by Bob Andelman
Former Chicago Bears offensive tackle
Football -- like funny car racing and hardware stores -- is one of those things men can only truly enjoy with other men. Women don't get it and men honestly don't care if they ever do.
"I'm sure it's healthy to have enjoyment away from your wife, have a few beers with your friends," Shawn Cahill says. "On Sundays, in the fall, football is that outlet."
Part of the reason is traditional socialization; sports are for boys, playing house is for girls. That ancient view, of course, predates women athletes such as Manon Rheaume stopping goals for the Tampa Bay Lightning's farm team and Lynette Woodward slamming backboards to the tune of "Sweet Georgia Brown" for the Harlem Globetrotters. And certainly the ranks of women who enjoy watching sports is growing enormously. But it's just these breakthroughs that cause many men to rebel and try to re-fortify the remaining male-only domains against further female incursions.
For their book, Sport, Men and the Gender Order: Critical Feminist Perspectives (Human Kinetics Publishers), sociologists Dr. Don Sabo of D'Youville College and Dr. Michael Messner of the University of Southern California interviewed many former athletes about their subsequent careers in the white collar world. One man wasn't adapting well to his new boss -- a woman. He had never been supervised by a woman in the workplace before and he wasn't handling it well.
"Let me put it this way," the man told Messner. "A woman can do a job as good as I can and maybe even be my boss but I'll be damned if she could go out on the football field and take a hit from Ronnie Lott."
When all else fails, men will still reduce the battle of the sexes to a question of brute force.
"I think that is partly what football does for men today," Messner says. "It provides them with a place even if they can't play football. If you had seen this guy you would have realized he couldn't have taken a hit from Ronnie Lott, either. Nor could most of us. I couldn't and wouldn't want to. A very small proportion of men could actually do that. Symbolically, what that provides to a lot of men in this day and age is a certain kind of symbolic proof that there is this place where men are clearly superior and different from women. Whereas in all other aspects of our lives there are women moving into positions of power and authority."
Jeff Spear, a Los Angeles-based comedy writer for The Tonight Show, admits to letting go a little aggression by watching his Denver Broncos have at it.
"I see Steve Atwater taking some guy out and I react to that," he says. "If it's a really good clean hit you tend to have some feeling for the guy that he just laid out. You have to be very impressed and amazed at the prowess of this huge guy. I'm not delusional that I want to wear a Bronco helmet and bounce off the walls. I'm just more impressed that basically someone can get away with doing that without being arrested."
Men watching games with other men -- and without women -- create a masculine space, not unlike an adolescent's treehouse or fort.
One of the observations that Messner and Sabo make in their book is that during the 1960s and '70s, a lot of men viewed and participated in football as a masculinity ritual. As a cultural spectacle, football somehow reverberated with more traditional notions of what it means to be a man in American society.
Football players were caricatures of comic book masculinity. They were the guys who succeeded and who got the girls, the guys who literally and symbolically embodied masculine adequacy, bravery, courage, aggression and strength.
Football acted as a passion play for men, but the passions that were being enacted had a lot to do with patriarchal cultural traditions and notions about what makes men and why men are superior to and different from women.
"The socio-cultural backdrop for this was that it was the '60s, where changes in the marketplace in the division of labor between men and women really became noticed," Sabo says. Sabo's specialty is gender relations in sport. "Women participated in the work place; men's roles in families changed. Gender changes had been unfolding since before the turn of the century. But it was in the '60s that we really began to notice the in-your-face changes in men's and women's lives. You had the emergence of the modern women's movement. Women were actively questioning the traditional scripts that patriarchal custom had laid out for them. The cheerleader roles, the wife/mother role, the political subordinate/housemate role. I think men were shaken to a certain extent by the women's movement and intimidated by it. They had no real discussion that enabled them to analyze the changes in their lives that feminism provided for women.
"There was no men's study in the '60s and '70s," Sabo says. "What happened in the '80s however was a shift in the cultural core of meanings inside ritualized football. The shift was from gender images to what I call meritocratic images. In the '60s and '70s, football players carried their image in their bravado and biceps. By the end of the '80s the football image was being carried in $370 Italian leather attache cases that contained the fat contracts that players had gleaned from the business of professional football."
The imagery surrounding male athletes shifted from comic book heroes to million-dollar, muscle-bound dynamos. In the same way that football ritual masked and belied the realities of men's lives in the '60s and '70s, football players got harder while regular guys -- emotionally and interpersonally -- got softer. Football players got richer while many other American men got poorer.
