Simone Biles vs. Sports Culture’s Toxic Masculinity

Real athletes aren’t supposed to have mental blocks, or yield to physical injuries. They’re also supposed to be men.

Simone Biles is widely acknowledged as the greatest female gymnast in the world, maybe the greatest ever. She entered the Olympics as the favorite to win gold medals in several different events, to go along with the Olympic medals she already has. Instead, she pulled out of the team competition on Tuesday, and then from subsequent events as they became imminent.

Biles has explained that she is suffering from what gymnasts call “the twisties”, an unpredictable (and usually temporary) loss of “air sense”.

The twisties are a mysterious phenomenon — suddenly a gymnast is no longer able to do a twisting skill she’s done thousands of times before. Your body just won’t cooperate, your brain loses track of where you are in the air. You find out where the ground is when you slam into it.

Nobody knows whether the twisties are physical, psychological, or some combination of the two. All the gymnast knows is that some unconscious process she had relied on has stopped functioning.

Similar mind/brain failures happen in other sports, and not just to world-class athletes. Several years ago, I was playing a pick-up basketball game when the unconscious fine-tuning process that usually targets my jump shot went poof. I would leap, twist in the air to sight the basket, and then wonder “What am I doing up here?” as if I had never shot a basketball before. The next time I played, the unconscious process was back. Was it a mini-stroke? Something I ate? An emotional issue? I never figured it out.

In golf, this is known as “the yips“. One famous baseball case is the pitcher Rick Ankiel, who had started a promising career when suddenly he lost the ability to target his pitches. It never came back (but he did work his way back up to the major leagues as a hitter).

In most sports, the main risk of continuing on in spite the yips (or whatever you call them) is the embarrassment of failure. Golfer Ernie Els once six-putted from three feet out. I ended up flinging the ball at the basket with my conscious mind and hoping it would go in. The result was pretty much what you would expect from someone who had not spent hours and hours practicing shooting until it became unconscious.

But I can barely imagine the terror of a gymnast, upside down in the middle of a flip, when the unconscious process fails and she thinks “What am I doing up here?” That’s a life-threatening situation.

So Biles was absolutely right to pull out of the competition and face all the resulting disappointment and criticism. In some ways, that took more courage than just going out and hurting herself. I wonder how many other gymnasts would have invented some invisible physical injury — a groin pull, say — rather than be honest and deal with what Biles has been subjected to this week.

Reaction to Biles’ decision was not, strictly speaking, political, but it did tend to break along liberal/conservative lines.

Following superstar gymnast Simone Biles citing concerns of mental health after shockingly pulling out of the women’s team competition, a number of conservative media figures and pundits attacked her on Tuesday for supposedly being a “quitter” and “selfish sociopath” who had brought “shame on her country.”

Conservatives do love to attack Black athletes — going after LeBron James, Steph Curry, Colin Kaepernick, etc. was a go-to move whenever Trump wanted to rally his base — and they also have problems with strong women. (There’s a reason why Kamala Harris gets targeted more viciously than Joe Biden.) But I think this particular case is less about racism and sexism than hyper-masculinity, which holds that will-power and “character” are supposed to blast through mental difficulties and even physical injuries. (See Curt Schilling’s “bloody sock game“.)

The idea that you’re supposed to play hurt and risk more serious injury is one important piece of football’s concussion problem.

Unfortunately, due to [toxic masculinity], many concussions go unreported, or mishandled as a result of the athlete playing it down, pretending it didn’t happen, or simply not knowing that they actually have a concussion.

White male NFL quarterback Andrew Luck took a lot of grief for retiring young, in spite of this clear explanation.

For the last four years or so, I’ve been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab, and it’s been unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and offseason. And I felt stuck in it, and the only way I see out is to no longer play football. It’s taken my joy of this game away.

Lacking a race or gender stereotype to beat Luck up with, Fox Sports’ Doug Gottlieb chose a generational smear:

Retiring cause rehabbing is “too hard” is the most millennial thing ever #AndrewLuck

Gottlieb has also criticized Biles, but resents CNN characterizing him as a “white male talking head”. He has claimed not to be a Trump supporter, but googling “Doug Gottlieb politics” led me to a series of conservative-leaning opinions.

Toxic masculinity is not a purely conservative problem, but there is a high correlation. (One much-admired Trump trait is his “strength”, which mainly manifests as a stubborn refusal to admit any mistakes.)

Biles’ decision was more-or-less the opposite of toxic masculinity. She faced reality, and admitted that she is not always as she would like to be. In the world of sports, that was a heresy of high order.

So like any heretic, she had to be denounced. If you happened to be conservative, the opportunity to dis a strong Black woman was just a bonus.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • EFCL  On August 2, 2021 at 12:44 pm

    Before withdrawing, Biles performed a multi-twist vault in warmups. You only need look at the video tape of that vault to see the exact moment when “the twisties” struck. Just after the first twist is complete, while she is still mid-air, her head drops to her chest. Momentum carries her on, but the landing is – in layman’s terms — terrible. Doug is right on here: pushing through on a golf course is very different than launching yourself into the air and not being able to control how you land from heights of 10 feet or more. I’m sure that most of us are disappointed at not seeing her perform, but not disappointed that we didn’t witness a tragic injury. And besides, the other American women stepped up grandly!

  • ADeweyan  On August 2, 2021 at 5:06 pm

    I read a book called “Lessons of the Locker Room” (Andrew W. Miracle, C. Roger Rees) 15 years ago or so that covers this sort of attitude. This takes a hard look at what is actually being taught by High School sports in the US. Highly recommended.

  • ecjspokane  On August 2, 2021 at 5:11 pm

    And Simone Biles’ dropping out when she had a problem performing at her very best opened the way for at least three other US gymnasts to win medals, including gold. And it isn’t over yet!

    Toxic Masculinity, OTOH, is destroying much of civilization, and has done so throughout history.

    Take care.

    Eric Johnson Spokane, WA

  • Maikeru Barentain  On August 2, 2021 at 9:13 pm

    The late Mike Royko of the Chicago Tribune once wrote a column about the Chicago Bears player Dick Butkus. His knee was so ruined that his wife had to pull his trousers up for him, but he continued to play at a maximum level. Not sure if links are allowed here but I’ll try:

    • Maikeru Barentain  On August 2, 2021 at 9:14 pm

      To clarify, I’m not citing that as a positive. He was lied to by his team doctor and forced himself to power through a serious injury, no doubt due to the (toxic) masculine standards of the time and the sport.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: