Terrell Owens cried on national television. It was 2008 and he was defending his quarterback, Tony Romo, from scathing attacks by the press. He was not ashamed and nobody blamed him for getting emotional. He got ribbed a bit, but people mostly kept mocking him for dressing like Lance Armstrong while riding stationary bikes. New research suggests that there’s a cultural reason for this: Americans are largely accepting of men crying about teams and sports and significantly accepting of men crying over the birth of children or the death of loved ones. It’s an unexpected finding that no one who attended a Buffalo Bills-themed Super Bowl part in the early nineties would think to refute.
“It’s more socially acceptable to cry if something negative happens in sports that’s not performance related than when a family member dies or the birth of your first child,” Tommy Derossett of Murray State University, and part of a team of researchers studying how society perceives men crying, told Fatherly. Their as-yet-unpublished work confirms that society does not look fondly on male tears, in general—but that men are given wide berth to express their softer side through sports. In other words, men aren’t allowed to cry unless it’s over something serious. And, curiously, sports count as “serious.”
Men are socialized not to show their feelings (and hormonally inclined to cry less often than women), but, on game day, heightened emotion isn’t just acceptable—it’s expected. The reasons involve complex physiological, psychological, and social factors, but one thing is clear: This has been going on for a while.
Sports have constituted an alternate society, safe for male tears, since at least the Iliad, when Greek warrior Diomedes unabashedly wept over losing a chariot race. In Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears, author Thomas Dixon of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University documents men crying over athletics as early as 1956, when Olympic medal-winners started shedding tears freely. In modern athletics, crying Michael Jordan is literally a meme, Glen Davis cried after Kevin Garnett yelled at him, and Tim Tebow cries every time he sees the sun. One fundamental reason why it’s OK to cry over sports is because it always has been.
Scientific studies confirm that men crying about sports is universally tolerated. A small 2004 study in the British Journal of Social Psychology found that men were most comfortable expressing emotions like anger and grief in specific, rule-governed contexts, such as football games. A much larger 2011 study in the journal Psychology of Men & Masculinity asked 150 football players to evaluate footage of other athletes crying. The hardened athletes generally agreed that it was highly appropriate to cry after losing and, to a lesser degree, winning. They also found that athletes who were more approving of crying has higher self-esteem and performed better as a result.
As for why sports seem to push athletes and fans over the emotional edge, New York-based psychiatrist Gabriella I. Farkas, who has studied the topic, has a few theories. Adults cry via one of three different mechanisms—basal tears (for lubrication), reflex tears (to wash out irritants), or psychic tears (as a result of stress, sadness, anger, and the Super Bowl), she explained to Fatherly. That last category, reflex tears, is mediated by the limbic system. When the testosterone of a close game meets the limbic system, that can trigger a faux “fight or flight response”, which heightens emotions and potentially primes the body for tears.
“The interaction of emotion, stressful scenarios, and physiological enhancement commonly results in crying,” Farkas says. As for couch potatoes sobbing at every touchdown, Farkas adds that fans typically mimic their favorite athletes’ physiological responses, with their heart rates and hormone levels rising in concert. “They are so emotionally into the game that they feel like they are the ones playing,” she says.
Sports psychologist and author Jim Taylor told Fatherly that he suspects emotional contagion plays a role. People have evolutionary reason to cry when others (especially role models or trusted associates) are crying, because this is how early humans communicated threats before they developed spoken language. When the athletes on the field are bawling (due to testosterone meeting the limbic system), the fans are pre-programmed to join in. This is especially apparent among children, who Taylor suggests kids cry over sports because they see their dads and favorite athletes—their role models—do it. This signals that it’s OK to cry.
One of the most fascinating points Derossett and colleagues have added to discussion is that societal acceptance of Crying Jordans appears to be conditional. Their study of 118 adults between the ages of 18 and 44 found that men were the most welcoming of tears when a coach retired, when a fellow teammate was injured, or whenever something negative happened in sports that was not performance related. Call that the top tier of crying acceptance. Crying after winning or losing a game, however, is on a lower tier—about as acceptable as crying over a new baby or a death in the family. “If something terrible happens to you in real life and something good happens in sport life, it’s equally accepting of emotionality there,” Derossett says. Findings similarly showed that it was not acceptable to cry as an athlete if you personally caused the loss.
Wann adds that this may explain why even little boys are encouraged to cry when their teams wins, but told to “man up” if they sniffle after missing a play. Just like the pros, it’s OK to cry “not if you let the ball roll through your legs, but if you win the championship,” he says.
The real mystery is how sports, of all competitions, became a haven for sobbing dads. Why won’t society let men cry when they’re watching the Oscars—but actively proud of men who cry when the Cubs win? “These questions have not yet been answered by research,” Stephanie Shields of Penn State University, author of There’s No Crying in Baseball, or Is There? Male Athletes, Tears, and Masculinity in North America, told Fatherly.
It’s tempting to say that, since crying is healthy and men don’t have a lot of tear jerking outlets, there’s something intrinsically healthy about watching sports and getting into the game. But the fact that sports has, since ancient Greece, remained one of the only socially acceptable spaces for male tears is actually a symptom of a larger problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that nearly 77 percent of people who commit suicide are male. The fact that society narrowly restricts how and when men can feel free to express emotions could be part of the problem.
“I think there are healthier ways to connect with and express your emotions,” Taylor says, recommending that sports fans try to apply that level of emotional intensity to life events that affect them more directly than wins and losses, like becoming a father.
That means being comfortable enough to cry in situations that matter, Taylor says. It’s the difference between having the game on just so that you can allow yourself to feel something—and crying in the delivery room, over something you can actually take credit for.