NCFM Member Nels Otto, Men and Sports
Click the picture to read The Scientific Reason Men Like Sports More Than Women – TIME
By Nels Otto
What is it with men and sports? Why do men like to play and watch sports? How do they differ from women in this, and why? What do they tell us about who we are? Let’s begin by examining the why from the past that got us to the point of associating interest in sports primarily with men.
Sports clubs, gyms, football fields, and basketball courts are in most neighborhoods. Quite a number of TV channels are for sports only. News broadcasts have a section specifically for sports. There are sports websites on the internet, and sports magazines and newspapers are widely available. This testifies that the interest in sports is strong. Although the first Olympic Games started in Greece about 2,800 years ago, the roots of sports go back much further, back to men’s collaborating and competing in hunting, warfare, and gaining access to females.
Lionel Tiger, Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University claims, “The basis for the majority of contemporary sports was the preparation for war.” To prepare for war individuals must be physically and psychologically tough. In this, war and sports are related. Tiger goes on to say that sports are basically a voluntary activity and “male bonding is the central organizational feature of sports,” also true in warfare. Before the invention of gunpowder, war relied on physical strength, running speed, agility, throwing and coordinated effort, as did hunting, particularly hunting large, dangerous animals. Sports, especially team sports provide opportunities to develop and demonstrate these skills.
Young men in ancestral human societies sought reproductive access to young women. Forming male coalitions to fight other men to monopolize access to women was one way. Through sports, they could demonstrate their physical abilities to their enemies and allies, and observe other men as possible allies or enemies to be avoided.
Being selected by fathers as husbands for their daughters was another path, physical abilities being a prime criterion. Watching young men in athletic competition was an important way to evaluate them and were also enjoyable to watch. This motivated young men to participate in sports and older men/fathers to be spectators. `
Going way back to early human evolution and pre-human primate communities, as the forests receded and living was less in the trees and more on tree-less savannahs, behavioral and physical adaptations took place. Tiger quotes Phyllis Jay, noting, “…that the major structural differences between langurs and baboons are directly related to the strategies and the means of collective and self- defense.” Langurs lived primarily in trees where social grouping isn’t as essential for survival as it was for baboons who lived on the savannahs. With the safety of the tree being no longer available, individuals banded together to defend themselves and also to hunt large animals.
The Savannah living environment strongly influenced primate evolution. Sexual dimorphism (two distinct forms of the same species) developed during this time 20 to 26 million years ago. The primate Australopithecus, 750,000 to 2 million years ago “displayed sexual dimorphism comparatively similar to that of Homo sapiens,” from John Napier in a personal communication to Tiger. Tiger says, “Social forms might have evolved to permit this creature to survive” and “may be part of the basis of human behavioral infrastructure.”
W.S. Laughlin writes, “…man evolved as a hunter.” He spent 99% of his species’ history as a hunter. “Hunting is the master behavior pattern of the human species—the organizing activity which integrated the morphological, physiological, genetic and intellectual aspects of the individual—and of the populations who compose our single species.” It involves commitment, correlates, and consequences spanning the entire biobehavioral continuum.
According to ethnographic records, men were the hunters and women food gatherers. Hunting requires episodic expenditures of time and energy, strength and speed; it doesn’t permit predictable time for child care. Lionel Tiger says, “To the extent that cooperative-hunting predominated, a significant genetic factor in selection was the group of hunters as well as individuals composing the group.” In reproduction, male + female ensured survival. In the hunting group, male + male + male ensured the survival of the species. The male-male bond was as important for hunting as the female-male bond was for reproduction. Male bonding (a uniting force or tie; a link) exists in all but two primate species.
“Male bonding among primates is defined as a particular relationship between two or more males such that they react differently to members of their bonding unit as compared to individuals outside of it, except for some unusual cases; males and females are not interchangeable.” In these “male bonds exist between dominant members of a troop or community of primates—the members of the dominant bonds –have sexual access to estrous females.” Receptivity by females to males in the dominant group but not to males in the non-dominant group led to reproductive success and survival of these females.
More thoughts from Tiger, “The development of cooperative hunting could increase the relevance of bonding for group survival by adding another dimension to its utility.” In other primates males and females get food in similar ways. The division in economic work was added by humans. It motivated big changes in the allocation of energy, time and loyalty in social behavior. “Bonding among most primates is a clear correlate of productive copulation.” “These impulses are probably more fully defined by biology than ideology.” Bonding is very important in team sports, to the players, and to spectators. Also of relevance is the frequent use of huntable animal names for male sports teams.
Developing ways to inhibit in-group male rivalry was very important. The ability to control motive expression at high levels of social excitement led to the enlargement of the human brain. This inhibition of feelings toward other males led to some fear of homosexuality and to inhibit the expression of feelings in heterosexual relationships. Suppressing feelings when hunting dangerous animals, and in fighting and defense, became encoded in the male genetic code over the millions of years of hunting history. Jean Decety, a social neurologist at the University of Chicago says, “Because groups had to compete for resources we are the most social species on earth—and also the most violent.—we have these two faces because these two faces were important to survival.” Hunting, fighting, and defense were and are dangerous life-threatening activities. Men risked and lost their lives so the species could survive. As Warren Farrell puts it, “Sensitivity to the death and suffering of boys and men is in competition with our survival instinct.”
