Men are aggressive.
I don’t care if I get in trouble for saying that. I expect that a lot of people, both male and female and others in between, will disagree, some vehemently. (And, as an aside, I have a number of words to say about what it means to be male, female, or somewhere in between on the ambiguous spectrum of sexuality and gender; more on that later.)
As I was watching the U.S. compete in the 2014 World Cup Soccer match, or Futbal as it should really be called, I started thinking about what makes the game so beautiful. And that got me ruminating about organized sports, which got me wondering why most men I know absolutely adore cheering on their teams, while most women I know are more, I don’t know, lukewarm about it.
So, I started with myself (a logical place to start, I think).
I’ve never been able to tolerate baseball because it strikes me as too slow; football is kind of fun but the men are all suited up in their armor and there is too much bashing around for my taste; hockey is about pummeling each other with sticks (too much fighting), although I remember cultivating a taste for it years ago when my baby brother laced up his skates for junior league matches. Sitting in the ice cold rink on a Saturday morning, watching the wobbly-ankled minions lean on their sticks while chasing that swift black puck across the ice, trying to herd it into the net– that was fun. At that time, my vague domestically-oriented interest in little league hockey carried over for a while into watching some professional games on T.V. But the fighting– primarily the fact that fighting seems to be condoned as an integral part of the game– I found off-putting. Watching the crowds get riled up as they encouraged their players to pummel each other did not hold my interest. In fact, I found it disturbing and distasteful.
Not that I don’t enjoy a good fight (verbal), but I believe there is a very fine line between good passion bleeding into bad passion.
So, we have a legitimate love of home and country but then we have Nazi-ism. We have admiration of a powerful and persuasive leader, but then we have devotion and fanaticism. We have the roar of a hockey crowd, but then we have emperors and bullfights and –what the hell?– throw a few Christians or slaves into the ring and set the lions loose on them. Exciting but brutal. And who was it (Churchill, maybe?) who said that the greatest way to unite a people was to have a common enemy?
Although generally I’ve always found organized sports to be a giant YAWN, it’s fair to say that any sport has its elements of beauty, excitement, and requisite expertise. They all depend to some degree on strategy and tactics (true of most endeavors, I suppose); and it’s also true that unless you learn something about the rules and the players– their backstories, triumphs, failures, achievements– then you can’t really understand or appreciate the nuances of the game.
During the one year where I followed baseball (the 2004 World Series, where the Boston Red Sox finally broke the curse that had kept them out of the winning for 80-odd years), I surprised myself by starting to find the game quite fascinating. I came to realize that you have to understand the lineups, the restrictions, and even the statistics, to appreciate how the sport is played. And it helped that I was reading the sports pages daily, so I came to know that so-and-so was overcoming some such adversity and such-and-such. So when so-and-so came to bat, I had a better idea of what was at stake.
However, I couldn’t overcome one fundamental observation: Baseball is boring.
This became our mantra at home, whenever we tried to watch a game. The origin of the mantra was simple enough: During a brief misguided period where we signed our oldest son up for the Boy Scouts, his troop attended a game at Fenway Park. This was a very excited group of seven year olds, let me tell you. They were cheering and laughing and chomping on peanuts, having a grand old time. But my son, my dear son, was the one who stood up somewhere around the seventh inning and announced in a big loud voice, in that innocent way that little kids have:
“Baseball is boring!“
Ha! I couldn’t agree more.
In retrospect, this was just one more indication that Number 1 Son would turn out to be an artist, not a sportsman. (I’m going to get in more trouble for that statement, aren’t I? Yes, you can be both an artist and a sportsman. I’m sorry!)
Maybe it runs in the family (my side of the family, anyway, since Husband is very sporty indeed, and will whup your ass at tennis, racketball, squash, softball, or any other pasttime that involves fast-moving objects. Including bicycles, snowboards, and darts).
On the other hand, on my side of the family, we write, we fiddle, we paint, we play, we make music, we do lots of things but organized sports was never really one of them. In High School (and college too, I suppose), I avoided organized sports whenever possible. Yes, Miss Thimas made us play field hockey in ninth grade, and as a 97-pound girl with long skinny legs, there is nothing more frightening than having a herd of muscle-bound girls running toward you with sticks in their hands– and wildly swinging those sticks near your long skinny legs.
I just couldn’t see the point.
It was dangerous and tedious and I wasn’t good at it. I didn’t like groups anyway, and groups of girls with sticks especially didn’t interest me; most especially when they were using the sticks as weapons.
Now, I said in the beginning: Men are aggressive.But I’ve followed that up with a story of ninth-grade girls chasing me down with hockey sticks. So, are women aggressive too? Well, yes and no.
