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Culture: Confessions of a Bad Sport

Sport promises the thrills of aggression without the consequences. In many ways its pleasures are comparable to those of pornography.

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No man indifferent to sports can keep this quirk hidden for long. Men are expected to share a certain obsessive interest, even expertise, on the subject. Invariably someone--often a complete stranger--asks the nonfan what he thinks about an upcoming game, how he assesses the local team's performance, whether he thinks such-and-such a team was right in trading so-and-so.

My own indifference to sports has become something of a running joke among my male friends. But it's also something more than a joke--as I realized when O.J. Simpson was arrested for murder. Simpson had never been a hero to me: he was simply a former sports star who'd managed his affable, TV-friendly personality and bland good looks into a second career. I was as riveted by the media spectacle as anyone else, but I would have watched the events of that strange Friday night with as much fascination if it had been Roseanne Arnold, Mother Theresa, or even Henry Kissinger in the backseat of that Bronco.

But when I mentioned that I was actually considering writing about the Simpson case to some male colleagues, who up until then had seemed to look upon my sports-free life mainly as a harmless quirk, they were alarmed that an outsider would attempt such a thing. I was intruding on their turf, and they closed ranks: they assumed that whatever I wrote would be, in some horribly misguided way, an attack.

I had obviously hit a nerve--and their reaction hit a nerve with me. When I was younger, my ineptitude in sports earned me a great deal of abuse. I did my best to fit in, and I wasn't an utter failure; I never had to face the humiliation of being the class spaz, the boy picked last for a team. (My precarious position didn't teach me much tolerance, of course: I looked down on the spazes as imperiously as any jock.)

But my lack of enthusiasm was nonetheless seen as a failure of masculinity; worse, many boys took it as a challenge. Being a brainy kid didn't exactly help. And so they took their revenge on me in the cruel and direct ways boys have--they taunted me, harassed me, and on occasions too numerous to mention beat me up.

All this came back in a flash when I tried to explain to my colleagues that I was not planning a tirade against something they regarded as important. What I would write, I assured them, would be pretty harmless. I didn't share their particular passion, but I was willing to indulge them in it so long as they did not, a la George Will, claim for it any specious nobility. My attitude was live and let live; so long as they did not proselytize, I would leave them alone. I have my own inscrutable passions--bad television, house music--and so I understand something of fanhood.

But my friends could see through my protestations: there is a part of me that looks down on the culture of sports, that sees the endless invocations of sports heroism as a kind of special pleading. I don't see much in the way of nobility: I see groups of men knocking into each other; I see grunting, drunken fans; I see anxious yuppies trying to revitalize their sagging manhood vicariously. I see the bullies who picked on me as a child--and my current contempt serves as a kind of revenge. After all, I've learned to channel my aggression, using it to give my writing verve and passion, and they can only find release for their anger in the meaningless rituals of pickup basketball or the even more meaningless experience of fanhood.

It would be nice if I were able to maintain this Olympian hauteur for more than a few moments at a time--though I suspect it might make me an insufferable bore. But I can't. For in some ways I still look upon the culture of sports with a certain envy--it's a club to which I can never belong. And it's not as though I've been able to remain oblivious to sports. I don't watch sports, but I've been watching sports culture all my life. I couldn't avoid it if I tried; it fills up my field of vision.

I don't hold out much hope for a nonviolent reformation of sports. Those who have attempted to give sports a "sensitive" veneer, keeping the physical excitement while removing the violence and competition, have not been notably successful. Indeed, noncompetitive sports seems a contradiction in terms.

I learned this the hard way. As a teenager in the late 70s I was briefly interested in a fad called "New Games," post-Aquarian sports designed to appeal to aging hippies and their unfortunate children. A meandering, pointless game called Earth Ball, involving groups of people lofting huge orbs randomly about a field, was especially popular with the under-ten crowd and with those vaguely uncoordinated "children of all ages" who had trouble connecting with a ball smaller than they were. For the older participants there were games of trust and touching that seemed mainly excuses for group gropes.

Even the self-selected participants in these activities--who were usually as sensitive as all get-out--found it hard to maintain their enthusiasm. As we all sensed, there was something missing. And that something was the very competition--the aggression, even the violence--that had been so carefully removed. It was rather like having a tuna-salad sandwich without the tuna.

If reform is impossible, is revolution the way? I'd have to say no--I'm somewhat startled to realize that I don't have much sympathy for the most strident critics of sports, those who campaign against sports as they might against toxic waste or child molestation, and with a similar fury. In the wake of O.J. Simpson's arrest, for example, Mariah Burton Nelson, who wrote The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football, lamented in the New York Times what she sees as the inherent dangers of a male sports culture that glorifies male dominance and trains men "to hate women." She quotes former Phoenix Cardinals quarterback Timm Rosenbach, who told a reporter after quitting football, "You go through a week getting yourself up for a game by hating the other team, the other players. You're so mean and hateful, you want to kill somebody. Football's so aggressive. Things get done by force. And then you come home, you're supposed to turn it off? . . . It's not that easy. It was like I was an idiot. I felt programmed. I had become a machine."

But the argument that sports culture breeds monsters is as specious as it is seductive. Nelson's assumption that the culture of sports is intimately tied to the violence inherent in contemporary American manhood seems right, and like her I wouldn't miss the culture of sports much if the culture of what she calls "manly sports" were to vanish overnight. I'd like to think that it would take the evils of the world with it. But it wouldn't. The American man's preoccupation with sports is more a symptom of his aggressiveness than a cause of his aggression.

To an outsider, the ritualized warfare of football appears simply bizarre: the phalanxes of massive men advancing their front lines; the caricature of masculinity that is the football uniform, exaggerating shoulders and chests; the quasi-military language. But these rituals of aggression--and the rituals of other sports--resonate deeply with American men.

In her thoughtful if sometimes misguided book Men, Women and Aggression, sociologist Anne Campbell describes the differences in the ways men and women experience aggression. "Women see aggression as a temporary loss of control caused by overwhelming pressure and resulting in guilt," she writes. "Men see aggression as a means of exerting control over other people when they feel the need to reclaim power and self-esteem."

Women tend to store their anger, she argues, and release it only when the frustration becomes unbearable, in what seem to them irrational, unjustifiable outbursts. But men take a certain pride in their aggression, telling stories of fights and other angry encounters with a certain relish. "For women, the aim is a cataclysmic release of accumulated tension; for men, the reward is power over another person, a power that can be used to boost self-esteem or to gain social or material benefits. For women, the interpersonal message is a cry for help born out of desperation; for men it is an announcement of superiority stemming from a challenge to that position. For women, fear of aggression is a fear of breaking relationships; for men it is a fear of failure, of fighting and losing, or of not being man enough to fight at all."

Campbell has quite rightly recognized that aggression has radically different meanings for different people, but she's wrong to assume that one kind of aggression is male, another female. I know that I've experienced aggression in both ways, and I suspect many others, both male and female, have done the same. I learned when young to associate anger with the loss of self-control and have always regarded my own aggressive tendencies with a degree of shame and horror. Yet at other times I take pride and even pleasure in my own aggression--besting someone in an argument, perhaps, or finishing up a particularly spiteful book review.

This conflicted experience, I suspect, is what leads so many to the ritualized solution of sports. Sports are not, as Nelson and others argue, an outlet for unchecked male aggression: the whole point is that the violence is controlled. I suspect this is sports' key appeal. Real-life aggression has consequences, from bloodied noses to broken relationships and much, much worse. Sports--for voyeurs and participants alike--promises the thrills of aggression without the consequences. It allows its fans to experience violence in what Campbell calls an "instrumental" way--to enjoy their own aggression as a positive force, without the guilt that would accompany its expression in the real world.

In many ways the pleasures of sports are comparable to the pleasures of pornography. Porn promises sexual gratification, even a specious intimacy, without the complications and terrors of real-life relationships, and sports provide an arena in which aggression can be not only imagined but indulged in without remorse. Both sports and pornography (appealing mainly though not exclusively to men) play on fantasies of power and omnipotence, on the pleasures of voyeurism, on the primal thrills of physical contact.

Like the aficionados of porn, sports fans are not looking for surprises: they know what gets them off--the rush of speed, the crash of conflict, the thrill of violence. And so sportswriting is as limited a genre in its way as smut, rehashing a few basic descriptive formulas, a limited set of stock metaphors, varying only a few adjectives here and there to provide the illusion that the writer is saying something new. When Hunter S. Thompson sat down to write his account of the 1974 Superbowl for Rolling Stone, he had a wonderful revelation: there was no need to write a lead, he could use one from the previous Superbowl. He pulled the clipping out of his file and retyped the same words on a clean sheet of paper, changing only the names of the teams: "The precision jackhammer attack of the Miami Dolphins stomped the balls off the Minnesota Vikings today by stomping and hammering with one precise jack-thrust after another up the middle, mixed with pinpoint-precision passes into the flat and numerous hammer-jack stops around both ends." It was the perfect lead: hyperbolically grand, vague enough to apply to almost any game, violent enough to disguise its vagueness, and sexually suggestive.

