For the Love of Sports
A tug of war between masculinity and athletics and remembering why we play.
What can coaches and athletes learn from Mbuti tug of war? What is there to learn? You play to win. That’s the point, right? The Mbuti — one of the oldest indigenous groups in the Congo region of Africa — know that survival requires balance.
They will pick up a rope with men on one side and women on the other. Let’s say the men are losing. They are digging their heels in the earth. They lean back and try to pull the rope closer, but the force of the women is too strong. They are going to lose! It will be a bitter and embarrassing defeat as the women celebrate their dominance over the men.
Not with the Mbuti. One of the women will let go of the rope and run over to the side of the men, cheering her new team on in a deep voice, mocking yet playful. If the women begin to lose the war, a man will run over to their side, adding his own cheering, but high-pitched. This will go on, men and women switching sides, imitating one another, making a game of the hostility that often tears people apart, until they find a balance of forces that crescendoes and melts into unified laughter.
Glorified and commercialized sports don’t often end like this, particularly with men. I recently heard a soccer commentator criticize a player for being friendly with an opponent after a loss. Sports have many benefits: cardiovascular fitness, improved social skills, leadership experience, physical and mental health. At the same time, they too often perpetuate a cutthroat culture of misogyny and violence. People will say, “It’s just a game.” It’s not. For many boys, it’s life, and the implications are lifelong.
Boys and men’s sports are under fire. They have been referred to as a miseducation that “creates a cozy ecosystem for sexual abuse and harassment, for all forms of violence and mistreatment of women, a climate reaped from the early belief that we’re merely allowing boys to be boys” (Brewer, 2021). For decades, authors have discussed the “problem of masculinity” and sports (Messner, 1992). Boys have heard the message, and they keep playing the game. It’s clear that message is problematic, and it’s past time to change it.