Toxic masculinity is part of elite hockey. We need a culture change

This column is the opinion of Alexis Peters, professor of sociology in Calgary. For more information on CBC Opinion Sectionplease consult the FAQs.

I am extremely concerned about the allegations of group sexual assault by former World Juniors men’s teams and how they were handled. But am I surprised? Unfortunately no.

For more than two decades, I have studied the toxic masculinity of hockey and its effects on the health and well-being of high performance athletes.

My research was originally informed by being a registered nurse whose partner was a professional hockey player in a mid-level professional league. Seeing hockey life up close made me worry about the overall health of many players.

So when my partner joined a Danish hockey team, I enrolled at the University of Western Ontario to study toxic masculinity and its effects on men’s physical, psychological, and social health and well-being. I focused my doctorate on the health of elite athletes, particularly elite junior hockey players.

What budding hockey stars believe

To investigate how hockey’s culture of toxic masculinity affected athletes, I distributed questionnaires to several junior hockey teams in the Ontario Hockey League, measuring their attitudes toward hypermasculinity. These elite players, ages 18 to 22, scored significantly higher than my control group on the “hypermasculinity scale,” measured by three constructs: danger as arousing, violence as manly, and harsher attitudes towards sex.

Another unexpected finding is that they also scored significantly lower on emotional empathy. It is important to note that I was comparing these OHL junior hockey players to a group of young men who had not played hockey after grade 11.

I then concluded, and I still believe, that the culture of hockey needs radical changes to enable elite athletes to grow into healthy human beings. Simply changing people in positions of power, codes of conduct and zero tolerance policies are not enough.

Preventing many forms of violence – sexual assault, harassment, abuse, hazing, and initiation rites – requires a more comprehensive educational approach to changing the toxic attitudes that many athletes learn.

For example, I argue that one way for junior hockey to change this toxic male culture is to stop encouraging the concept that “real men play through pain”. This often makes it difficult for athletes to admit they are hurt or struggling with physical, psychological or emotional pain, especially towards other men.

The Code of Silence is real and players are driven to follow for fear of being ostracized by players or kicked off the team. The thought of possibly losing your dream and identity that you worked so hard for is not easy at any age.

For years, coaches and parents have accused researcher Alexis Peters of not loving hockey for offering educational workshops to improve hockey culture. (FotoDuets/Shutterstock)

Players learn this toxic masculinity and are rewarded for these behaviors at a very young age and by many people. Perhaps for this reason my research has met with much resistance from sports administrators, coaches, parents and fans. It’s easier to blame “a bad apple” than to accept partial responsibility for fostering a toxic male culture.

When I suggested a number of educational workshops and shifted the culture of hockey from toxic masculinity to one centered on the pursuit of excellence, I was often accused of not loving hockey and the sports. But believe me, nothing could be further from the truth.

I maintain that there are many positive life skills that can be learned by participating in sport, such as resilience, time management, and leadership skills. I continue to teach my research in all my university courses, and the student-athletes themselves have never put up resistance to ideas that others were hesitant to accept.

Many of these young men do not reach any intermediate professional league and end up with lifelong attitudes that can prove destructive to their health, such as low emotional literacy, the belief that they must suffer in silence, and a huge loss for their identity. My only hope now is that, out of this horrible situation, people will finally listen to the stories of many athletes with an open mind and make hockey a safe place for every child to pursue their dreams and passions.

While we all take some responsibility to help make hockey all the wonderful things it can be, I remain optimistic that culture change can prepare everyone – men and women – for a healthier life.

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