Of course, the violence doesn't always remain on the page: critics are not entirely wrong to see a connection between violence on the field and off it. Though in some ways sports provide a harmless outlet for violence, in other ways they reinforce the instrumental view of aggression, encouraging the notion that aggression can be useful and even pleasurable. And clearly not everyone can tell the difference between life on and off the field: some sports figures, caught up in their own glamour and power, may find it hard to believe that their aggression has consequences in the real world. Thus O.J. Simpson, thus Mike Tyson, thus Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.

Different sports reflect different ways of dealing with aggression: there are degrees of sublimation to suit nearly every taste, from the ritualized warfare of football to the genteel competition of golf. In boxing, the brutality is so honestly and nakedly personal that the sport achieves a certain grandeur, a grandeur lacking when violence is more carefully disguised or surrounded by ritual. Perhaps this is why the sport has drawn the attention of so many fine writers, from novelist Joyce Carol Oates to journalist A.J. Liebling. "A boxer, like a writer, must stand alone," Liebling wrote in The Sweet Science, a collection of essays on his favorite sport. "A fighter's hostilities are not turned inward, like a Sunday tennis player's. . . . They come out naturally with his sweat, and when his job is done he feels good because he has expressed himself."

Reading a writer as enthusiastic and eloquent as Liebling on sports makes me wish, at least for a moment, that I could share some of the committed fan's enthusiasms. But in the end my antipathy to sports runs deeper than any twinge of envy. Sports has never been for me an arena of self-expression; it's always been associated with failure and humiliation. Perhaps I'm being unfair, but I don't see heroes when I look upon sports figures--I see overgrown children. I see those who tormented me when I was young, and I'm glad I've found a way to escape their clutches. For me to root for them would be a form of masochism.

Some sports commentators revel in the crude, adolescent energy of the players with whom they so clearly identify. Others, perhaps feeling a bit of embarrassment, attempt to give sports an air of nobility. In the wake of O.J.'s arrest, we were treated early on to many stock invocations of Great Tragedy. Indeed, the cliches multiplied so furiously that even the sportswriters began to grow tired of them. In the Baltimore Sun, Ken Rosen affected a tone of cynical weariness. "Another fallen hero," he sighed. "Another day in sports."

Any invocations of sports glory ring false to me--as false as the tortured attempts, in the early years of World War I, to lend nobility to trench warfare through the elegant euphemisms of poetry. It's striking: those who have wished to dignify sports have often portrayed them as a kind of exalted warfare; those who have wished to dignify warfare have described it as sport. As historian Paul Fussell notes in his classic The Great War and Modern Memory, it was hard to separate the two during World War I. To the British in particular war was a great "game," to be approached with the proper "sporting spirit." By the same token, those who did not "play by the rules"--like the Germans, who sprayed their opponents with deadly poison gas--were denounced as poor sports.

But lofty sentiments about sports seem to me inherently absurd. Why should sports figures be considered heroes? I can understand some of the appeal of a good game. But I can't understand why it matters who wins. Like most forms of nationalism, team loyalty leaves me cold. I can't imagine anyone being as emotionally invested in a local product as sports fans are in their teams. I don't root for the local papers to win the Pulitzer; I don't get into fistfights defending Chicago-style pizza.

I can be as truculent as anyone when it comes to defending my tastes. And as aggressive. For years I assumed that my rejection of sports meant I rejected aggression. But no one can do this--and no one should want to. There is a value to aggression, properly controlled. There's something disturbing about men's movement gurus who suggest we do away with it in favor of a "post-masculine" sensitivity--as if banishing aggression from our conscious mind would erase it from our unconscious.

Clearly there's something pathological about those who take their frustrations out on others in acts of violence; but there is something destructive too about an excessive sensitivity. Those who pretend never to be angry are not being honest with others--or with themselves. The most sensitive are often the most frustrated--but they are also often the most frustrating, given over to manipulation and subterfuge, to elaborate if passive acts of destruction and self-destruction. "A battle which is fought through inauthenticity and hypocrisy by concealed blows and mutual treachery looks very much like a game," Germaine Greer once noted. And this is a sport no one needs to play. There are costs to aggression. But we should also recognize the costs--to our dignity and the dignity of others--of forever holding ourselves in check.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.

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