I admit it. I don’t carry my weight in the company of men. I don’t discuss sports.
For most men, talking sports is as basic and natural a transaction as watching TV, tossing back beer or going to the toilet. It’s a universally understood way for strangers to structure interactions, for friends and family to build bonds.
I only wish I could be involved in the dime-store philosophizing, the displays of technical sophistication, the vicarious passions of virtuosity, victory and defeat. There is a sweetness to this tradition of caring so much and so artfully about something that matters so little. There is a sense of belonging that better men than I have long embraced.
The extent to which sports mean nothing to me measures my alienation from my gender and my culture, but I can’t help it; when talk turns to the most fundamental bond of our fraternity, my overwhelming response is tedium.
Though friends know this, and usually give me wide berth on sports topics, strangers naturally assume I’m in the club. That I look like a paunchy ex-grad student gives no hint of disqualification. Men who never caught a ball on less than one bounce are no less eager in their sports talk than the most gym-hardened jock.
This means I spend a significant part of my life maneuvering around the issue. Confined spaces such as elevators, where athletics conversation can’t be escaped, make me panic. Taking a cab is likewise like rolling the dice. The proliferation of immigrant drivers has eased the pressure some, but even they quickly learn to discuss the score, any score.
Going into bars is asking for it, so I work hard to keep to myself. As for that ultimate haven of maleness — the barbershop — my first concern is not the hair cutter’s skill but his reticence. Even at home I have to hustle, jumping for the remote whenever a coach or player is going through the hundredth iteration of why they won/lost.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m don’t feel the need to obstreperously express disdain for all sports. When I can, I pretend knowledgeability to head off embarrassing silences and spare others discomfort. When that fails, I diffidently explain that I don’t follow the activity under examination.
And if pressed, I point out that it’s not the playing that bothers me. I go to a baseball game every other year or two, after all, and if necessary I can even admire the athletes’ prowess in the final minutes of a basketball playoff.
The problem is the baggage that has long since smothered the play. Call me stubborn in my refusal to get interested, but I have better things to do with my leisure than surrender it to the commercialized, banally competitive, jargon-ridden, overexposed, overbearing domination that sports exercises over our culture.
I do resent it that so much of my society’s time, money and attention is consumed by something I don’t care about. I do resent it that even close friends become droning pod people when sports comes up. I do resent it that sports talk serves as such a casual superstructure of exclusion for so many men in the office, the tavern, on the radio, or wherever.
But mostly I just hope for a crumb of reciprocity. I don’t assume you want to hear my thoughts on, say, the use of bottle caps in folk art [Well….], so perhaps you could back off when your concern for some quarterback drains the life from my face.
In the meantime, the only haven is across the gender divide where, sex-role stereotyping be praised, sports talks intrudes only rarely. Subjects like shoes and child-rearing may not be my favorites, but even at its most retro, thank god for the company of women.
This essay was the one time I wrote for a newspaper sports section, the Chicago Tribune, August 14, 1994, under the headline, Give Him A Sporting Chance. The only point worth adding is that I now make exceptions for watching two kinds of sports — soccer (thanks to my daughter) and the Olympics.