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Soapbox: Sports, masculinity and me


Illustration by Rachel Corcoran.

Illustration by Rachel Corcoran.

Illustration by Rachel Corcoran.

Few things in life fill me with dread. Namely: reading a bank statement, filing my taxes and also, when I'm in a taxi and the driver brings up "the match". That is, anything to do with the sporting event happening that day. Because there's always a sporting event taking place that day. When robots take over and rid earth of remaining humans with a killer combination of fake tan smell and a killer virus, there'll still be a regular schedule of 180 sporting events a day.

As the driver asks the dreaded sports question, I've to think as fast as possible. I can lie and feign interest, hoping I can pull enough general pop culture knowledge together to act like the details are within my grasp. "Has Kim Kardashian ever been to a GAA match?" I think to myself, frantically scrambling for words to pepper the conversation.

The alternative is to admit straight away how sport isn't something I can talk about even vaguely. My most recent experience had a taxi driver actually blurt in shock "Do you live under a rock?" minutes after giving me a lecture on how "The Dubs" had fared that day. In my everyday interactions, particularly with other men, it feels like a passing knowledge of "sports" is some kind of masculinity test.

As a gay man who occasionally has purple hair and wears a Janet Jackson t-shirt (sometimes at the same time), I'm not bothered by cracks about my perceived lack of masculinity. But the way some men use sport as shorthand always makes me feel out of step. It's seen as the ultimate code of manliness to be able to talk about "Deadline Day" (which sounds like the name of a Liam Neeson action movie), and I've had many an uncomfortable moment over the years where an instance of male bonding is dashed by my lack of interest in sticks, footballs and county colours.

To me, it's a reminder how ubiquitous sport is. It takes up huge chunks of conversation every day in a way that is rarely questioned. Hourly radio news bulletins give ample time to sports news, even on days where nothing is happening. I wouldn't be surprised if I heard about the latest exciting transfer in the field of competitive Tiddlywinks. Pick up any newspaper and a solid chunk is taken up with sports news and analysis, while sports events slice up huge chunks of the TV schedule, happily derailing other programming for hours (and you thought the X Factor was bad).

Obviously, the main reason for that is because lots of people REALLY enjoy sport, and that's great. Talented athletes, hard work, perseverance and passion are on display. It calls for loyalty, dedication and a sense of community, and it's a welcome break for many people, a reason to celebrate or commiserate. I've seen how playing for a team and following one are sources of huge satisfaction, and I have no qualms about that. It's funny though, how it's acceptable to groan and gripe about reality TV or rag on people who want to hear about the royal baby - those interests are deemed slightly trashy and almost effeminate. Why would we dare even want to talk about that sort of guff?

But, isn't sport entertainment? Of course it is, but it's always taken seriously. The impression I always get from this, the sort of tone I get from other men who find out I don't have any interest, is that it's because sport is male dominated, and in the world we live in, this means it's deemed important enough to be incredibly prominent. The main teams are made up of men, male sports stars are largely the ones landing the endorsement deals and you're as likely to see female sports star rated on their looks as you are their abilities (sadly, something that seems rife in every corner of the entertainment world).

Of course, there men and women from everywhere on the spectrum who enjoy everything from the Premier League to the US Open without caring about stereotypes. People in sport are talking about their sexuality and raising LGBT visibility, including Tom Daley and Michael Sam. The support for the Irish team at the Women's Rugby World Cup this year was a beautiful moment for moving the focus of the usually hyper-male sports coverage here. And when I think of Irish sporting heroes, even my completely clueless brain can drum up Sonia O'Sullivan as quickly as it would Roy Keane.

There are darker moments too. UK gay charity Stonewall's current campaign Rainbow Laces has returned because visibility of gay football players in the Premiership is non-existent and in their own words "homophobia on the terraces is still rife". There's been outcry too over how the NFL handled abuse allegations against player Ray Rice, and how it took incriminating video evidence being made public for them to act accordingly. These moments of questionable ethics can be applied to every other facet of the entertainment industry, but sport has always had something of a moral, family-oriented high ground, and still feels like the sacred cow of escapism.

If people want to watch teams and athletes do their thing, then they should be able to do so, whether they're a stereotypical bloke or a woman who rightly objects to the idea that women only follow sport for eye candy. But also, if you only know rugby players because they've appeared on Strictly Come Dancing, it's not an affront to "male values", nor is it disrespect for the people who take part.

Perhaps I should change tack. My next taxi journey will involve me interrogating the driver about the latest on the Katy Perry/Taylor Swift feud. If they don't have anything to offer, I've a question about life under a rock I've been dying to ask.