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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Chapter 2. Boy's Life

by Bob Andelman

 "When I was a young kid, the reason I had favorite teams -- the Cowboys, Raiders and 49ers -- was that I liked their colors or their helmet logo."
Kenton Blagbrough
Textbook buyer
Boston University

American boys of 7 or 8 find football everywhere they turn. Dad studies the game on TV every weekend. He shushes Mom so he can hear the scores and watch highlights on the late news. Or he's trying to coax a son into playing catch in the yard.

"Put your fingers across the laces. That's the way Jim Kelly throws those long spirals. Don't worry -- your hands will get bigger! You're going to be a quarterback when you get to high school, I just know it. Won't that be great?"

Maybe the family piles in the car to see an older brother play the game for a high school or college team. Mom and Dad wear atrociously matched school colors with hats that feature the team mascot. Young boys can't see anything but ants running back and forth, knocking each other down, but even that's hypnotic.

Away from the house, teenagers play the game in the electric utility's right-of-way field under the crackle of damp power lines. The kids scream at each other. They curse and laugh. Sometimes it looks like fun. Sometimes it looks like a fight will break out.

If the boy watches long enough or often enough, he'll be invited to play when somebody goes home or gets injured. If he's lucky, one of the older kids will take him under wing and tell him exactly what to do, not having time to explain all the things he shouldn't do. For reasons of size alone, he'll get knocked on his ass a few times, roughed up. If he paid close attention from the sidelines, he'll know not to cry when he's hurt, no matter how badly. That's the first rite of passage. Even if the tears well up, he'll need to return to the huddle. If he breaks down, his place in the neighborhood picking order will be set for the next decade.

That's one of the earliest reasons why we love football. It's part of who we are as kids, who we want to be as adults.
* * *
In North America, men are taught early on to watch and play football. It's easy to relate to the guys on the field because so many of us have played the game.

Dr. Seppo E. Iso-Ahola, a University of Maryland sport psychologist and co-author (with Brad Hatfield) of Psychology of Sports: A Social Psychological Approach, says some men may even experience a "pleasurable kinesthetic stimulation" as spectators.

A what?

"A pleasurable kinesthetic stimulation," he says. "It has to do with movement. If you perform certain movements, that is kinesthetic stimulation. The point is that men (who) know the game well have this ability to relate to the performers and as a result of when they are spectating they are likely to have this pleasurable kinesthetic stimulation."

Would this be part of the reason that most women do not share men's devotion to football?

"It is definitely part of it," Iso-Ahola says. "Fewer females obviously play this game when they are little girls and that is one factor that explains why men have more interest. For example, men who hunt and fish frequently did the same thing when they were very young. It is a carry-over effect."
A running back sweeps the left end in a high s...
Studies have shown that roughly 50 percent of the leisure activities we do as adults go back to those we learned in our early years. The other half is learned when we become adults. In that light it's easier to understand why men would be so much more into football. We play early on and never stop watching.

Men watch sports because of the identification process that takes place early in our development. Dr. John M. Silva specializes in performance enhancement and aggression. He says sports are usually the first social institution that young males -- and, more increasingly, young females -- come into contact with in which they are able to get the kind of attention that is usually reserved for adults.

"There really aren't very many other social institutions where a 7- to 10-year-old can get publicity in a local newspaper," Silva says. "They get their name mentioned on a local radio station and develop a degree of status amongst their peers, their parents, their teachers and significant others."

Early on in many a boy's life, sport becomes his primary socializer and it provides him with an anchor, a strong image with which he can identity. There is no other institution, perhaps outside religion, to provide that anchor for such a young child. Other social institutions don't have the same kind of impact that sports and religion do.

"I think that's why sometimes sport is compared to religion," Silva says. "They are both very powerful socializers and they both create very strong identities in people who affiliate with them."

A lot of youngsters succeed at a lower level of sports. It creates expectations and they tend to aspire to the higher levels of competition -- high school, collegiate and professional.

The attrition rate is not bad in the first couple of years of sport participation. It's not until the age of 11 or 12 that coaches and parents see a lot of kids dropping out. They get a good four or five years of socialization in sports and start aspiring to a higher level. They don't know whether they could even play in high school at that point but they see other people playing in high school and college and professional sports and they tend to start modeling themselves after these people. They develop a keen interest in what they do, what types of moves they have and how they play the game. An identification bond and an information-seeking takes place.

Another rite of passage comes as the levels of play become more intensely competitive. The games are still fun, but they require hard work and long hours, too. A teen realizes, "Geez, I'd like to continue playing football but I've gone from starting on my Midget team to 29th man on the junior varsity team." Some teams carry everyone who wants to play; others introduce kids to the survival of the fittest. Young men see reality gaining on them from behind in the form of bench splinters. They're not going to play on the high school varsity team, be the team captain, get a football scholarship or write a humble speech to accept the Heisman Trophy at the Downtown Athletic Club.

"I think if the disengagement is somewhat gradual and the child sees it coming, often times they will try to move into another activity," Silva says. "But they may develop an even stronger bond to the sport that they were rejected from."
Football is a club where men are always welcome.

Retired Oklahoma sportswriter Volney Meece grew up surrounded by football. He lived in a small town in northern Oklahoma and it was the big sport there. "Oklahoma, like Texas, is very into high school sports," Meece says. "Football became the thing to do and to participate in if you could. I doubt if it had anything to do with impressing women or girls. It was just a manly sport."

One of the real emotional hooks of football is that it was one way males established relationships, sometimes the main way. This is particularly true of relationships between fathers and sons.

"Watching sports, going to a game, is a way for some men to recreate some of the feelings they had as a child, going to a game or watching a game on TV with their father," says Dr. Michael Messner, a sociologist at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles and author of Power at Play: Sports and the Problem of Masculinity (Beacon Press). "For some males, doing something related to sports was the one arena in which they felt some closeness with their father consistently. That creates an emotional basis throughout the rest of their lives for some sort of connection with sports. It also creates a motivation to use sports to connect with other males, be it their own son or their male friends."

As boys and teens, males discover it is gratifying to achieve and master football skills and play the game. It is a fun game to play. Then, when they get to be older, whether they consciously recall it or not, that memory is there. You see some evidence of that when men watch a game as adults. They tend to watch the player in a position that they played as a youth. There's a little more focus, some sense of vicarious participation. They feel comfortable in being more critical of that position because they understand its mechanics. There is also some degree of vicarious re-enacting of the childhood experience of playing the game.

Dr. Bruce C. Ogilvie, a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at San Jose State University, says, "I think that very high on the list of reasons men watch football is to recapture and relive their early adolescent years and, through their identification and emotional participation, vicariously live out again this period of their life. For most of the men who have played football or been athletic, these sorts of vicarious satisfactions have very, very positive reward/effects."

University of Florida graduate/attorney Eric Berger and Dr. Rick Weinberg, a University of Michigan grad/clinical psychologist, link their college and college football memories very closely.

"Being at Florida was something that got in your blood," Berger says. "You can't believe, even at 34, the sense of closeness I have with a university that I haven't been to in 13 years."

"I still feel very much a part of the University of Michigan," Weinberg says. "When Michigan football games are on it helps me feel vestiges of my undergraduate days when a bunch of us would all go out and watch the games at Michigan Stadium. Watching the games again is an emotional bridge across to those old days again. It brings a lot of pleasure. There were fine friends and fine moments. A number of us will still talk to each other by phone before certain games. I had a buddy who went to another university that has a real rivalry with Michigan, so whenever Michigan plays Ohio State, he and I will call and exchange our loving insults."

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