Lionel Tiger writes, “Ceremonies of initiation reflect a pattern of unisexual selection for work, defense and hunting purposes.” These are tests “of the ability of the initiates to do the work of the males in the group without letting the group down.” Courtship serves as a similar function for sexual reproductive purposes. He goes on, noting that hunting was closely related to warfare, “That the same group of individuals performed both functions is significant.” Women participated by giving their approval to men in this group.
An interesting finding in the study of prehistoric, more primitive primates that resemble modern humans was that females throw missiles, spears, etc., with much the same motion of proto-humanoids. Human male’s throwing motion is similar to hunters spearing game. Males with this adaptation were better able to provide for and to protect their mates and their tribe. They survived and reproduced. As Lionel Tiger puts it “the survival value of this sexually differentiated adaptation is of the order of sexually differentiated reproductive adaptations.” Historically, running, tackling, throwing, and advancing were useful in warfare. Performing these, refined skills and strengthened alliances and made rivals think twice. Running and throwing were also essential skills for hunting.
Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show combined sport and entertainment, speeding the transition of horsemanship and marksmanship associated with war and hunting into sport and entertainment. As Tiger says, “Male team behavior and spectatorship is connection – representative, sublimative or direct to the hunting-male bond factor in the history of humans.” It starts early with young boys developing crushes for sports, military and other heroes. Girls have crushes, too, for female role models. In pick-up games organized by kids, boys outnumber girls 10-1. According to Jeffrey Kluger, scientists confirm, as brain structure and pre-natal hormone exposure are studied, that fundamentally, girls and boys are behaviorally different. Evolution plays a significant role in sports interest and participation.
In the mid-19th century, as the American Civil War ended, sports were considered unseemly, connected to the working-class, gambling and saloons. By the late 1800s, sports had transformed into a way to cultivate manliness and demonstrated the will and character previous generations developed through war or hunting. It promoted fitness, was entertaining and uplifting. Sports offered an escape from routine lives. According to Richard White, sports required organization, coordination, and direction and provided an outlet for competitiveness. From J.P. Pelosi, “Behind the media’s devotion—there’s a powerful subtext, a primal narrative in which the protagonists battle.” From Warren Farrell, “the unconscious translation of our team winning is our society protected.” It rouses something inside each of us. Sports are “entrenched more deeply within our popular culture than art, music or theater.”
Playing well makes a person feel alive and energetic. Expressing emotions at such a time is one of the few ways men have permission to do this. This is also true for watching sports. Farrell points out that one of the best things coming from sports games, winning and losing, is fairness, “A lifetime of practicing these rules gives many men a 6th sense of fairness.”
Most men’s sports attract significantly more spectators than women’s sports, particularly true of team sports. This is related to our evolutionary history. Groups of men hunted and fought to provide for and protect women; it is in our DNA. This is reflected in people’s preferences. The type of sports also makes a difference. There is little interest in men’s gymnastics and men’s figure skating, for example. Preferences in entertainment account for some of the differences in popularity and are reflected in pay differentials. Track and field, basketball, baseball, football get different levels of financial rewards. The best track and field athletes make less than most basketball players.
Some sports teams have loyal fans even if they have mostly losing seasons. Think of the New York Mets baseball team. When they do win, the suffering they went through to get there makes the victory feel even better. For the fans this is called effort justification, making sacrifices to pursue a goal makes the goal more attractive. We come to love what we suffer to achieve, resulting in loyal sports fans. Rather than no pain, no gain, according to Wertheim and Sommers, “…pain distorts our subjective value of the gain.”
One of the storylines in sports is a comeback from adversity. Some athletes are able to perform in spite of distractions or personal loss. Are they wired differently? In reality, they are no different than the rest of us. We all have that potential which is an inspiration for all of us. Sports gives us this lesson. As Wertheim and Sommers say, “We are more emotionally resourceful and resilient than we think.” Get back in there. The return to routine seems to help recovery.
