Men Get Emotional About Sports Because Society Lets Them

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There is crying in baseball. And basketball. And football. And soccer.

Terrell Owens cried on national television. It was 2008 and he was defending his quarterback, Tony Romo, from scathing attacks by the press. He was not ashamed and nobody blamed him for getting emotional. He got ribbed a bit, but people mostly kept mocking him for dressing like Lance Armstrong while riding stationary bikes. New research suggests that there’s a cultural reason for this: Americans are largely accepting of men crying about teams and sports and significantly accepting of men crying over the birth of children or the death of loved ones. It’s an unexpected finding that no one who attended a Buffalo Bills-themed Super Bowl part in the early nineties would think to refute.

“It’s more socially acceptable to cry if something negative happens in sports that’s not performance related than when a family member dies or the birth of your first child,” Tommy Derossett of Murray State University, and part of a team of researchers studying how society perceives men crying, told Fatherly. Their as-yet-unpublished work confirms that society does not look fondly on male tears, in general—but that men are given wide berth to express their softer side through sports. In other words, men aren’t allowed to cry unless it’s over something serious. And, curiously, sports count as “serious.”

Men are socialized not to show their feelings (and hormonally inclined to cry less often than women), but, on game day, heightened emotion isn’t just acceptable—it’s expected. The reasons involve complex physiological, psychological, and social factors, but one thing is clear: This has been going on for a while.

Sports have constituted an alternate society, safe for male tears, since at least the Iliad, when Greek warrior Diomedes unabashedly wept over losing a chariot race. In Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears, author Thomas Dixon of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University documents men crying over athletics as early as 1956, when Olympic medal-winners started shedding tears freely. In modern athletics, crying Michael Jordan is literally a meme, Glen Davis cried after Kevin Garnett yelled at him, and Tim Tebow cries every time he sees the sun. One fundamental reason why it’s OK to cry over sports is because it always has been.

Scientific studies confirm that men crying about sports is universally tolerated. A small 2004 study in the British Journal of Social Psychology found that men were most comfortable expressing emotions like anger and grief in specific, rule-governed contexts, such as football games. A much larger 2011 study in the journal Psychology of Men & Masculinity asked 150 football players to evaluate footage of other athletes crying. The hardened athletes generally agreed that it was highly appropriate to cry after losing and, to a lesser degree, winning. They also found that athletes who were more approving of crying has…

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