boys and their sports

I realize that for some people, Thanksgiving and football go hand in hand, but I had long forgotten about the days in my childhood when my father and brother had to leave the table to watch the Cowboys game.

Having lived in Spain last year, this was my first Thanksgiving in 2 years, and I was reminded of the whole Thanksgiving/football thing when my brother disappeared upstairs for 3 hours.  I joined him for the 4th quarter of the game and at one point, when someone was tackled, my brother yelled out, “Oh  man, he NAILED him!” There was so much glee in his voice at seeing the opposing team member taken out.

When my family left, I turned on my computer and saw the unexpectedly high number of Facebook statuses related to football.  Does this ring any bells? “This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for Jason Garrett.” 

And just today, I watched the season finale of World of Jenks that I had recorded on Monday and in this episode Andrew Jenks follows Herschel Sims, an Abilene High School football star.

In case you don’t know me, you should know that the only sport I have ever made time to watch has been soccer during the World Cups, and even then it doesn’t tug at my heartstrings like it does for some people.

I understand enjoying playing sports, but I have never understood the fascination with watching sports, especially those with lots of downtime like football and baseball.  What is it about sports that appeals to people, especially men?  Why was my brother more expressive watching football than he ever is in conversation?

My answer to this question cannot explain women’s interest in watching sports (and I’m always unjustly tempted to say that women only like watching sports because it makes them more attractive to men and/or because it strengthens their American identity) but my experiences over the past few days have led me to believe that sports is one of the few socially acceptable outlets men have for emotion.

Obviously some men are more expressive than others (and I would argue that these men tend to not like watching sports anyway) and men certainly do not walk around like robots. But the enthusiasm, dedication, and passion men express for sports are frequently unrivaled by any other personal interest.

Having one thing that you can indulge in, both psychologically and verbally, is a lot of fun. Perhaps it makes you ‘feel alive.’ Passion is exhilarating. And maybe you fantasize about yourself being down there on the field, which would also be a rush.

More so than women, men are taught that emotional control is a virtue. Our world revolves around rationality and men are rewarded when they act accordingly.

Sports balance out this imposed constriction. Sports offer the opportunity to express an alternative yet equally valued masculine ideal: the strong, impulsive, dominating man.

In this post-industrial world, sports is pretty much the only chance men get to feel that way.


Next Thanksgiving, I’ll be thankful for sports’ allowing men to be men, which is, ultimately and antiquatedly, what I as a woman want.



*As a side note, sports playing gives men much more physical contact with one another than social norms allow for everyday life.  I don’t think that means that football’s homo-erotic. I think it means that men have that impulse to physically dominate one another, but in the modern world that impulse is hardly ever necessary on a personal scale, so it ends up being play-acted in sports. I think it also means that physical contact is something that all humans need and want, and if sports provides an appropriate venue for that desire, it makes sports more appealing.



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2 responses to “boys and their sports

  1. Sean

    As an enthusiastic sport fan and also someone who incessantly overanalyses things, I think I’ve come to slightly different conclusions (for the record, the women close to me – nanna, mother, sister – are all sport fans too, and women make up nearly half the crowd at the matches of my favourite sport).

    Being invested in the outcome of sport contests is a bit absurd and meaningless. I think the Onion put it best – “You Will Suffer Humiliation When The Sports Team From My Area Defeats The Sports Team From Your Area”. Sport is artificial contests testing who can succeed following arbitrary rules that have no external consequences in the real world.

    This is why it’s attractive, even though intellectually we (most of us) know it’s “just a game” and doesn’t matter.

    It’s not just that it’s an outlet for emotions, per se, but it’s the clarity and purity of the elicited emotions. In the real world, you don’t have clear cut victories and defeats very often, there’s always grey areas, nuance, subtleties.

    Life is complex and confusing and it’s often hard to know precisely what to feel even at the high and low points. You get a promotion and that makes you happy, but you have to move and there’s trepidation about the extra work and loss of free time. You get married, start a family, it’s exhilerating and terrifying. Your grandfather dies, but he was old and at least his suffering is over. There’s never just one clear-cut emotion attached to any situation.

    Sport isn’t like this – it’s a simplified and straight-forward binary feed of emotions. Australia wins the rugby match, you’re happy, Australia loses, you’re sad. You get a clear result, you win or you lose (or draw, in cricket or soccer). In between game-days, you experience hope and anxiety and so forth, but always with the knowledge that a resolution is coming.

    I think this also explains the off-field elements of fandom as well as the visceral thrill of actually watching the contest, ie, why people are interested in statistics, debates about teams and chances and rules, details of player movements, all that more esoteric stuff which can’t be explained by the thrill of the gameday result.

    Sport is a self-contained and comprehensible system which provides a steady flow of safe and harmless experiences and emotions. Ie, sport is precisely what life itself is not.

    • throwinginthetowel

      Very interesting, Sean! I hadn’t thought of that.
      About the women/men thing–yes, I know women like sports, too, but I really think there is not a 50/50 gender split in overall sports fandom, which is why I was postulating a male-specific theory.
      But I really like what you say about sports being appealing because it’s clearcut/winners-losers/competition/drama. That aspect is much more satisfying than life, at least superficially.

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