“Get up, it’s GameDay!” ESPN’s Saturday morning rally cry signals the best time of the year for many sports fans across the country as the return of College GameDay means college football is back. For many, it’s a very social time of the year as well–whether it’s at tailgates, GameDay, or the games themselves, sports have a unique way of bringing hordes of people together. It can be argued that the gathering aspect of sports is its main appeal, and it’s backed by plenty of research. 

Studies have shown that sports offer fans sites of identity and belonging. For example, former president George Bush’s famous first pitch after 9/11 during Game 3 of the 2001 World Series has long been considered an important unifying moment for America. Analyses of sports talk radio shows indicate that such programming offers fans the ability to creatively interpret dramatic sporting events, which thus “helps them cope with moments of perceived crisis when the team loses, solidifies their community identity, and shapes fans’ understandings of the production of institutionalized athletics.” And as sports media evolves, its ability to foster community remains the same–an analysis of Washington Senators fans’ Twitter accounts revealed that social media similarly creates feelings of community and belonging, and use of Twitter itself helped fans “feel more connected to the game.”

So, in addition to community, a key draw to sports is emotion–although it may seem counterintuitive, given that athletes are often taught to be tough and swallow their emotions, fans are drawn to sports because of how sports make them feel. Emotion is the key ingredient that makes sports great, and makes sports’ ability to foster community possible. Sports programming like College GameDay offer fans the best of many worlds, from nostalgia to novelty, to creative expressions on the many GameDay signs that circle social media this time of the year–all to be shared with millions of friends.

However, community in and of itself isn’t always beneficial for all parties involved. Although Bush’s post-9/11 pitch is viewed as unifying to many, the sentiments probably aren’t as warm for Muslim-Americans. The same sports talk shows that give fans an emotional outlet also regularly talk down to players and coaches, and have been a hostile place for women in the industry. Anyone who has ever logged onto Twitter knows it can be a cesspool of hate at times. And because the sports industry as a whole is overwhelmingly male-dominated, it often allows harmful elements of masculinity to thrive and, bolstered by the media, spread across society. To be clear, masculinity in general isn’t a bad thing, but when certain elements of masculinity are amplified to the detriment of others, what we call hegemonic masculinity becomes a problem. College GameDay is no exception, and that’s why I conducted some research of my own as a doctoral student on any potentially harmful expressions circulated on one of ESPN’s most iconic shows. 

According to researchers, hegemonic masculinity is defined as the “culturally-idealized form of the masculine character,” or put simply, what it takes to be a man in a given society. Scholars have identified several key features of hegemonic masculinity, including occupational achievement, physical force, control, heterosexuality, avoidance of femininity, and the suppression of emotions that often play out in our daily lives to the detriment of women and non-cisgender, heterosexual men. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with many of these features–while suppressing emotions might be harmful, there’s nothing wrong with being ambitious, for example. The problem arises when these features are amplified to unhealthy degrees and because “sport is integrally connected to the dominant social structures of American society and thus to the values, beliefs, and ideologies of that society,” these amplifications can be harmful those who do not live up to these nearly impossible ideals–including the men who fit in to this framework and have to work overtime to uphold their image and behavior.

The concept of hegemonic masculinity can be seen in much of the media we consume, from the protagonists of classic Westerns to the Kens in the Barbie movie. Naturally, because sports are such a cultural cornerstone in America, we can observe expressions of hegemonic masculinity in nearly any sports-related programming including College GameDay.

That’s why, as one of GameDay’s biggest fans who recently finished a Ph. D, I analyzed 857 College GameDay signs in a peer-reviewed article entitled “‘Dabo Wears Male Rompers’: Examining Expressions of Hegemonic Masculinity and Identity in ESPN’s College GameDay.” My research goal was to search for these elements in the signs posted to GameDay’s Instagram account and discuss what they say about the corner of sports media that GameDay occupies and, by extension, sports media overall. Over the course of my study, I found nearly every element of hegemonic masculinity across numerous GameDay signs and the layout of the show itself. Here are a few of my findings:

Suppression of Emotion

Similar to avoidance of femininity, researchers note that performing “masculinity requires a suppression of a whole range of human needs, aims, feelings and forms of expression,” which, while universal among humans, are often coded as feminine. In other words, according to the standards set by hegemonic masculinity, in order to be an ideal masculine character, one cannot be feminine. The masculine standard to be tough and strong at all times might help explain why men are more likely to keep mental health problems to themselves and experience loneliness than women. 

In College GameDay signs, the most consistent expression of the value of emotional expression came in the form of a popular meme: Crying Jordan. While the meme itself can be viewed as the opposite–as an expression of emotion–the context in which it is used almost always suggests that crying should be viewed negatively, as the meme is typically used to mock or ridicule losing teams. In my analysis, the crying Jordan meme was photoshopped onto mascots like Bevo, Sparty, and the Richmond Spider, to communicate a sense of weakness surrounding the opposing team instead of supporting their own. This points to a larger trend among College GameDay signs–across the board, fans are much more likely to create signs that have a spirit of “OU sucks!” than “Hook ‘em Horns!”

The irony of the Jordan meme being used to mock others is the context of the photo itself because they are in direct contrast with each other. Although the crying Jordan meme suggests failure or loss, the photo of Michael Jordan crying is actually from 2009 when he was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame. Jordan isn’t crying because he lost–he’s crying tears of joy. But because all emotion is coded as undesirable within the context of hegemonic masculinity, none of that matters and the message sent is loud and clear: there’s no crying in sports even if you’re happy. 

Occupational Achievement

The most common thread among GameDay signs was that the majority of the ones that make it onto social media centered around trash talk, and when it comes to occupational achievement, sport does a great job of exemplifying “success as an occupational achievement…defined (quantified) in terms of team victories and individual records.” Furthermore, “sport is a key arena for displaying exemplars of successful and unsuccessful men [sic] in a capitalist society,” and while it’s not a bad thing to want to be high achieving, in sports, this can manifest in burnout and mental health issues when athletes and coaches push themselves too far. This is not uncommon–a recent NCAA survey revealed that 30% of college athletes feel extremely overwhelmed, with 25% feeling mentally exhausted. 

Sports’ emphasis on achievement also has the unsavory effect of reducing athletes to numbers–whether it’s in-game statistics or salary totals–and dehumanizing them in the process. These signs featured such numbers as exemplars of success or failure achieve a similar purpose, whether intentional or not, and disregard the fact that there are people behind the gameday performances that are so routinely mocked by fans. And when it came to College GameDay signs, the ones that made it on Instagram were more likely to point out the opposing team’s failures than the fans’ team’s success. 

Avoidance of Femininity/Division of Labor

Closely linked to occupational achievement is the division of labor that differentiates men’s work from women’s work. Although the signs themselves didn’t point to this delineation, the layout of the show itself did. Although women now have more access to sports-related careers, they are still subject to many of the restraints they face outside of the sports industry–for example, a study that used eye-tracking technology to track sports fans’ attention while watching sports programming found that viewers allocated significantly more time to gazing at the bodies of female sports reporters as opposed to their male counterparts, which relegated women to a more passive, objectified role. Similarly, while GameDay does feature women, they are often in secondary, off-the-desk roles (as we’ve witnessed with Maria Taylor and Jess Sims), and nearly all of the female guest pickers (who are featured each week to make predictions about the games) from 2015-19 were accompanied by men, which, likely unintentionally, also supports the notion that in order to be masculine, also must be straight. And, because I know people will get mad at this point, I’m not suggesting it is a crime to be straight–but when viewing College GameDay through the lens of hegemonic masculinity, it’s not a head-scratcher why we don’t see more (much-needed) LGBT representation in sports programming.

Although the signs didn’t point to expressions of division of labor, there was a stronger link to sports fans’ desire to distance themselves from femininity in my sample of GameDay signs. I’m convinced that every female athlete has, at one point in her life, been told “you play/run/throw like a girl,” with the implication that doing so is wrong or inferior. Similarly, the feminizing of coaches like Dabo Swinney, Jim Harbaugh, and others was also very prevalent as a form of mockery in the signs I analyzed… and the inspiration for my paper’s title.

So what do we do with this information? That’s up to you–I’m not the College GameDay police. Sports center around trash talk and I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing–in fact, I think trash talk is great for women’s sports in particular because Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark prove it draws eyes to the game. What I do know is that it’s possible to make College GameDay signs without involving hegemonic masculinity at all. And that might just involve hyping up your own team instead of tearing down your opponents like my favorite College GameDay sign does:

And no matter what, I think we can all agree with the sign I made when College GameDay came to Austin last fall:

About Katie Lever

Dr. Katie Lever is a former Division 1 athlete and current freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Global Sport Matters, Sportico, Extra Points, Forbes, and other outlets. She is also the award-winning author of Surviving the Second Tier, a dystopian novel about the dark side of the college sports industry, available on Amazon. Follow Katie on Twitter and Instagram: @leverfever.