And Mckeown, M. (2012) a critical exploration of using football in health and welfare programs: Gender, masculinities and social relations. Journal of Sport and Social Issues. 36(4): 387-409 A

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Spandler, H. and Mckeown, M. (2012) A critical exploration of using football in health and welfare programs: Gender, masculinities and social relations. Journal of Sport and Social Issues. 36(4): 387-409


This paper offers a theoretical exploration of the growing trend in the UK to utilise football (soccer) practices and ideas in various health and welfare programmes, primarily as a means of engaging men. Drawing on critical mens health studies; pro-feminist critiques of sport; and the notion of hegemonic masculinities, we survey the ‘field of play to elucidate the perils and possibilities of using football in health and welfare programmes. We theorise gender as a social relation, inseparable from the way that football operates as a contested and gendered space. We outline the way that football acts as a means to re-assert, but also to reconfigure, dominant gender relations and hegemonic masculinity. If health and welfare initiatives are to use football to address welfare issues, then the paradoxes of football, masculinity and health need to be taken seriously when these initiatives are developed and theorised. We propose the idea of football welfare programmes as potential paradoxical spaces’ where participants might be able to consciously reflect on the conflicts and possibilities of using football as a vehicle to improve welfare.

Key words: hegemonic masculinity; soccer; health and welfare; gender studies; feminism.


There has been a recent public health policy and practice trend in England to use football (soccer) to address what has become a key social issue, the engagement of men in health and welfare programmes. As we are currently evaluating one of these initiatives (a football and mental health programme) we wanted to think through some of the wider implications of this trend. We are specifically interested in examining how this trend might mirror, reproduce or even challenge prevailing gender relations, both on and off the football field. As such, this

paper is a theoretical exploration of some of the potential perils and possibilities of using football to ‘engage men.

We suggest that these football initiatives represent both the potential to tackle the thorny issue of a relative lack of engagement of men in constructive reflection on their health and well-being. However, they also raise the peril of uncritically reproducing damaging constructions of gender and inequalities that are not unconnected to mens health outcomes and other social problems. Hence we describe these football interventions as being potentially paradoxical’ social spaces and argue for future practice and evaluation to be better informed by feminist and other critiques of gender relations. This could result in locating gender relations more central to their ethos, content and associated inquiry.
We suggest that understanding the use of football to engage men requires a gendered approach which is thoroughly and consistently ‘relational’ (Connell and Messerschmidt,

2005). Gender is not a given but constantly performed, negotiated and contested, in relation to men and women (Connell, 1995). Masculinity, in particular, is to a significant degree constituted in mens interaction with women’ (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005, p.850). In other words, constructions of masculinities are inevitably bound up with constructions of femininities: one does not make sense without the (real or imagined) opposite other. As a result, a thoroughly relational approach to gender means taking seriously ideologies and practices of oppression. In turn, this makes it impossible to ignore womens experiences while studying men and masculinity (McKay et al. 2000, p.5). By extension, if ‘engaging men’ cannot be separated from gender as an embedded social relation, then the practice of using football cannot be understood in isolation from wider social relations either.
Therefore, in order to understand the implications of using football as a vehicle to engage men, we also have to appreciate the role of sport, and football in particular, in reproducing the prevailing gender order. We develop the well-established idea in pro-feminist critical sports studies that football plays a paradoxical’ role in reproducing dominant social relations (Gatz et al. 2002; Messner, 2007: Keane, 2009). Football, in other words, operates as a contested territory where spatial arrangements of domination are produced, maintained (and

sometimes resisted) through sports-specific practices such as ‘chantingi (Caudwell, 2011a)

and ‘football talk’ (Nylund, 2004). We will argue here that initiatives that use football in welfare programmes also need to be seen as contested gendered spaces.

There are many examples of attempts to use sport as a vehicle to address wider social issues as a potential medium for progressive social change. For example, the humane and democratic possibilities in sport’ (Connell, in Messner, 2007, p. xi) have been used to advance human rights and promote greater participation (Guilianotti, 2005) and some sports stars and athletes have been involved in political activism (Kaufman and Wolf, 2010). In addition, campaigns have also developed to challenge the emergence of racism and homophobia within football cultures, for example, in initiatives such as Kick Racism out of Football’ and The Justin Campaign’ in England (Caudwell, 2011a).
This paper, however, specifically explores the potential implications of shifting gender relations for welfare initiatives that use football to engage men. We begin by exploring the rationale of using football as a means to involve men in health and welfare contexts. The next section addresses how football has historically operated as a site for the assertion and re- assertion of hegemonic masculinity. The following section looks at how football has operated as a site for the reworking and reconfiguration of masculinities and gender relations. The penultimate section explores how football initiatives might be used in positive ways to undermine dominant gender relations and, as a result, improve the health and welfare of both men and women. We conclude with some thoughts about potential ways forward.

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