One characteristic of people is to fall into us versus them mindset – sports teams, politics, ethnic origin, etc. By favoring particular groups, we form impressions and sense connections. These can be difficult to prevent or undo and can also have significant consequences. This is an evolved human condition which led to our survival. We feel strongly only about a pretty small group. From Tiger, “This is a process of clearly defining an enemy or prey as different from members of the in-group.—that members of the out-group are not really human.” Robert M. Sapolsky in describing brain activity writes, ”We have an often frantic need to conform, belong and obey; when we discover we are out of step with everyone else, our amygdalae spasm with anxiety, our memories are revised and our sensory processing regions are even pressured to experience what is not true… All to fit in.” These feelings and behaviors need to be respected and moderated in all aspects of our life. A current example of this is the negative attitudes toward men and negative portrayals of men in the media. Almost any behavior is justified towards members of the group “we” define as bad, behavior we would consider immoral if it were inflicted on members of our group. Wertheim and Sommers say, “Studies from across the behavior sciences have identified a veritable bias blind spot, a failure to recognize in ourselves the prejudices and ethical violations we so easily spot in others.” We favor the behavior of individual members of our own group. According to research, we can be equally sensitive to our own and other’s moral transgressions under the right circumstances, but consistent self-awareness is admirable yet unattainable for most of us.
Rivalries can lead to unethical and aggressive behaviors, but they also have great potential to increase effort and enhance performance. Gavin Kilduff, professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, in a study of competitive runners noted that “the majority said that having rivals motivated them to work harder and push themselves further.” The results are often unexpected. Wertheim and Sommers point out that “most rivals have the good sense to know that each is better off for the existence of the other. Something about having an opponent gets us to dig deeper into otherwise untapped reserves.”
The emotional strength of rivalries reveals itself is the pain we feel when our team loses and even more then when a rival wins. Bob Cialdini, psychologist, Arizona State University writes, “People appear to feel that they can share in the glory of a successful other.” When their team wins, it’s “we won!” Sports have an emotional draw for those of us who grew up playing and going to sports events. It is also an avenue for making social connections; distinguished from work relationships.
So what is it with men and sports? It started millions of years ago from our human and pre-human past. The skills and behaviors for hunting, defense, reproduction, and sports became entwined and encoded in our DNA. According to Roy Baumeister, men developed a fundamental need at proving who is better at doing things to make themselves more attractive as mates. It is different for men than for women, not in opposition, but in cooperation and working together.
Sports are related to hunting, fighting and defense. Men provided for and protected women. If we had evolved with women providing for and protecting men, we likely would have a greater interest in women’s sports than men’s sports. We are here today and are what we are, survivors of the men who provided for and protected women, and the women who supported and applauded these men in their efforts and chose them as mates. Sports show us our resiliency as human beings and our propensity to form groups and take sides. We enjoy sports today for entertainment, expression of feelings, demonstrating our abilities and developing and sharpening our skills and for players in team sports, a trusting and working together bonding. Sports engage us. They are part of who we are.
Equality between men and woman in sports and in other areas of life is a noble concept. Equality of opportunity is fair and just. Equality of outcomes for all things is an extremely complex, multifaceted matter and does not take into account the factors resulting in an outcome. Each one of these factors would have to be equal for things to be truly equal. It would no doubt result in unexpected consequences if it were possible, and would we even like the result? Selective equality in certain things like equal numbers of women in sports or science and engineering is not equality at all. Once you start selecting, equality vanishes and becomes more of gaining an advantage for a certain group of people, women, in this example. It is neither equal nor fair in the total picture. Should we be studying gender issues and try to make things better for women—and men? Of course, however, it must be done in a comprehensive and in-depth manner, studying both men and women and looking at the total picture, the whole system.
The lives of men and women with all of their learned and innate behaviors and sensitivities, with all their nuances and complexities, are inextricably interwoven, the result of millennia of successful living. Men are who they are today because of their responses to women’s choices and vice versa. They go together. If men are to change, women will have to change. If women do not also change, they will continue to support and reinforce the behavior they want changed. To do this, there are no easy, simple answers. What is needed is an in-depth understanding of the natures and interactions of men and women working together to make their experiences more fulfilling. Understanding the relationship of sports to our human and pre-human history can help us in doing this and has implications for many aspects of our lives.
Menelaus Apostolou, “Why do Men Play and Watch Sports?” Website of the Evolution Institute,
May 1, 2017.
Roy Baumeister, Is there Anything Good about Men? How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men, 2010.
Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, “The Science of Good and Evil,” National Geographic, January 2018
Chris Bodenner, “Why aren’t Women’s Sports as big as Men’s?” Your Thoughts. Atlantic.com. June 9, 2015.
Warren Farrell, Why Men are the Way They Are, 1986.
Warren Farrell and John Gray, The Boy Crisis, 2018.
Jeffrey Kluger, “The Scientific Reason Men Like Sports More Than Women,” Time.com. May 19, 2016.
Amy Lindgren, “Failure and Other Lessons Learned From Sports,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, February 28, 2016.
J.P. Pelosi, “Men’s Love Affair with Sports Across Time,” Website of the Goodman Project, March 21, 2012.
Malcolm Ritter, “Key to our Big Brains: Stress,” Star Tribune, Minneapolis, MN, June 17, 2019.
Lionel Tiger, Men in Groups, 2004.
Robert M. Sapolsky, Behave, the Biology of Humans at their Best and Worst, 2017.
Richard White, The Republic for Which it Stands, 2017.
Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers, This is your Brain on Sports, 2016.