First, a thesis: We are all, first and foremost, HUMAN. Wherever we fall on the sliding scale of gender, we all have a little bit of every human tendency within us. So, I’m aggressive and so are you. And I’m nurturing and so are you. But the elegance of evolution has naturally selected for certain traits within gender, just as it has within race, geography, and any other variables you can come up with. (I’m going to really get in trouble now, throwing statements about race around!)
My premise is that women are primarily nurturing because we have the singular most awe-inspiring and almost unbelievable ability to grow a bud of life into a full-blown human, pop it out into the world, and then feed it with our own bodies. All without doing anything except being ourselves!
I think I am safe to say that women are, at least on some level, the primary nurturers. That’s what we do. We make and support life. Both moms and dads, gay, straight, and otherwise, put band-aids on knees. But only women make the knees that get the band-aids put on them.
And men are stronger. That’s a simple fact, no matter whether you like it or not. They have bigger muscles, more muscle mass, and the testosterone to keep it coming.
Millions of years ago (or several thousand, if you are of the Fundamental persuasion), the menfolk were fighting the bison or saber-tooth tigers or whatever beasts they fought back then, and we gals were popping out babies and feeding them with our own home-made milk.
The slender little guys who couldn’t beat back the tigers were lunch. Right out of the gene pool. The ladies who didn’t nurture their babies had no progeny. Out of the gene pool. So nature did her thing and selected, right up until today, and here we all are.
Aggressive men, with lots of that good testosterone that keeps them strong and hearty and angry and pumped; and women, with our life-giving wombs and our loving estrogen and pitocin and a whole bunch of other stuff that I don’t know about because I never took chemistry or genetics.
It gets a bad rap, but that testosterone is good stuff. Aggression kept us alive (all of us; the guys and the gals they were protecting). It’s a powerful drug. But the problem is, we’re all civilized now. We’re hanging out, watching TV, eating french fries and going to work every day. We sit a lot. We’re polite. We try to be civil to each other. We learn to sublimate and control our impulses in order to support the society that we live in. Still, those impulses are there.
And that’s where sports come in!
The will to battle, the urge to run, to organize hunting parties, to chase things down… the menfolk can no longer do that on a daily basis. But they are still hard-wired to run, to fight, to defend, to organize, to stalk, to kill. Killing kept us alive. In the context of society now, killing is bad– but if we didn’t kill over the millenia, we didn’t eat; and if we didn’t defend ourselves we didn’t get to wake up the next morning.
I don’t think it’s denigrating anyone to say that we are hard-wired, on some level, to kill. What that really means is that we are hard-wired to survive. Even in the long-ago, we had societies that helped us understand when and why killing was acceptable and when and why it was not. Indiscriminate killing is a problem; but reasoned killing was a daily necessity of survival.
When I watch men on the soccer pitch, I see a lot of things. (No snickering. I didn’t mean it that way.) I see the harmony of the group. I see cooperation and strategy. I see leadership and follower-ship, both necessary parts of life and parts of the game. The coach introduces plays and lineups, and the players implement them with panache and creativity.
But why soccer? Why do I love futbal when I can barely tolerate other sports?
I think it starts with this: to my mind, soccer players are true athletes in the complete sense of the word. There are no beer bellies on the field. (Baseball? Beer bellies. Football? Beer bellies. Basketball? No beer bellies, but then again they’re all eight feet tall, and we tall people get a genetic pass on beer bellies.)
I read somewhere that soccer players run an average of seven miles per game. There is no standing around in the bullpen. There is no waiting at the plate. The players run at top speed for 90 minutes, non-stop. Not only that, but they are multi-tasking, too. Those elegant legs are manipulating a futbal with speed and finesse, while traveling apace. As an audience member, there is no time– no time at all– to go downstairs and get a snack. There’s no time to dawdle. Damn, you can’t even be on Facebook during a game for fear of missing a play.
And there is something about the fact that they don’t use their hands. Instead, they use limbs that were not intended for this type of intricate control to field the ball. It’s like those painters who use their feet to hold the paintbrush; an act of wonder. And the theatrics that the soccer-haters complain about? It’s theatre! No one gets hurt (unlike hockey theatre, which involves sticks and punching). Sorry to pick on hockey again.
When I mentioned to a friend of mine that I was thinking of writing a piece about men in sports and the parallels with war, she asked me to reconsider the topic and instead write about women and sports, since the topic of men in sports already gets so much play. But I feel that this piece does cover women, if only by implication or intentional omission. I mean, women aren’t drawn to sports the way men are because women are wired differently.
Yes, some of us women love sports. Yes, we women are athletic. Yes, most definitely yes, we deserve every right to play organized sport. But we are not the makers of war and the hunters of game; and I’ll cling to my opinion that we aren’t driven to be out on the field, simulating the hunt. Instead, we are makers of life. A grand and awe inspiring thing.
There is much to be said about women in sports, and much to be said about women in society, but I believe those are topics for another day. I’ve already meandered way too much.