Scaling the wall of toxic masculinity and rediscovering sports as an adult

How I found my own way back to sports through narrative

Image courtesy of Tiffany Chan.

By Gurpreet Kambo, Peak Associate

I’m just about at the top of an indoor rock climbing wall. There’s a red and black machine a couple feet above my head, and it has a bungee-cord-like thing hooked into the harness at my waist. It’s supposed to support my weight and bring me down gently, should I fall. There’s a few rocks above me I could still climb up on, and I consider it. I think to myself that rock climbing is like a timed jigsaw puzzle, in which the piece that you are currently trying to place is your own body, and the time element is your diminishing stamina. Rather than trying to climb the last few rocks though, I reach up and put my hand on the machine, as that’s as good of an end goal as any on this climb. 

It’s my second time ever going rock climbing, and it took me three tries to get to the top of the beginner route. Through all the struggles I’ve had of academic work, of mental health, of the tribulations of living life, this was hard but it wasn’t complicated. It was a clear, unqualified, unambiguous accomplishment — unlike so many other things in my life. I feel great for a second, then I realize I’m clinging to coloured pieces of plastic 30 feet in the air, and I have to actually let go for the machine to catch me and bring me down.

I’ve had a weird relationship with sports. I watched wrestling, basketball, and hockey, and played basketball and hockey. But as I grew into my teenage years, I fit in less with my peers, and like many ‘nerd’ or ‘uncool’ types in high school, I cultivated an identity that was oppositional and condescending to the things that were appreciated by the ‘in-crowd.’ This included disavowing sports, being a film snob rather than watching mainstream action blockbusters, and (ironically) getting into classic rock like the Beatles and Pink Floyd rather than the rap music that was popular at the time (though I completely missed the irony in cultivating an ‘alternative’ identity around listening to dad-rock). In hindsight, a part of the reason for this was that much of the popular culture (and especially sports) was, and continues to be, suffused with the kind of toxic masculinity that many of us who didn’t fit in found traumatizing.

From a more mature perspective, I have found that while I’ve retained my appreciation for things that have a niche appeal, that there is craft, skill, artistry, and pleasure in things that are popular or mainstream as well, including the sports I originally cast aside. Moreover, the things that I found appealing in niche cultural products can also be found in mainstream culture if you’re looking. Not only that they could be found, but that they were just as beguiling, just as spiritually enlightening or artistically fulfilling as the entertainment I consumed when I considered myself more ‘enlightened.’ 

This was my way back to taking an interest in sports. I always loved hearing and telling stories, so naturally I gravitated towards reading and film. When I took an interest in writing, many writers and storytellers I admired expressed that some of the best writing and journalism that’s ever been produced has been in sports journalism. The reason for this is that professional, amateur, and recreational sports are amazing conduits for great storytelling and expressions of humanity, and in more ways and through more lenses than you might think. Of course there are the typical lenses, such as how your favourite team did in the playoffs this year, what team won the Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl, or whether LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan. 

I think those are certainly great, if overanalyzed and overexposed stories about modern sports. However, I believe that sports and sports fandom says so much about our culture, society, and who we are as people. There are so many stories to explore that cut across an incredibly broad swathe of related topics. 

For example:

Civil Rights, Vietnam War: Muhammad Ali was not only the greatest boxer of his time, but also one of the most important civil rights activists and perhaps the most high-profile person to resist the Vietnam War draft. At this time, Ali was one of the most famous people in the world, and the government saw his open defiance as a threat that could (and did) galvanize others, thus they tried to make an example of him. In my eyes, the fact that he was stripped of his boxing license and convicted of draft evasion at the height of his fame and career makes him one of the most interesting, complex individuals of the 20th century. Journalist William Rhoden wrote, “Ali’s actions changed my standard of what constituted an athlete’s greatness. Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough. What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?”

Body shaming, racism, sexism: While Serena Williams has by far dominated the sport of women’s tennis, through much of her career she has not actually been the highest paid player, due to fewer endorsements. The reason for this according to many articles, including on Slate and The Atlantic, is that, aside from being Black in a sport with far more white women, Williams has developed a muscular physique that has helped her steamroll over her opponents. It is a physique that is less ‘marketable’ and ‘feminine,’ for companies looking to endorse athletes. Despite her unprecedented dominance of the sport, Williams has endured much body-shaming in the media. The implication here is that, in a sport where much of the media focus is on the female athlete’s looks, her outfits, and where the presiding organization once tried to ban women from ‘grunting’ while playing, Williams’ has prioritized pure sport and athleticism over so-called ‘femininity,’ marketability or money — whereas her peers have done the opposite. 

Urban infrastructure, poverty, government spending priorities: The ongoing stories talk about how sports intersect with inner city culture, with many seeing sports as a way out of poverty (as portrayed in the Oscar-winning documentary Hoop Dreams). Other notable discussions include the controversies related to governments pouring millions into constructing stadiums for professional sports teams, money that some say is better spent in other areas.

Physics and psychology: In the 1970s, when NBA player Rick Barry pioneered an underhanded free throw shot (also known as a ‘granny shot’), it was found, according to a physicist interviewed by the Washington Post, that it was objectively superior to the more standard overhand shot. This was due to fewer variables in the angle and direction one can throw in. Barry was one of the NBA’s greatest free throw shooters ever, ranking 7th all-time in free throw percentage (89.31%). However, few players adopted his method despite Barry’s success, with Hall of Fame member Wilt Chamberlain dropping it because he looked too ‘sissy.’ In this case, Chamberlain is doing something that he knows is inferior, because of social pressures, ie. the machismo (strong or aggressively masculine) culture and toxic masculinity that pervades sports, something that Barry had no concern for.

Sports are an amazing engine for meaningful stories about our culture and society. Unfortunately, the machismo culture that often surrounds sports sucks up all of the air in the room, leaving little space for discussion about the endlessly fascinating micro-narratives arising from it. It is also important to acknowledge that many of us have traumatizing memories of high school gym class, where we were forced to participate in activities that we had little natural ability in, and the bigger, stronger kids had sway. I believe this culture of machismo and toxic masculinity embedded within sports is actually harmful to its most powerful expressions and applications. It certainly harmed me. I was fairly athletic and pretty decent at most sports, but due to not fitting in with the jock/machismo culture that surrounded it, I didn’t get to explore my athletic ability to its full potential.

Where this leaves me now is that I am trying to reimagine a relationship with watching and playing sports that casts aside both the trauma of toxic masculinity and the misguided condescending attitude that I developed as a survival mechanism. But this is still a challenge because of the harm that toxic masculinity does to our psyches.

Here in the present, I’m still hanging in the air, clinging to the bright plastic rocks a little too long, and using up the little stamina I have left. I feel good, but I’m getting butterflies, more and more as the seconds tick by. I can’t help but reflect on the journey I’ve had, and how powerful sports narratives have brought me here. I haven’t had the nerve to (re)try team sports as an adult, however I’ve enjoyed the communal, but still solo, nature of rock climbing. I’ve particularly enjoyed this micro-narrative of me finally getting to the top of the beginner’s route on my third try, in a sense scaling the wall of toxic masculinity. I take a deep breath to calm my nerves, close my eyes, and let go of the wall.