With socialization, learning, not instinct is responsible for the development of values, identities, and roles in relationship to society. Michael Messner views identity as a “process of construction.” One way that gender identity for males is generated is through sports.
Messner did a study on a diverse group of retired athletes. Through this study, Messner observed how males identified their boyhood through sports. Four broad areas of the lives of the thirty diverse athletes were addressed. The first item of concern was the athletes’ earliest experiences with sports in boyhood. Second were the athletic careers of the athletes. Third, was the conclusion and withdraw from their athletic careers. Fourth was their life after their athletic career had been concluded. Messner also compared the athletes that came from a poor background, to those that had come from a higher status background.
All of these athletes had been brought into sports when they were young. Being involved in sports as a young boy seemed to be the natural and normal thing to do. Some of the interviewed athletes responded that there was something wrong with a young boy who was not involved with sports, and that it was a “natural” thing and really the only thing to do. Being that society for these athletes offered no rites of passage into manhood, sports became the way to prove one’s manhood.
Family influences played a major role in the motivation of these athletes. Competition or emulation of family members was often the reason one tried so hard to excel in the athletic world. These competitive atmospheres often created a lot of pressure. Often, receiving the respect of one’s father and making him proud was also an important factor in pushing athletes to success. Some of the athletes were afraid of failure, and fought harder to get the praise of his family. Their father also introduced many of these athletes to sports. The father image in a boys mind was that of an invincible, powerful man that they could never even come close to. Obtaining respect from someone who is held in such high esteem is very inspiring. This connection with the father was the main push for much of the athletic achievement.
The early commitment to sports that these men had as boys assisted in the development of their masculine identity. Because of sports, these boys were able to identify masculinity with competition, physical strength, and skills. Finding a connection with other guys was also important for these boys, as they encountered insecurity, loneliness, and the need to connect with others. However, sports allowed a connection without intimate attachments.
Sports are extremely competitive, with the emphasis on winning and being the best. Positive reinforcement, cheers, pats on the back, etc., shows athletes that they are winners. Boys are trained to strive for this approval, and therefore, strive to be the absolute best. For those who had a natural inclination towards sports, this was a lot of fun and very rewarding. Nevertheless, being the winner is fundamental.
The status difference held some other differences for the athletes. The tendency of lower class athletes to be more committed to athletics was revealed. It became apparent that those that came from a better background had more opportunities and more role models that mirrored those opportunities. The lower class athletes were drawn to athletics because their world of options was much more limited.
Thus, athletics contributed to the development of many masculine identities. Competition, strength, and skills were paramount. The athletic world gave all boys a way to relate to each other with the safety of not becoming intimate. Whether rich or poor, the boys all looked to the praise of family and peers as a reward for their acheivements.