Football as the American Dream Machine for gender or economic images remains constant. But illusions fostered by the game shifted.
That's one of the things we get from entertainment: illusion.
"That is one of the explanations for the success of sports bars," Sage says. "Guys can go with their friends, have a few beers in the presence of a bunch of other guys doing the same thing and watch the games. Or they can have a couple of their friends over to watch."
"I'm sure there is a certain amount of truth in that," Jeff Spear says. "There tends to be a certain . . . I don't want to use the word 'bonding' because it's a dumb '90s term but there's a certain clique you fall into when you are watching football with your friends and it's very easy and it's relaxing."
Bars have carried sporting contests via radio and television since Marconi's day. But sports bars put the two concepts together with Madison Avenue marketing glitz and gee-whiz satellite technology to create multimedia sports menageries. Imagine a place with dueling twin 60-inch projection TVs, dining booths with their own 60-channel sets and more TVs everywhere you look. A red L.E.D. SportsTicker display with the latest news and scores. Attractive women in day-glo, silky short-shorts and suggestive, bodice-gripping T-shirts serving hot and greasy snacks and cold beer. Plus electronic darts, pool, video games and 3-on-3 mini basketball courts.
They're great for making new pals for a few hours.
• "We scream and yell for the same things," Barry Dreayer says. "I start conversations in sports bars. We find unbelievable bonds -- a passion for the Raiders or Gators. When that happens, I feel like I'm at a stadium."
• "I'm more myself, more vocal with the guys," Atlanta entrepreneur Neil Wiesenfeld says. "We do things, say things guys do. We'll scrutinize every play. Criticize. 'Oh! Why didn't they get open?' We try to be critical; we want our team to do well. 'Third down and short yardage -- wouldn't a screen be great?' We may do that with the women, but we watch our language. You can be a jerk with your friends. When you're with strangers, you're more reserved. When you get with your friends, you're more excited. Most people, by themselves, don't high-five themselves."
Yesterday's ultimate guy-getaway was Hef's castle. But Hef is ready for Social Security. The place to go in the '90s is a sports bar.
"I have noticed that if you are watching football in a group there is a whole lot more talk and noise than if you watch it by yourself," Messner says. "There is obviously drinking with some men -- that might raise the excitement level or just bring down some of their inhibitions -- but my sense is that a lot of men just prefer to watch football games with other men."
Dr. Stanley H. Teitelbaum agrees. "I think a lot of men feel that only another man could really understand the game in depth the way they do," he says. "They might enjoy having the company of their spouses watching the game or going to the game but it is a different thing. It is not the same thing as sharing it with other guys."
Sports and the way men view and talk about sports serves to separate men from women. It functions to exclude women from certain institutions like workplace culture and so forth. Away from stadiums and home perches in front of the TV, males use sports in the office culture as a sort of a bond; sports talk is the glue that holds men together. It's a way that men massage their relationships with each other in workplaces; "lubricate" their relationships might be a better way to put it. Lots of women have experienced this as a way that men exclude them. Whether or not men intend to use that to exclude women, it is experienced by women that way.
Even men who are not hardcore football fans may use pigskin chatter to escape female counterparts in the work place.
Women don't care as much about it as men. Men would be just as willing to watch the game with a woman who was as knowledgeable and involved as they are but that doesn't tend to happen.
Football is a place where men know that they are physically superior to women. But it's also a place where men of all sizes, shapes and physical abilities are basically equal when it comes to sitting and watching a game side-by-side. I'm not going to take a hit from Ronnie Lott but I can be equal to the guy sitting next to me who maybe played a couple of years in college and understand the game as well as he does.
Strength. Muscle. Brute force. Raw power.
Men still dominate most institutions in American society but women have made inroads and many men now work in places where women are peers and even bosses. Some men are threatened by that.
A foreign visitor would also see the aggressiveness of American society and the fans getting turned on by the violence. Sack says that can be traced to the American frontier.
"Rugged individualism, violence and competitiveness has made us a great nation," he says. "But I think some of that has spilled over into negative qualities, like young men who are taught to never accept no for an answer, and young men who are taught to be incredibly aggressive in football. This is pounded into your head. Never give up. To be a winner, you have to give 110 percent. Never accept the possibility of defeat. Physically push until you dominate the other side. I'd be surprised if this didn't in some cases spill over into male/female relationships."
Young men who are taught to be so aggressive and never take "no" for an answer may not understand the need for sensitivity towards another person, male or female. Sack says that someone trained to never accept "no" for an answer could apply that to social situations. If a woman says "no" to a man conditioned to never accept that word, they could both be in trouble.
