By Alan Meban
One of the theatre productions in this year’s Belfast International Arts Festival explored the issue of toxic masculinity. As a reviewer, I was watching an actor who had grown up in Cork, tell his story of being steeped in a particular sporting tradition. As he rose through the ranks of his local club, he realised that the values that had once seemed to be at the heart of the sport had – in his experience – become distorted.
At more senior levels, the ban on drinking seven days before important matches seemed to have been replaced with wild nights out with team mates, seemingly as essential as the near-religious attendance at practices, while the family atmosphere about the club had been superseded with debauched behaviour on nights out and a disrespect for young women.
After a time away from his beloved sport, and a switch from the field to the stage, he returned to his home club to perform this show. He feared their reaction. Would his home truths fall on deaf ears? Would anyone acknowledge that this had genuinely been his experience? He need not have worried. Former teammates came up to him at the end with tears in their eyes, saying that they had felt the same but had felt trapped, not knowing what they could do about it.
There was a universality about the theme of the play which audience members could translate to many other sporting fields which, at times, fall short of the standards and values they espouse.
Sport can be tremendously good. Exercise is good for mental health. Working as a team can provide a sense of satisfaction. Teammates can be there for one another, with a closeness and a frequency of meeting that means small changes can be picked up. Negative feelings and worries around self-image can be addressed. Destructive actions can be challenged.
During the Q&A after the performance, several women spoke to confirm that wanton aggression and toxic behaviour could extend to their chosen teams and sports. But they also talked about steps now being taken to help players embed respect for themselves as well as their peers and the wider club community from a very early age. “It’s too late to start teaching this when they’re adults,” one person explained.
“It’s too late to start teaching this when they’re adults,” one person explained.
I think I must have been sitting in the stalls, nodding in violent agreement. Just days before I had been chatting with a friend who somewhat out-of-the-blue described what she had witnessed on the touchline the previous weekend. Her own son had been quite viciously tackled, sworn at, and threatened with considerable violence by a player on the opposing team. The manager did nothing to scold, stop or remove the overly aggressive player. The mother was rightly outraged. This was a match being played by under-8s!
The scene could be repeated in playgrounds, classrooms, street corners, and perhaps living rooms, right across the country. While these examples both come from the world of sport, they could equally have come from other pursuits and interests. In time, the actor may reflect that the world of arts and culture in which he is now engaged is imperfect too, with its share of bullies and enormously inappropriate behaviour.
It may seem like a platitude, but part of being a parent, an auntie or uncle, a grandparent, a family friend, a schoolteacher, a sporting coach or manager, a youth club leader, or even a politician or commentator in the media, really does require us to own the responsibility of being good role models to those around us, young and old.
Children pick up our speech patterns, our table manners, our appreciation of learning, our attitude to conflict, our ways of dealing with disappointment, not to mention our love – or otherwise – of eating fruit and vegetables. We provide cues which drive children’s behaviour. They don’t learn all the good things and all the bad things they do from books, the TV or the internet. Children deserve our best behaviour.