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John Harbaugh says he wants to build 'real men,' and that's the problem with sports

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Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh says football builds "real men." It's just the latest in a culture that ignores sensitivities based on race, gender, sexual orientation and just about everything else.

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The drums pound in my ears as I clap my hands in the stands. I sing the fight song at the top of my lungs. I've missed this feeling; it's the first game I've been able to make all year.

Hockey at Miami University (Ohio) is a huge deal. It's our football. Students stand in line for two hours prior to games to get one of the limited free student tickets. In some ways, I never feel more like a part of my school than when I am at hockey games.

Then the cheers start.

Like many fan sections, we have set cheers. Most of them just involve a lot of clapping while yelling "sieve" at the goalie, or singing "Sweet Caroline" (BAH! BAH! BAH!). After reading the cheers at the University of Alabama Huntsville and the University of Michigan, they are pretty standard across universities, down to the offensive ones.

The chants from the student sections are only one small part of the dynamics that have dominated sports for decades. Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh's recent column about building "real men" takes the cake.

Sport grants license to be rude, crass and downright mean. From the now banned "See-Ya chant" at the University of Michigan to the hardwood of the court belonging to my old crosstown rival, fans taunt, yell, jeer, and cheer. In middle school one of my friends would stand in the middle of the crowd at my home games and pretend to answer his phone during the opposing team's freethrows, yelling, "Mom! Yeah, I'm at the game! She's shooting freethrows. No, she just airballed again. It's third one in a row. I know, Go Cavs!" I could barely contain myself when he did it, because it was hilarious. I'm still shocked he never got thrown out.

Cheers are all about mental disruption. So much of sport requires mental strength. At their core that's what these cheers test. They can also forward oppression blatantly, and in such a way that it can be hard to recognize. When I attend hockey games at Miami, I make the conscious choice to not participate in the "War Whoop" - that "Indian" chant nearly every child in my town learned while playing "Cowboys and Indians". Students make that noise whenever an opposing player is sent to the penalty box.

I also choose to not participate in some of the more vulgar cheers like the crowd favorites: "Get off your knees, Ref! You're blowing the game" and "Delta! Delta! Delta! Score! Score! Score!" Delta Delta Delta refers to a sorority on campus by the same name.

There are a number of others that are less tame - so many of them are rife with sexism and homophobia. That we don't realize the real origins of so many of these chants is the very definition of normalizing.

It wasn't until I re-watched "The U" and "The U Part 2" that I realized I had been doing a "Tomahawk Chop" for two years. The Tomahawk Chop is mostly associated with Florida State football and the Atlanta Braves, but it has also infiltrated Goggin's culture without the larger racial context to the point. Even I had no idea the motion I performed at hockey games was anything other than the way we pointed at people until I saw the image recontextualized.

When we talk about oppression in sports, often the overt use of slurs or violence is brought up as an example.  And while those things certainly happen - see Kobe and Joakim Noah and the story of Dalton Maldonado - the reality is that sexism, homophobia, and racism are woven through the very fabric of sporting culture, affecting all of us, and often within our subconscious.

Sports create an important pillar of any town, state, university and national culture. When a team wins the sectional championship in my hometown, the fire department does a lap of the entire town while the locals stand outside and cheer. After a university or professional team wins a championship, there is a parade. The way we have constructed sports as a society centers masculinity as essential for their perceived goodness. This particular kind of masculinity means big men, big muscles, big hits, and big dunks. The emphasis on what I will name as hypermasculinity, determines the definition of athletes and the norms and behaviors to which they must ascribe. These values become the status quo, reinforced with every cheer, image, and discussion about sports.

Amy Schumer's satirical expose of rape culture in football demonstrates this perfectly.  In a coach's desire to address rape culture within the town's football team, he bans the players from being able to partake in the practice. The crux of the issue comes at the end of the clip. In an effort to pump up his team to play better he says:

"How do I get through to you that football isn't about rape? It's about violently dominating anyone who stands between you and what you want. You've gotta get yourselves into the mindset that you are Gods. And you are entitled to this! That other team isn't just going to lay down and give it you! You've gotta go out there and take it!"

What Schumer exposes is the tie between hypermasculity, rape culture and football. This connection extends beyond football to include hypermasculinity in sports broadly and the effects on anyone who deviates from the rules set forth by this culture, whether that is through sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression. The sexist and sometimes racist elements of sports culture are not separate from the conversation about LGBT equality in sports, rather they are central to it.

We have Romanticized masculine sporting culture, bathing ourselves in nostalgia to dull the pain of the negative effects this can have.

Harbaugh's recent essay exemplifies the desire to maintain the status quo through Romanticism and an emphasis on "character building."

"That's why high school football - and particularly high school coaches - play such a vital role in our society. Our football coaches are on the front lines of the battle for the hearts and minds of the young men in our society. The culture war is on and we see it every day. These young men are more vulnerable than ever.

"How many youth and high school coaches serve as a father figure to their players? How many mothers look to the coaches of their son's football team as the last best hope to show their son what it means to become a man - a real man? More than we'll ever know.

"Coaches teach our young people the lessons of life that very often they learn from no one else. Coaches have the kind of influence in our schools, and with our young people, that is difficult to come by."

What in the world is a "real man"? Simply by naming one perception of manhood as "real" or "authentic," Harbaugh gives credence to the notion that there is something fake, faux, or not real about certain men.

This is why Michael Sam is not playing on an NFL team, and other NFL players won't come out. This is why Derrick Gordon is still the only publicly out player in Division 1 men's basketball. This is why no one has taken Jason Collins' proverbial place in the NBA. This is why female athletes are already assumed to be queer.

This is why it can feel like we have made so much progress and simultaneously feel the crushing weight of the remaining distance.

Sometimes I think it's easy to lull ourselves to sleep with the idea that we simply have to police language and condemn anyone who says something that is "out of line." The heart of the matter, however, rests in the pervasive nature of oppressive attitudes.

Harbaugh is right about one thing, this is a culture war. And it requires all of us to look inside ourselves to see the ways in which we are perpetuating the very culture we purport to fight against.

Katie Barnes is a writer, activist, and contributor to Outsports. They have been active in LGBTQ+ organizing since college, and continue that work through serving as the Network Director for GO! Athletes, the President of the Campus Pride Advisory Board, and collaborating on special projects with various members and organizations of the LGBT Sports Coalition. Katie is currently finishing their M.S. in Student Affairs in Higher Education at Miami University (OH). You can follow Katie on Twitter at @katie_barnes3, or email them at Katherine.e.barnes@gmail.com