The Homosocial Tendencies of Elite Male Athletes

The Homosocial Tendencies of Elite Male Athletes

M. F. Ogilvie

I wake up in the morning to the smell of breakfast and the sound of my housemates chatting in the living room. The spot in the bed next to me is still warm from where Jack slept last night; he has his own bed, but his single is not as comfortable as my double bed with a soft mattress topper. Leaving my bedroom, I see a room of shirtless men: Marty cooking, Allan drinking coffee, and Jack blow drying his hair in the mirror. Marty shouts over the sound of the kitchen fan with a smile “Damn Froggy, yesterday’s arm day is really paying off for you, you’re starting to rival Jack’s biceps”. Jack turns to me and flexes, shooting a wink my way then turning back to the mirror to finish perfecting his hair. Once his hair is coiffed to his satisfaction, he wraps me in a hug and thanks me for letting him share my bed again; truthfully, I like it when he sleeps in my bed, it gives me someone to hang out with and talk to until the moment I fall asleep. Marty serves us breakfast, while Allan gets us each a cup of coffee. We complete our morning routine together of sitting on the couches that are far too small to fit the four of us, while watching left-wing late night talk show clips on YouTube before we all head to the gym for our summer workout program.

The men in this note from my field diary are elite student athletes who also compete in the highest national leagues in the UK. This excerpt is a normal morning for this group of men, from my year-long insider ethnography. Research has shown a shift toward this form of masculinity (Anderson 2009; McCormack 2012), but the friendship dynamics of elite male athletes from both the UK and the US is still relatively unexplored. My study contributes to a growing body of research which finds that university men, even elite athletes can no longer accurately be described as being aggressive, misogynistic, homophobic, emotionally unavailable, and afraid of intimacy. Contemporary research documents a new era of athletes, a 21st Century Jock who has moved away from these once-hegemonic aspects of masculinity. Anderson (2014) describes the modern jock as physically tactile and emotionally expressive with other men. These athletes show less homophobia, which has led to a fostering of inclusive masculinities among male athletes. My research addresses questions not examined elsewhere: how do male athletes negotiate their masculinities in an intercultural atmosphere? and how do their perceptions of bisexuality influence this?

The participants in my study are elite athletes based in the UK. They offer a unique perspective because many of them are recruited directly from top NCAA programs in America. This intercultural domain leads to an interesting mix of men from the UK participating in sport with talented and accomplished American athletes from all over the United States, coming from a wide range of political and socio-cultural backgrounds. These participants who, were aged 18-28, compete in the top league of sport in the UK for one of the following sports: Volleyball, Water Polo, Lacrosse, American Football, or Basketball. My research primarily focused on 10 men but also engaged with 35 men and women who were integral to their wider network. My ethnography began at the start of the academic year, as the first athletes joined the team for pre-season training.

The preliminary findings support the idea that young men are becoming more inclusive in relation to gay athletes. These young men are not representative of the traditional hegemonic archetypes of the past; rather, they are more accurately described as homoerotic, bromantic and emotionally expressive. During interviews with the core group of ten men, four described themselves as ‘gay-friendly’ while six described themselves as ‘extremely gay-friendly’. When asked about the choice of ‘gay-friendly’ rather than ‘extremely gay-friendly’, Ross, a 23-year-old volleyball player responded ‘I love the gay community. I’m not sure how I could be any more gay-friendly than I already am, but I’m just leaving room for self-improvement’.

When asked the same question, Toby, a 22-year-old volleyball player from the US, said: I think I am really gay friendly. But I’m not going to make out with guys on a night out. I’ve seen a lot of guys do that here in the UK, that’s what I would consider ‘extremely gay-friendly’. So I guess, for now, I would only consider myself ‘gay-friendly’.

This intercultural negotiation of masculinities, touched on by Toby, was common in the early stages of my ethnography. It is not uncommon for university aged men in the UK to cuddle, spoon, dance with or even kiss other men on nights’ out. The athletes from the United States saw themselves as less open or gay-friendly than their British peers during their first few weeks in the UK. This stage of intercultural dissonance did not last long, however, and the softer form of masculinities was quickly understood and then, by many, adopted by the athletes from the United States.

