How Athletes Influence Male Behavior
This is an Ideological Rhetorical Criticism written for a Rhetoric and Ethics class. It is analyzed based on guidelines laid out by Sonja K. Foss in her book, Rhetorical Criticism Exploration and Practice.
How Athletes Influence How Men Should Behave
People compete. People compete with siblings, for jobs, for raises. But perhaps the most instant example of competing in in sports. The two things are synonymous. Until recently, the NFL competed against the Patriots. Hockey players compete for the Stanley Cup. In the Olympics the best of the best compete for medals. Society remembers these important games (competitions); people remember when they’re teams win their first championships and they’re celebrated. The victors come to represent more—they’re heroes for the people who champion the team. In the Olympics, athletes that win medals are remembered, immortalized, and praised because they reinforce the idea that the US is great.
One of the most iconic examples of this is the 1980 US men’s Olympic hockey team. This group of amateur hockey players defeated Russia, the best team in the world, during the Cold War. It was the miracle on ice that united a country during uncertain times and convinced the United States that they too could outwit Russia. These men are infamous, written in record books, their story retold in movies. Perhaps the most famous person on the team was the coach, Herb Brooks. One night after a loss in an exhibition game, he made his players do “herbies” until all of them were debilitated and throwing up (Trivia).
How do these athletes serve as examples to those who watch them compete? This analysis will discuss how a speech given early in this team’s Olympic run exemplifies how athletes define how society expects men to act and respond.
I will be analyzing this speech according to the guidelines of ideological rhetorical criticism. The purpose of ideological rhetorical criticism is for critics “to discover and make visible the ideology embedded in the artifact…[and] seek to explicate the role of communication in creating and sustaining an ideology and to discover who interest are represented in that ideology” (Foss 242). A critic identifies the rhetorical strategies that are used in an artifact that allude to different ideologies. By grouping the strategies, the critic is able to show what stereotypes the speaker employs in order to receive the desired reaction. An ideology is a pattern or set of ideas, assumptions, beliefs, values, or interpretations of the world by which a group operates. This analysis will deal with masculism: the promotion of attributes—opinions, values, attitudes, habits—regarded as typical of men and boys (Previous).
The 2004 movie Miracle, directed by Gavin O’Connor and staring Kurt Russel as Herb Brooks, retells the story of this infamous team and the miracle on ice. The movie follows the conception of the team, their struggles to win games, and their eventual triumph. This speech in particular was given during the first intermission of their first Olympic game versus Sweden. It was show time—they had to win or tie to be able to move on and have a chance at defeating Russia. They were losing, and Brooks needed to get his players fired up. He specifically picks on two players: Rob McClanahan and Mike Eruzione. McClanahan played forward for the team and had sustained a bruise on his upper thigh. This speech convinced him to get back on the ice, which rallied the team. Eruzione was the captain of the team, the leader of the defeated men (Trivia).
An athlete must be strong. An athlete must be tough. An athlete must persevere. Hockey players in particular must be stronger, and tougher. Players finish games on a broken leg. Multiple players who played in the playoffs with torn ACL and meniscus. So, when Brooks enters the locker room where one of his star players is injured and his team is looking dejected. He reverts to arousing their aggression, their competitive spirit, and the expectations that surround them as hockey players.
Brooks could have walked in the locker room and calmly expressed his disappointment and that he expected them to do better. Instead he challenges them, their ability, and the things that define them. When addressing the injured McClanahan, Brooks yells “I want you to be a hockey player” (Eidenmuller). In this example, Brooks exemplifies how society expects men to not admit to pain. The phrase “crying is for girls” or “suck it up” is one that many boys are accustomed to hearing, athletes especially. There’s no way for them to get better, to achieve the goals they have set without pain. Brooks follows this insult with a worse one by calling McClanahan a candy ass or a cowardly despicable person (). This is a classic move to challenge masculinity. There is an immediate human need to not be a coward—to fight. Typically, men are not allowed not be afraid of anything: they confront their problems, conquer them, and become stronger than them.
