Perceiving masculinity in Generation-Z athletes

Photo courtesy of Blake Israel

The consensus first overall choice in the National Football League (NFL) draft this year is Heisman-winning quarterback Caleb Williams. The 22-year-old is hailed as one of the best prospects in recent history — with a strong arm, a creative playmaking ability and great leadership, the University of Southern California (USC) Trojan has few blemishes on his resume. Despite this, I have only heard reasons why the Chicago Bears should look elsewhere for their future. Recently Williams was spotted sporting a pink phone and painted nails while supporting the USC women’s basketball team in the March
Madness tournament. 

The online response was nothing short of disrespectful. Homophobic slurs and speculation on his sexuality were being used to defend the shared sentiment that he will fail in the NFL.

In this article, I will be referring to all people whose gender identity aligns with man as such regardless of their sexuality and sex category they were assigned at birth and will consider qualities associated with men under masculinity. 

Further, masculinity is often linked to a claim to power, thus I will refer to qualities linked with subordination as being feminine. Although a social construct, everyone is considered to constantly and involuntarily participate in genderism. Men are no exception. The fragility of masculinity causes men to continuously check themselves and other men to reaffirm the symbolic strength of being a man. 

A major claim to manhood is through sports, where hypermasculinity is exemplified by violence against the self and others. American football epitomizes hypermasculinity as athletes put their body on the line in hopes to win a Super Bowl.

The biggest rule a man can break is to do femininity. Football fans who have been trained to believe only the toughest, manliest quarterbacks will succeed in the NFL are now discounting Williams on the basis of the color of his phone and nails. Williams paints his nails as an expression of self and as a tribute to
his mother, a nail technician.

Another example is Duke University’s basketball star Jared McCain. Criticized for donning nails in Duke’s white and blue during their March Madness appearance, McCain is often popular on TikTok for singing and dancing and is always met with support when showing emotion. McCain recently signed a name, image and likeness deal with beauty brand Sally Henson as he announced he plays better and doesn’t bite his nails when his nails are painted. Although TikTok users are overwhelmingly members of Generation Z, McCain faces criticism elsewhere.

Fans don’t want their children to watch and look up to Williams or McCain in the same way they might have idolized Tom Brady or Michael Jordan. Brady and Jordan are athletes commended for their grinding mindset and unwavering confidence which yielded 13 combined championships in their respective leagues.

I disagree — I encourage admiration of athletes like Williams and McCain, the first of many future athletes of Gen Z who embody our generation’s shared belief in individualism.

I’m not claiming McCain and Williams are solving societal issues deeply rooted in patriarchal dominance especially in the young history of the United States, nor will I contend these matters will be overcome in the next several years. 

In fact, the attempts of many men to express themselves with traits associated with femininity often fail to shift the power and production relations of gender, and instead just symbolically advance these individuals in society.

I believe we need to support these young athletes who are sharing their journey of self-discovery and celebrate the conscious efforts to break down the barriers of gender. 

Being constantly aware of smaller conscious acts is one of the best avenues to change the definition of masculinity and femininity, especially as femininity is often socialized as being subordinate. 

Under the spotlight of professional sports, the United States can begin to shift the dynamics of gender slowly but surely. For now, I’ll be supporting Williams and McCain as they ascend to stardom.