Are there specific public spaces where men feel more comfortable showing affection towards other men? Why are basketball courts, football fields, Hollywood screens, and even boxing rings seemingly more likely to be venues where “man-hugs,” “the sports a*s smack,” and the audacious “man-on-man kiss” can take place? And why the need for modifiers to distinctively describe hugs and kisses shared between men? Are they meant to demystify (or no homo-ize) actions between two men, which are typically imagined as demonstrations of affection between men and women only? What gives?
Journalist and filmmaker Sylvia Harvey produced a short documentary titled, Out of Bounds, which sought to investigate why it is that athletes, specifically, professional male basketball players, seem to be more open with the expression of male-to-male affection on the courts than off. We think that the answer to the question is less complex than Harvey and others might imagine, however. Sports teams, professional or not, exist within cultures that elevate and privilege masculinity—whether the athlete is a woman or man—and “straight” identities and ways of being. It is perfectly acceptable for professional male athletes to embrace, touch, cry, and kiss on an NBA court because it is always assumed that every athlete on the court is straight. There is no need to fear or cringe or lose an appetite during a game if two male basketball players demonstrate affection because the privilege of their presumed desire for woman, on and off the court, protects them.
Yet, many sports teams are purposefully homo-social, that is, they are communities that are organized around sameness: all male or female teams, standard codes of conduct and behavior, and shared desires for achievement. Like Greek culture in colleges, the military, and other fraternal spaces, there are specific rules that are created within the smaller social world of sports, which in another context would convey a totally different meaning. “The fraternity also provides a legitimized structure within which the men can socialize with other men, without fear of attracting a homosexual label, stigmatized in the dominant cultural discourses of masculinity,” writes Scott Fabius Kiesling. “This legitimization of male friendships is an important aspect of the fraternity. The fraternity’s interactional spaces allow the men to ‘safely’ express their connections with one another through ‘approved’ channels.”
Think of the adage, “whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” for example. Well, there are some actions that may occur on the court or the field and nowhere else. In the case of homo-social environments, like sports spaces, whatever the “it” is that actually happens in Vegas (on the court) makes complete sense when the athlete is in Vegas, but as soon as he lands in LA or NYC, the same action (i.e. a hug or kiss between two men) that would have been perfectly acceptable with teammates becomes disgustingly unacceptable same-sex behaviors elsewhere—in some cases, anyway. But, pause! Or, rather, #nohomo!
As evident here, the rules of the sports world (as with the rules of the frat house and the military barracks) allow a male athlete to perform various ways of ‘acting like a man;” yet, the basketball court and football field do not exist apart from a larger social reality that associates the demonstration of emotions, physical contact, and other examples of closeness with women and gay men. In the sports world, sexuality is policed. Every instance when homophobic slurs like “pause” and “no homo” are uttered, team members send a message that anything other than heterosexuality is unacceptable. It is clear why there is need to turn the “a*s pat” and “man hug” into acceptable “straight” actions.
Intimacy is demonstrated on the court, but it operates under conditions that seek to “straighten” up (pun, intended) male-to-male affection. The idea that sports allow for the expression of intimacy presumes that there isn't policing and demonization. The media scrutiny directed at Magic Johnson and Isaiah Thomas, especially after they kissed at mid-court, along with rumors about various athletes who don’t conform to a particular idea of manhood, reveals how deeply entrenched heterosexuality is within sports culture. The mocking of men who cry, the language of playing like "girls," and a culture of media sexism highlights how the rules of gender and sexuality are still in operation. The media spectacle surrounding sexual activities of players, the “no pause" utterance, and the ways that homophobic rhetoric is spewed are evidence of the ways that sport reinforces dominant and marginalizing understandings of masculinity and sexuality.
Darnell L. Moore is a writer and activist. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. David J. Leonard is Associate Professor and Chair in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is author of After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness