April 1, 2021 | Feature
masculinity and athletics
Fumbling past my brother’s legs, I slid between the driver’s and passenger sides of my dad’s white pickup truck, into a makeshift seat on top of the center console. The swarming summer heat mixed with pine air freshener and made my throat sting. On our way down the mountain, we wove through a canvas of greens, each different shade plastered on top of another. Turns jostled the whole car, bumping my knee into my brother’s and brushing my shoulder against my dad’s. I felt close to them like this, every unintended touch making the car feel so full, like no matter where I turned I would be surrounded by their love.
We made our way into town and pulled into a gravel parking lot. Our wheels kicked up dust and turned the windows hazy. My brother and I grabbed our bags out from the bed of the truck and walked to our youth team’s dugout, right in front of the bleachers where my dad would watch us play baseball for the next hour.
I felt a deep apathy for sports, but we would get free pizza and snow cones after games, which made stepping foot onto the field very important. While waiting for my turn to bat or run or catch the ball, I would wonder about the world around me. How could I get into the announcement booth above the concession stand? Who were those older boys over there, building a treehouse in the woods behind the ballpark? Staring in every direction but the field, the gravity of rec league baseball was lost on me.
I was always last in the batting order. I hated the buzzing feeling that would run through my fingertips and up my arms each time I feebly made contact with the ball. But I was fascinated with first base, the idea that once I finally got there I could just keep running, and maybe even score for my team.
Unfortunately, my fear of hitting the ball always outweighed this. Whenever it was my turn to bat, I would refuse to swing and hope the ball would hit me so I could walk to first base. To my chagrin, this rarely worked out, and I had to return to the dugout uninjured and struck out.
“Whatever you do, we just want to see you swing,” a coach told me one day after practice. “Even if you miss, just go out swinging.”
With his advice in mind, I decided one day it was time to hit the ball and make it to first base all on my own. Walking up to home plate, I fastened the Velcro straps on my fashionable batting gloves and got into position.
“Just think of first base,” I thought to myself. “Imagine what it would feel like to finally get the chance to run, to round the diamond infield and slide your way home. To finally be a part of the team.”
I took a couple of practice swings and felt the blood rush to my knuckles. The bat steady behind my head, I braced myself. When the pitch came, I swung with my whole body, landing the ball squarely on my nose.
The referee gave me a walk, but I was preoccupied with choking back tears. A small stream of blood ran across the curve of my lips. I didn’t want to take first base. The coach switched me out for another runner, and I sat on the bleachers with my dad, watching the other boys while pinching the bridge of my nose.
As I grew older, my inability to succeed in sports began to feel emasculating. I tried swimming and martial arts and cross country, yet, no matter what I did, it seemed as if I was incapable of meeting the standard for boys set by the world around me. The excitement I had for afternoon baseball games turned into discomfort, and I felt alienated from my family on our long drives into town.
I was unconscious of it at the time, but my frustration with sports fit into a growing sense that I did not belong in masculine spaces. From the very first time that I swung at baseball practice, assimilating into the world of men hurt.
In high school, I wandered into soccer team tryouts four years in a row and, by senior year, was still incapable of passing the ball. The coaches would look at me with exasperation, like I was an old horse needing to be put out of my misery.
But during those four years I kept coming back to try again. I felt an overwhelming desire to make the team and publicly affirm I could do it, too, to make up for the aspects of male identity I was so apparently lacking. I was desperate to fit into the unspoken guidelines of manhood that would reaffirm my masculinity and, by proxy, my humanity.
The state of modern athletics is largely performative. Baseball stadiums come with giant flat screens that offer close-ups of the field, replaying highlight reels with animations and loud music to celebrate each demonstration of physical prowess. In between innings, audience members fight for screen time with wacky antics or elaborate displays of team loyalty. The biggest fans throw some extra cash forward so their kids can meet athletes and dream of one day making the big leagues themselves.
These performances come with high stakes that trickle all the way down to youth athletics, making even recreational sports hyper-competitive. Coaches focus entirely on winning, pressuring their teams to repress vulnerability for the sake of the game. For today’s generation of male athletes, to navigate sports is also to navigate masculinity. Success in athletics, winning games—all of it is rooted in the expectation for men to meet societal norms of how they should operate in our world. And, for boys like me, failing in sports means failing as a man.
Pacing the halls of my freshman dorm, I found myself in a new environment with less demand for social conformity. Growing up in a religious and conservative part of the country, I had internalized an understanding that self-exploration was dangerous. Branching out from standardized male behavior meant risking losing whatever semblance of community I had created around me, facing rejection from startled peers. I internalized my feelings and kept my walls up at all times.
But, at college, I came to a place that encouraged conversation. With programs literally created to discuss gender normativity, I found myself in a new world where people wanted to talk about their differences. Even in the way my male peers presented themselves, hair dyed or ears pierced, I found that there was no pressure in exploring my individuality, even in the ways that it might conflict my performance of gender.
I hyper-invested in college life, leaning on the support of a space where I was safe being myself. I took classes discussing gender and sexuality, had conversations with friends about the pressures of masculinity, and, thank God, never touched a baseball bat again.
I loosened up and got comfortable with myself, my body, as if I was a new person entirely. I felt like I was healing.
Yet, by its very nature, my self-expression was tied to a rejection of the past. As I stepped foot into my new person, all of the self-hatred that had once so exhaustingly weighed on my shoulders was transferred to my previous self. I was angry that I once felt the need to perform manhood, that I had tried and failed at sports then tried again. Embracing my present self and condemning my former grew intrinsically connected.
On March 22, 2020, Brown University sent home its entire undergraduate population, transitioning to remote learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On the car ride home in my dad’s pickup, I was scared of losing the world I created, returning to a place that had grown so far removed from the comfort I once found riding into town with my brother for practice.
Coming home meant the sense of self I had created at college became unsustainable. I could not just be myself in the present, because I was surrounded by pieces of youth that shaped my current life. Forced to reckon with the past, I spent late nights staring at the ceiling of my childhood bedroom, intimately near to a world I hoped to leave behind.
While in quarantine, I picked up running. My morning routine passed under the same forest lining the country roads my dad used to drive us on. My steps took a familiar rhythm, down a path I walked before with my mother, picking raspberries and blackberries that burst upon first touch.
And sometimes, while running, I pictured myself in a room with all of the previous versions of myself. I imagined how they would look at me now, hair dyed orange and more confidence in my step. I imagined telling them to just hang on, that one day the small-town world they had always known would become so much bigger. I imagined assuring them that striking out at baseball practice or failing a soccer team tryout would mean so little in a couple of years. That, in spite of everything, they mattered.
Crossing fields of grazing cows and stepping foot over soft-spoken creeks, the irony of my newfound willingness to engage in the things I once so pointedly hated was not lost on me. But I felt in my gut that sports were no longer the same. It had always been a matter of just walking to first base, making some headway in the game of manhood. But I’ve gotten so far past first base. I’m running now.