Molding Men: The Value of Sports in Developing Masculinity
One of the greatest nights of my life was a cold February night in 1997. It was the spring of my freshman year of high school. I was trying out for the football team and playing spring football. I was playing scrub linebacker against the starting offense which featured Sam Dunlap, a rising junior running back who had a breakout sophomore season the year before, and Mike Gerasimas, a rising senior full-back. Gerasimas was a beast of a man – 6’2”, 230 pounds – and would go on to play football for Army. Of course, my fellow scrubs and I were just getting worked. The future starting offense of the 1997 Grissom Tigers was basically having their way with us, and to be honest, I wasn’t really trying. I was a little scared, and I certainly didn’t want to hit Mike Gerasimas too hard for fear of what he might do to me on the next play. I was happy to just be a scrub for my first year and then maybe the next year I could earn a starting role.
But about halfway through that practice, the other scrub linebacker – I can’t remember his name, but he was a senior – called me out. He said, “Dees, you could be a great athlete, but you are being a pansy (though he used a different word). If you would try you could be over with them.” For some reason, being called out by that guy that night did something to me.
The next play was a Power I Dive, a play teams run when they just have to get a yard or two, like on a 3rd down and one situation. The play is designed so that the fullback and another H back both lead block on the linebacker while the running back follows behind. This meant that Mike Gerasimas and Josh Minor (another returning starter senior) would be lead blocking on me with Sam Dunlap followed behind. After the challenge of my fellow scrub I was determined to make a play. So when the ball was snapped, I put my head down and took Gerasimas and Minor head on. I was able to split them, and before I knew it I was tackling Sam Dunlap in the backfield.
The whole practice stopped. No one could believe what just happened. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. After a moment of shock and silence the coaches erupted. This little freshman just took on their rising senior stars and made a huge play. At the same time the coaches were furious at their offense. “How could you let a freshman do that to you?” they yelled. Sure enough they ran the play again, and once again I stuffed the play. Again the coaches were ecstatic and furious all at the same time. They ran the play a third time, and for the third time that day I was able to stuff the play in the backfield. Four minutes before I was happy to be a scrub for the entire first season, but after stuffing that play three times in a row I never saw the second string again. I became a starter for the rest of my high school playing career. As I said, it was one of the greatest moments of my entire life.
In 2015, the Aspen Institute reported a dramatic decline in youth sports participation between 2008 and 2013 – a 14.4% decline among boys playing baseball, a 28.6% decline in boys playing football, and a 31.3% decline in girls playing softball. Those are dramatic numbers for five year period, and they are very concerning to me personally. While I understand a lot of the concerns with youth sports, in particular the safety concerns, I believe that a world without sports is a much more dangerous place to be, especially for men.
As a Christian I often think about God’s design for men and women. What did God have in mind when he created men, and what did God have in mind when he created women? While there is certainly a lot that could be written about femininity, the focus of this post is masculinity. What does it mean to be a man?
While it is difficult to sum up manhood in just a few terms, there are some qualities or roles that we see throughout the Bible that God designed to be true of men. First of all, men are called to be leaders. From Adam in the garden to husbands in the home to elders in the church, God had men in mind for leadership. This certainly doesn’t mean that women aren’t also called to be leaders in many contexts or that all men are called to be leaders to the same degree, but it does mean that leadership, to some degree, is a part of masculinity.
Men are called to be lovers. Men are called to sacrifice themselves and inconvenience themselves for others. Men are called to love their wives and children in a sacrificial way. Men are called to love people in their churches and communities in a way that is outwardly focused. In general, men are called to serve others without expecting anything in return.
Men are called to be protectors. Throughout the Old Testament and in the New Testament it is the men who are called upon to protect a family, a church or a community. This is also something that has been recognized in all places among all people.
Finally, men are called to providers. 1 Timothy 5:8 very plainly says, “If any(man) does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” The apostle Paul is clearly saying that a willingness to provide is an essential part of biblical manhood.
There is obviously so much more that could be said about all of this, but in summary, God’s design for men, for masculinity, is that a man would be a leader, a lover, a protector, and a provider.
If the above is true, the question then becomes how is a man supposed to develop into these roles? Or, what qualities do you need to be a great leader and protector, etc.? And how do you develop these qualities? In my opinion, one of the best ways for young boys to become men who are leaders, lovers, protectors, and providers – and to develop the qualities necessary to excel in these particular roles – is to play team sports. In order to be a great leader, lover, protector, and provider, a man needs to be many things, but to name a few, they need to be coachable, tough, selfless and courageous.
For me, these qualities were learned on the playing field. That night in February of 1997 I learned something about all of these qualities. I had to receive coaching – from a peer not even a superior). I had to learn how to be tough and overcome my lack of desire. I had to become selfless and overcome my laziness in order to help my team. And, of course, I had to be courageous and overcome my fear in order to take on three guys that I was legitimately scared of. That night of “instruction” has stayed with me now for more than 20 years.
I can’t begin to tell you about all of the times a baseball coach tried to coach me on how to hit. At first I thought what he was saying was going to mess up my swing, but in time I learned that he really knew what he was talking about. I started to learn how to be coached.
I remember all of the times that I was playing soccer as a boy and I didn’t think I could run any more, but then I did, and I realized that I didn’t always have to obey my body’s weaknesses. I learned toughness.
I remember all of the plays in football where I was called on to be the lead blocker even though I wanted the ball. Instead, I had to block so that a teammate could carry the ball down the field. I learned how to be selfless for the good of the team.
I remember facing great pitchers, big lineman and all sorts of skilled athletes that I was legitimately afraid of, but then coming out on the other side stronger. I learned courage.
I could go on and on and on about all of these lessons I learned in the grass and red clay of my Alabama youth, and these are the very qualities that I draw on today to be a leader, lover, protector and provider for my family, church and community. There are some things you just can’t learn in a classroom. There are some things you can’t learn by playing a video game. There are some things you can’t learn even from the best parents and teachers. And while schoolwork and the arts and skill training can teach a young man many wonderful things, there are some things that are best taught by a coach and best learned on a field or court of sport.
All of this is not to say that every boy is going to or should be a great athlete. Some of my favorite teammates were some of the worst athletes, but those that stuck it out through the season or even through high school gained the respect of everyone and learned these lessons of being coachable, tough, selfless, and courageous in a deeper way. I’m also not saying that these things can only be learned through sports. But what I do believe is that every boy needs to do something hard that forces him to count on other people and to do a lot of things that he doesn’t want to do. He needs to do something that forces him to learn to listen to coaching in order to succeed, and if he does succeed he’ll feel that wonderful feeling of victory. Every boy who wants to become a real man should have and needs something like that, and that sounds a lot like sports to me.
It has been a long time since 1997, and as a middle aged, minivan driving, Ace hardware going dad, I certainly feel the risks of team sports. In fact, I feel them in my own surgery scarred body – surgeries from injuries I got on the playing field. But despite those fears I am more afraid of raising sons who aren’t coachable and who know nothing of toughness. I am more afraid of raising sons who know nothing of self-sacrifice and who are cowards in the face of fear. Of course, I hope that to some degree they will learn all of this at school and church and from the instruction I will give them and the model I will be for them. But, one of the best teachers who I know will help me train my boys to be coachable, tough, selfless, and courageous so that one day they can be leaders, lovers, protectors, and providers is the sport they will play in the local rec leagues and school teams. And in this world of confusion, I need all the help I can get.