A unique component of this research is my position in the field, as an openly bisexual volleyball player on this team. I told participants of my bisexuality during the first week of pre season. For some participants, I was their first non-heterosexual teammate; whereas, having a non-heterosexual teammate was not uncommon for others. My presence on the court, in the locker room, and in social settings was likely to the effect the ways these athletes negotiate and perform their masculinities.

Throughout the study, these elite athletes demonstrated that they are open to viewing, discussing and even complimenting each other’s bodies. In fact, they openly proclaim that they desire positive attention from their teammates. This homoerotic gaze is most likely to occur during team workouts, where we are all in the gym doing the same weight-lifting routine with our trainer. Most of the homoerotic comments during team workouts are centred on a teammate’s lifting posture and muscle tonality. The homoerotic gaze is also common in the locker room, when the athletes joke about penis size or physique. Highlighting this, Adam, a 22-year-old lacrosse player from the northeast of the US said: My teammate told me that if he had to have sex with one guy, it would be me. The guys talk about my butt and my legs, they say stuff like ‘oh, if you were a girl you’d have such nice legs’.

These men frequently commented on the appearances of their teammates in the locker room; but, the homoerotic gaze is not limited to the gym and the locker room. Participants also comment on appearance in relation to clothing, hair and personal grooming. And importantly, it wasn’t just “banter”: These men welcome and often solicit opinions on outfit choices, and yearn for compliments on their appearances before a night out. They are not afraid to be opinionated or show stylistic expertise. These traits, often associated with metrosexuality, clearly do not match the hyper masculine archetypes of jocks from the past. Furthermore, my bisexuality did not seem to influence how participants conducted themselves in these interactions; they spoke to me in the same ways that they spoke to each other.

The homoerotic gaze is accepted from non-heterosexual men just as it is with their heterosexual teammates. One entry in my research diary near the end of data collection goes as follows:

During the summer, I attended a gay pride parade with Jack, the water polo player from California, and Marty, the volleyball player from New York. The three of us planned to be there all day and to meet up with a British friend of mine. Jack and Marty were thrilled to attend the gay pride event; eager to look their best, they borrowed some of my clothes and accessories and we headed to the parade. Jack wandered around the parade topless, appreciative of the crowds’ glances. After several hours at the parade, we ended up at a gay bar exchanging kisses for the next round of drinks. In one club, Jack performed a public strip dance for the drag queen DJ in hopes of receiving a free drink. Disappointed when he didn’t get a free drink, he stayed dancing the night away, visiting other gay clubs in the vicinity with the rest of us.

In understanding the depth of the relationship between the elite athletes, the word ‘friendship’ does not encapsulate the bond as understood by these men; they prefer instead the word ‘bromance’. Participants have described their bromances with their teammates as something that takes time to develop, and requires trust and a strong feeling of support. It is not simply an infatuation, or the desire to spend a great deal of time with another man, although it often starts off that way; rather, a bromance forms in a similar fashion to their heterosexual romantic relationships. When discussing bromances, 23-year-old Lacrosse player, James, said:

We are more open with each other. We know things about each other that we wouldn’t tell anyone else. We have a closer connection, a closer bond, we trust each other’s privacy and we keep each other’s secrets. It’s more emotional with him. I purposely reserve the word ‘love’, I wouldn’t want to throw that word around, but I tell him that I love him.

Bromances require vulnerability, and being comfortable enough to express your emotions. These men have made it clear that bromances are not strictly between two heterosexual men, many of them have bromances with their gay/bisexual teammates as well.

The elite athletes in my research look, in many ways, like the traditional jock. Their muscles, sporting participation and ability to drink significant amounts of alcohol fit with an older style of masculinity. Yet they also ascribe to inclusive values when it comes to sexuality, and they develop deep and meaningful relationships. It is clear that the masculinities of elite male athletes are evolving in complex, yet similar ways to those of male youth, more generally.

M.F. Ogilvie is a PhD student in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University. An elite volleyball player, his research examines the development of homosocial cultures among athletes from the U.K. and the U.S. His research explores the dynamics of these intercultural contexts, and examines the gender dynamics between men and women on these elite teams. He has also researched the experiences of transgender athletes, and has a book chapter on this issue in press see Ogilvie, M.F. (2016). The Experiences of Female-to-Male Transgender Athletes. In E. Anderson and A. Travers (Eds.), Playing Against Gender: Transgender Athletes in Sport. London: Routledge