"I don't want to lay this mainly on young athletes," Sack says. "Date rape is more universal in its scope. But it is a possibility that the socialization we give to young males through sports like football may lead to a tendency toward what might be perceived as rape. Certainly going a little further than they should go and not listening to someone when they say, 'No, no no! I don't want to do this!'
"If you went into a locker room," he says, "written all over the walls you'd see little things about what it takes to be a real man, disparaging women. When I was playing, if you were not doing well they called you 'pussy' for not hitting hard enough. If you got hit a little late and were not willing to go back and smash somebody in return you were called a 'sissy' a 'woman' or a 'girl.' That has been part of the game."
These are our culture's great motivational tools. And the reason they work is because we still hold up the idea of being violent and aggressive and dominant as the primary values for young males. We hold that to be passive and sensitive, intellectual and introspective is sissy and girlish. So if you take a young man who has been in that kind of environment and attack and accuse him of being less than aggressive, then he is less than a man, less than a human being. It will goad him.
"There was a coach who was sanctioned or reprimanded recently because before a football game in Texas he brought a cow or bull in and castrated it in front of the team," Sack says. "There's all kinds of symbolism there."
It's not like we Americans invented all this. The game seen as the most male-dominated in British society is rugby. The degradation of women is part and parcel of that. "To this day," Sack says, "if you go to a party after a rugby match, there are these lewd post-game singing and male-bonding rituals that they have that are sexually explicit and violent, humiliating and denigrating for women. I never felt football was quite that bad but football does have those kinds of tendencies I think. It is all male."
That's the bad news. The good news is that most of us respond to football because it reinforces our masculinity in healthy ways. It gives us a chance to revert to simpler times when the most important things in life were getting picked first to play football and being home in time for dinner.
"It's rather interesting," Sabo says. "There is this idea that masculinity has become an imitation without an original. In other words, it's an illusion that doesn't have any base in reality any more, so for many men pursuing or worshipping the cultural icons of masculinity is akin to walking -- with great deliberation -- toward a mirage."
Dubious? According to Sabo, a sporting goods manufacturers association surveyed 20,000 American households in 1991 and found that women had become the leaders in the most popular fitness activities, including aerobic exercise, bicycling, calisthenics, exercise with equipment, walking, running and swimming.
Whereas men are much more publicly and culturally identified with sports and fitness, the reality is that they are less actively involved with fitness activities. And whereas women are more culturally associated and defined as physically passive and less athletically inclined, they are, in fact, more apt to participate in these activities than their male counterpart.
Sports tend to celebrate the kinds of ideologies that men grow up with and associate with masculinity. Football emphasizes and celebrates dominant forms of masculinity. It provides men with an activity around which we can relate to other men and in the process celebrate our own commitment to a dominant forms of masculinity.
Sports emerge in ways that reinforce the distribution of power and privilege in a society. Sports take resources in order to be organized and staged. The people who are most likely to have those resources are obviously privileged people within a culture. On a very general level, sports have emerged in ways that reflect the values and experiences of men because men have traditionally controlled resources. Sports, then, reflect the interest of particular groups of men: those with a disproportionate share of economic power.
"The whole notion of sports celebrating kind of a meritocracy as well as masculinity is something that is very important here," Coakley says. "People with power and privilege in this society are very interested in promoting the idea that we live in a meritocracy and that people who are successful got there because they deserve it."
Problems arise because men grow up surrounded and confronted by all these forms of competitive sports but don't raise any kinds of critical questions about them. We just accept them as part of our culture and nature. They're fun, they're entertaining. They're a turn-on. We like them best because we don't have to think much about them.
Football and hockey are seen as men's sports where you take a hit. Soaking up the physical agony of contact sports represents the ultimate in manliness. Playing with pain is encouraged, not chastened. In fact, fans get really obnoxious about players who won't take a hit.
"I remember when I was in college," Dr. Edward R. Hirt says, "Tony Dorsett was in his heyday and a lot of people ragged on him big time, saying he was such a pussy because he ran out of bounds and he would never take a hard hit. In reality, any of us would do the exact same thing. We don't want a 275-pound lineman crashing on us. And we certainly wouldn't want six of them to do it. You'd run out of bounds too, if you weren't going to gain any more than half a yard."
But for some reason football fans all get like that. We really admire the guys who go in a game, hit hard and swallow a hit. If our guys are victims of illegal or late hits, we bully them into fighting. Our guys, if they're real men, won't take any shit off your guys.