Professional sports, and especially big-time men’s sports, gather more fans and spectators on a global basis than any other activity today – a phenomenal achievement. Yet most people generally regard them as being outside or unconnected to our political and social systems. The Rites of Men fundamentally challenges this view. Varda Burstyn shows that in harnessing deep needs for belonging and collective joy, these sports actually generate an elitist, masculinist, warlike culture of power that fits generates and serves the plutocratic social order that has emerged in the last thirty years. She argues that, indeed, this sport world and its culture are central to the constitution of economic and political power in contemporary life.
Varda begins by describing how, by the close of the nineteenth century, sport emerged as a secular religion that takes and makes the ‘hypermasculine’ male athlete to be the object of social worship. Today, she argues, more than ever, masculine dominance and class stratification continue to be constructed, modeled and promoted by the multi-billion dollar ‘sport nexus’, the component parts of which she sketches and analyzes. She demonstrates that the injury of athletes – she was among the very first to ring the alarm about concussions and other injuries in football and hockey – is not an accidental or trivial matter, but central to the project of big-time sport. She provides an astute, political analysis of the rise of performance enhancing drugs and shows how the emergence of the artificially-enhanced athlete is a central part of contemporary biopower. Fearlessly, she describes and analyzes the intense, homoerotic world of sport and shows the many ways in which sport harnesses sex and sexuality on a social scale. She shows how sport has played the role of surrogate father, and what consequences this has had for generations of men.
In all these ways – and more – Varda forces us to confront the great contradiction between the image that sport culture generates for itself as ‘play’, as ‘fun,’ as ‘character-‘ and ‘community-building,’ and the reality it has actually created – a ‘winner take all,’ ‘zero sum,’ sacrificial system and spectacle that supports a culture of what she calls ‘coercive entitlement.’ She employs this extended exercise to assist us in understanding and confronting the larger, massive disconnect between the democratic and egalitarian values we say we cherish as a society and what we actually do in our economic, political and social life, including in sport.
Combining some of the best insights of feminist theory with the perspectives of history, political science, economics, psychology, sociology and cultural criticism, this book brings a new dimension to sport as a subject for serious scholarship.