Brooks makes sure that the words in his speech are not just empty threats. One of the very first thing he does when he enters the locker room is flip a table (Eidenmuller). This adds shock value, gets attention, speaks to the typical action of a man using physical violence to express frustration instead of words. Instead of establishing power through words and stuff, Brooks immediately, before any words are spoken, shows that he is in charge and they are at the mercy of what he wants.
Masculism is defined by traits that are stereotypical. Not every man acts only with aggression and independence and restricting emotions. When Brooks yells at McClanahan, Eruzione says “C’mon, Herb. Nobody’s quitting here” (Eidenmuller). A weakness that Brooks, like society, does not like in men and depicts him as weak or not worthy. Brooks then issues him a challenge to bring back the manliness: “You worry about your own game. Plenty there to keep you busy” (Eidenmuller). This challenge is intended specifically for Eruzione because, as the captain, his play is supposed to serve as an example for the rest of the team. So, in Brooks eyes and in the eyes of masculism, Eruzione should be the strongest of them all. He should not accept weakness or quitting from the other members of his team.
With all the appeals to masculinity, there is also a call to collectivism, or the principle of giving a group priority over each individual in it (Collectivism). The speech beginning with Brooks reminding them they are in the Olympics. The world is watching expecting things from them. It calls upon nationalism—these men remember watching the Olympics as children and wanting to play for their country on this stage. By reminding the men of the occasion of the game they are losing him, he reminds them that they are expected to perform and it’s up to them to change the outcome.
One could argue that the speech does not pertain to how society views how men should act and react. Brooks could just be a man who expected more than his players could give and was angry about it. But, the speech worked. These men embodied the usual male traits of violence, pursuit of achievement, strength, and aggression. After being insulted and challenged, McClanahan declares that he’ll “play on one leg” (Eidenmuller). At this point he has forgotten the pain, has abandoned the mentality that comes with being told by a doctor that he’s too injured to play. All of that is now masked by anger towards Brooks and a defiance to prove himself as enough of a man to go play hockey. Brooks knew that McClanahan would be fired up in the face of adversity because all men are. They need to be the best, they need to show their strength, and he can’t give Brooks or his other teammates a reason to believe otherwise.
This speech ends by Brooks proudly asks his assistant coach “think that’ll get them goin?” (Eidenmuller). Brooks knows exactly how men are conditioned how to act; he knows that this is heightened in the men that he coaches. Everything he did, to the degree of how he did it was to get a desired response. And he knows that he got the right response. He gave them a common enemy, something attainable to prove wrong. He understands that by challenging their ability and their existence as men representing the United States, he could rile up their anger that they can only channel by playing well.
This speech is effective in appealing to the masculism of the men on the hockey team. Additionally, the audience viewing the movie is also fired up. If the audience had become disinterested or discouraged with the team’s performance, this speech brought them right back into the movie want the players to prove the cruel coach wrong. It is especially impactful for the younger audience. Boys wanting to be athletes will look at how the men responded to this challenge, this call for fully embodied masculinity and think that this is how they should act if they want to make it to the highest level of their sport. Especially younger people who watch this and view these men as heroes this is how they think men should act. Additionally, this speech came from a fictionalized version of an actual event. The sentiment is the same, as the movie producers worked with the actual players to get the dialogue as close to what it was in 1980, but the screen writers still hand chose all the words (Trivia). So, men in 2004 still viewed the way men should act and react as people did in 1980. As they pass this belief on to the younger generations, it perpetuates the idea of what a proper man is influenced by athletes and has remained constant for a long time.
“Collectivism | Definition of Collectivism in English by Oxford Dictionaries.” Oxford
Dictionaries | English, Oxford Dictionaries, en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/collectivism.
Eidenmuller, Michael E. “Coach Herb Brooks: Address to Players During Olympic Hockey
Match Against Sweden.” American Rhetoric: Movie Speech from Miracle – Coach
Brooks Castigates U.S. Hockey Players for Poor Play Against Sweden, americanrhetoric.com/MovieSpeeches/moviespeechmiracle2.html.
Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice. Waveland Press, 2018.
“Previous Chapter Chapter 7: Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the
Construction of Gender Identity Next Chapter.” SAGE Knowledge,
“Trivia.” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/title/tt0349825/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv.