We Got Game

How Sports Took Over American Culture

Throughout its history, sports has been shaped by women, though not on the playing field. The rise of feminism in the late 19th century coincides with the emergence of most modern games. They were invented in an eruption of male anxiety. In America, the takeover of grade-school teaching by women led to fears of a "feminized" society so profound that sports was introduced into schools—but only for boys. In the 1920s, when the "new woman" met the jazz age, sports achieved its greatest cultural clout. In the 1950s, when fears of "momism" and the castrating women reached a fever pitch, so did America's preoccupation with guy games. Now, as women make a run at men where it really counts, in the pocketbook, sports has become a cultural obsession, a sensate consolation prize for men.

Of course, the thrill of sports has little to do with the inherent qualities of gender, whatever they may be. The phallic rush of playing ball is something everyone can enjoy, since it comes from projecting the body, not the penis, as a vector of agency and impact on space. To play the game, as Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex, "is to assert one's sovereignty over the world." Women deprived of sports, she writes, do not "dare to be enterprising, to revolt, to invent." They regard "the existing state of affairs as something fixed."

Perhaps men's instinctive sense of the game's power is why women have long been tracked away from team sports, and why those who play against guys are still so villified. We've set up sports as the primary ritual of masculine identity, the place where men can vent their feelings in each other's company; where fathers bond with sons, brothers pat each other on the butt, and God is so pleased he puts an angel in the outfield.

Sports, sociologist Michael Messner notes, "solidifies the male peer group as separate from females." This explains why homophobia is such a reflex of jock culture, and why the sports that women (presumably) can't play are so important in an era of female-headed households. Behind every rabid sports fan, according to this theory, lies a guy with a strong mother and a weak or absent father, clinging to the turf he wrested from the world of women, the ritual he associates with the passage from boy to man.

As for women who love jocks too much, perhaps there's an underlying sense that these are actually the neediest of men. In Play It to the Bone, both fighters are held together by their mutual girlfriend, who mitigates their anxieties about fighting and lovemaking. "Boxers are driven by enormous need," says director Ron Shelton, who has befriended many of them. "They are obsessive about fighting, obsessive about criminality, obsessive in their sexuality."

This is certainly true of the football players in Any Given Sunday, and even the coach Pacino plays. His fixation on the game has driven away his wife and limited his intimate relationships to prostitutes, so that he's left with only his hunger for the "purity" of the male preserve. As for Diaz's "unfeminine" owner, driven by identification with her dead father (who badly wanted a son, we're told), she gets her comeuppance, waylaid not just by the coach but by the entire power structure of football, represented by the consummate commissioner, Charlton Heston. "That woman would eat her young," he whispers after a patronizing encounter with Diaz, who learns that, however aggressive she may be, she cannot break through what Nelson calls "the cement ceiling."

Will that ever change? Quite possibly, but for now, the best Hollywood can do is acknowledge that the real contest—in sports as in life—is between the player and the system. This is the grand theme not only of today's jock operas but of sports itself, and it's the key to the current power of the game.

 


Sports movies used to be about all sorts of things: faith, friendship, struggle, aging, death. But these days they all tell the same story: men standing against the system. The imprisoned black champion in The Hurricane, the washed-up fighters in Play It to the Bone, Coach D'Amato in Any Given Sunday: Call them all Ishmael.

Why this fixation on the jock as rebel? In part, it's a trope of entertainment: The ass-kicking outsider is right up there with the loner as a prime symbol of the unrepentant American male. And the less functional he becomes in the world, the sexier he seems. As a poignant reaction to the conditions of ordinary life, his pose of resistance is the perfect romantic stance. It makes a great narrative, which the entertainment industry has been feeding off for many years.

But now that Hollywood is being blamed for everything from nose rings to Columbine, it's time to clean this bad boy up. What better way than to make him an athlete, tapping into myths that resonate with the culture's core. For nothing reconciles the agendas of the left and right like sports. Many a liberal is consoled by the belief that the game is ultimately about the outcast who overcomes, and many a conservative is coddled by the association of sports with an America where men and boys could bask in the glory of the home team. Because sports contains no predetermined plot, it can easily encompass both these scenarios. After all, in a fight or game, as Michael Messner writes, "power is always in play."

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