. The people least surprised by the twerking question in Monaco were sportswomen – they’ve been putting up with it for years.
Scientific gender studies have actually shown that, in the recent past, the media simply did not have the narrative framework to talk about female athletes in a respectful way. Rather, coverage often actually reinforced traditional stereotypes pertaining to the image of femininity and female sexuality.
I think this is now improving in Ireland (with some Neanderthal exceptions) but we (men) still have a long way to go. Rena Buckley spoke out recently about not being allowed to present medals to boys at a West Cork GAA club. Her eighteen All-Ireland medals didn’t qualify her, apparently.
In his book Football in Sun and Shadow, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano outlines the differences between two types of male football supporter. He calls them fans and fanatics.
The fan goes on pilgrimage, he writes, to the spot where he can see his angels in the flesh do battle with the demons of the day. While the pagan mass lasts, the fan is many, and is washed over by the beautiful game. Along with thousands of other devotees, he shares the certainty that we are the better team – but he does it with joy and wonder (and anguish, sometimes). Afterwards, the stadium is left alone and the fan too returns to his solitude: to the I who had been we.
In contrast, the fanatic never comes alone to the game. He turns up at the stadium prickling with strident and aggressive paraphernalia, making a lot of noise and fuss on the way. In the midst of the rowdy crowd, this cowed man will cow others, this frightened man becomes frightening. The fanatic’s mania for denying all evidence upends whatever once passed for his mind. He watches the match but does not see it; he cannot sense its beauty nor his own privilege at witnessing it.
Every man gets to decide whether he is a fan or a fanatic. The whole point of sport is a coming together, a communality and celebration – it’s not a hateful substitute for war. We make sport what it is, it’s our choice. But a version that divides, discriminates, reduces people to lesser others or ‘the enemy’ is a joyless twisted desecration of the whole idea of sport.
Do we revel and bask in the feats of all our sisters and brothers in the sunshine, or snarl at and degrade our opponents in the shadow?
It’s up to us.
Picture: The Sportsman