Manly Motives: Pickup Basketball at Ram’s Head Gym
No Girls Allowed
The glass door that sections off the basketball courts of Ram’s Head Gym ought to have two signs: one reading “Hold your breath” and the other labeled “Males Only.” When I first walked into the court area, I felt isolated from the world around me — partially because of the nauseating smell of foot odor, but also because I was the only female in the room. On one side of the glass door, men and women use machines and weights to work on their physical development. On the other side, the basketball courts serve as their own domain, where the players are overwhelmingly male and they voluntarily compete with one another. The physical glass door thus corresponds with a cultural divide between pickup basketball and the remaining gym activities.
This male-only activity in an otherwise co-ed campus led to my investigation of the role masculinity plays in pickup basketball. The use of physical aggression, verbal hostility, and athletic wear all contribute to an individual’s experience in this activity.
Ball is life
In order to observe this activity, I visited the indoor basketball courts of the Ram’s Head Recreation Center at the University of North Carolina. I conducted three sets of 45 minute observations throughout a one-week period. Each observation took place during the recreation center’s busiest time frame to ensure that there would be players to observe and a variety of data to collect. As a female observing a male-only activity, I prepared for each observation with the intent of minimizing my impact on the culture of this activity. I put on my longest athletic shorts, high-top sneakers, and a T-shirt each time I visited the gym. I even brought along male friends and occasionally played with a basketball on one of the empty courts to avoid drawing attention to myself. I pretended to be on my phone or taking a water break while I awkwardly observed the players from the sidelines. In addition to studying the players from a distance, I conducted interviews with five of the players to learn how gender affects basketball culture.
Take it like a man
Basketball is a physically demanding activity. For most of us, the mere idea of changing into workout gear and walking to the gym may seem like too much work. But the students who do find the motivation to play a game of pickup basketball don’t just play to play; they play to win. Physical aggression is a defining characteristic of pick-up basketball culture. I observed how each player pairs with someone from the other team, chases him across the court, and uses physical contact to block attempted shots and steal the ball. When asked if any actions would signify taking the game too seriously, a player stated that “as long as no one is trying to permanently hurt someone, anything goes” (personal communication, October 28, 2016). Although playing basketball does not require inflicting pain on opponents, players embrace this behavior as an acceptable part of the activity as long as the injuries are only temporary.
In her book, The Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics, and the Culture of Sport, Burstyn argues that “many of the specific forms and actions of sport, and the idealizations of sports culture, are characterized by hypermasculinity and surplus aggressiveness” (1999). The idea that stereotypical male behaviors, such as strength and aggression, define sports culture explains why men incorporate physical aggression in pickup basketball. As one player eloquently stated, “getting hurt is a part of the game and you have to take it like a man” (personal communication, October 28, 2016). The young men use this activity as an outlet for physical aggression to separate the men from the boys. Actions that would be considered inappropriate in most environments are welcomed here with open arms (literally).
Walking the walk & talking the talk
Another fascinating part of pick-up basketball is ‘trash talk,’ which is when players use insulting speech to intimidate or humiliate opponents. In pick-up basketball, these insults allow players to assert their masculinity. When asked how he felt about trash talk, one player replied, “It’s all in good spirit. You’ve got to get in a guy’s face and say something to get him off his A-game. If he’s man enough, he’ll probably say something back” (personal communication, October 28, 2016). This attitude occurs on and off the court. Even during water breaks, colloquial phrases such as ‘you’re some trash’ and ‘step your game up bro’ dominate discussion. Both phrases negatively reflect on a player’s skills but are socially accepted as humor. I observed the players respond to insults with smiles, laughter, and even high-fives. Verbal hostility is not only frequent, but also a surprisingly enjoyable part of the game.
In a study on school boys, Kehily and Nayak “observed humor as a style drawn upon by young men to consolidate heterosexual masculinities through game-playing, story-telling and the practice of insults” (1997). The idea that humor is a defining part of masculinity helps to explain the significance of trash talk in pick-up basketball. To an outsider, trash talking might seem unnecessary, but the young men who participate in the game consider insults to be a fun and important part of the activity. These males, or rather, men, prove their masculinity by walking the walk and talking the talk.
On most days, you won’t see me wearing sweat pants to a church service or a tutu to a job interview. Like most people, I instinctively conform to the styles society associates with each activity and situation. On the basketball courts of Ram’s Head Gym, the players were of no distinctive race, religion, or age, but they shared an unspoken dress code. Almost every player wore athletic shorts that covered their knees, t-shirts with athletic labels, and Nike sneakers. One male participant stated that “guys have to look the part to get respect from other players on the court, especially if they aren’t the best” (personal communication, October 18, 2016). Compensating for performance through style to a player’s experience in this activity and how other men treat him.
Clothes are used to gain respect and a sense of belonging in the male community. Each element of the pickup basketball ‘uniform’ sacrifices functionality for a more masculine appearance. The length of the shorts confines a player’s movement, but they also hide some feminine curves. Sleeveless shirts allow players to show their muscular physique. Filiault and Drummond affirm that “clothes can help the men look good, perform well, or assert a masculine identity” (2009). The idea that clothing choices are associated with masculine identities helps to explain the role outer appearances play in this activity.
I’ll Make a Man out of You
As this ethnographic study demonstrates, masculinity plays a defining role in pickup basketball. Through physical aggression, verbal hostility, and fashion, young men conform to the traditional representation of the male gender. The pressure players feel to adapt to gender roles could alienate women, who feel they could never fulfill the status quo that society has established. Research on female participation in pick-up basketball has the potential to explain assumptions around sports culture and all gender separated activities. It could force us to recognize the gendered nature of these activities and to question the traditional exclusion and marginalization of females from many sports. After hours spent in a smelly gym surrounded by sweating men, I’m still left with one question: How did Mulan do it?
Burstyn, V. (1999). The Rites of Men: The Rites of Men: Manhood, Politics, and the Culture of Sport. University of Toronto Press.
Filiault, S. M. & Drummond, M. J. (2009). All the Right Labels: Gay Male Athletes and Their Perceptions if Clothing. Culture, Society and Masculinities, 1, 177–196.
Kehily, M.J. & Nayak, A. (1997). “Lads and laughter”: humor and the production of heterosexual hierarchies. Gender and Education, 9 (1), 69-87.
 Interview Questions
- How did you first start playing pickup basketball and why did you continue?
- On a scale of 1-10, how serious do you think other players compete in a pickup basketball game?
- What are some things a player might do that would show that they are taking a game too seriously?
- How you do feel about trash talking during a game?
- Is there any standard of what to wear when playing pickup basketball?
- How do you think the way a player dress impact what the other players think of them?
- Why do some men take off their shirts when they play basketball?
- How does it feel when you do well in a game?
- How do players communicate on court?
- Are there any characteristics of pickup basketball here at Ram’s Head Gym that are different from other places you have played?