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Ethan Todras-Whitehill
Punch-for-Punch: The Emotional Significance of Sports
19 Comments | posted April 17th, 2007 at 02:43 pm by Ethan Todras-Whitehill

Second semester Junior year of college is pretty much the universal “study abroad” semester at Tufts, my alma mater. My year, nearly half the class did a semester abroad, including my two best male friends (of cliff-jumping fame). My relationship with my then-girlfriend, H, was on the rocks, partially because without my male friends, I was so socially dependent on her. I lived in a basement off campus, and was fairly depressed. But instead of turning to alcohol or marijuana, I became addicted to sports.

Field of DreamsWednesday Night Hockey. Monday Night Football. Sunday Night Baseball. March Madness. Even the freaking NIT. My heart rate rose when I happened upon a West Coast baseball game, which usually went until 1 or 2 am. If a team I actually cared about was playing, I squealed with delight.

The thing is, if men have an emotional language, sports is it.

I don’t think I’ll have any problems convincing you of the truth of that statement. The “why” is a little less obvious. When men interact, it’s pretty much a given that we’re going to talk about sports: Curtis Martin’s Hall of Fame credentials, LeBron vs. Kobe, estimating the circumference of Barry Bonds’ head. It’s how you deal with a double date when the women are yammering away about underwear trends. It’s how you spend the awkward Thanksgiving with those cousins you don’t really know or want to. It’s even how you keep the conversation going with your best friend when you’ve both run out of things to say.

But are we using sports to keep the conversation firmly on the surface, or are we using it to go deeper? Yeah, I’m going with option “B”:

For many boys, sports are a form of intimacy and a way to be honest. By temporarily freeing boys from the Boy Code—especially from the rules that say boys shouldn’t express feelings, show affection or expose their yearning for connection—sports can become one of the most important activities through which our sons, as their genuine selves, can relate closely with girls and other boys. (William Pollack, Real Boys)

Because playing sports are our safe outlet for connection and emotion early on in life, the entire sports universe takes on a greater significance for men. In following a baseball team, you can experience fear, triumph, embarrassment—the whole range of emotions—without fear of reprisal or labels of “wimp” or “wuss.” For instance, Daisuke Matsuzaka (the young Red Sox ace) makes me quake in my booties (I’m a Yankees fan). If I admitted that anything else made me quake in my booties, like an airplane flight or another guy outside the context of sports, I would be open to ridicule.

It works for connection, too. At the end of Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner, who has been haunted by the specter of his unresolved relationship with his father, finally sees his dad on the field. Do they sit down with a therapist? Discuss their feelings? No, they have a catch—and that’s just as good. A “catch” is an understood trope between fathers and sons (or daughters), a stand-in for verbal emotional communication.

I had not been a big sports fan (outside of baseball) before that semester. But I have been forever afterwards. It’s hard to communicate exactly how important televised sports were to my mental health that semester. I felt tapped into a larger world of men, living and dying, rising and falling with the fortunes of the teams on the screen—and most importantly, expressing those emotions rather than sublimating them into silence and anger. And because I knew they were, I could too.

Now, if someone would just take a bat to Matsuzaka’s knees…

(Sorry for the delay with this column. I had a miserable day yesterday flying from L.A. to Albuquerque to Minneapolis to Newark.)

This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 17th, 2007 at 2:43 pm and is filed under Relationships, Gender, Sports. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

There are currently 19 responses

  1. Theo Gangi

    You know they had to resize some national legue dome stadiums to fit Barry Bond’s head.
    I will still ridicule you for ‘quaking in your booties’. Not for being scared, but for saying ‘booties’. Wus!

    April 17th, 2007 | 3:45 pm
  2. Kate Torgovnick

    I’m worried about a few details in this post. A) That the author goes on double dates. B) That the author would be on a double date with two women discussing underwear trends and would not make a break for it immediately. C) That the author seems to think ‘underwear trends’ are a topic often discussed by women. I am a woman. And this is a conversation I have never once in my life had. Anyone care to second?

    So I am now resorting to guy-speak: “Squealed with delight?” Wus!

    Kidding, of course. —Kate

    April 17th, 2007 | 5:03 pm
  3. I feel the need to defend myself here.

    Women ABSOLUTELY discuss underwear trends. There was a stretch of time in college when I couldn’t get away from the damn topic, particularly during the semester I described above. It was when thongs were really going mainstream, and this necessitated constant commentary.

    Oh, and both of you: way to miss the rhetorical irony, guys.

    April 17th, 2007 | 5:12 pm
  4. Theo Gangi

    Oooooh, dis!

    April 17th, 2007 | 7:20 pm
  5. Does anybody have anything SUBSTANTIVE to say?

    April 17th, 2007 | 8:10 pm
  6. robertatw

    Doris Kearns Goodwin and me both viewed baseball as a way to commect to our fathers. For me, the bond that was formed with my dad over the Yankees was our primary mode of communication and I will alwasy have a soft spot for the Yankees as a result. My feelings however are now different. I can root for the Yankees but for other teams as well. Ethan sees this as a betrayal and he feels I’m no longer a Yankee. I disagree and wonder how women relate to baseball and to other sports as well. How do women relate to sports?

    April 17th, 2007 | 9:05 pm
  7. Kate Torgovnick

    Oh yes, I have something”substantive” things to say…After reading this post and watching an episode of Sex in the City within a few hours last night, I came to the realization that “gender commentary” basically means making sweeping generalizations about the other gender that make its members cringe, while simultaneously painting your gender as a total 1-dimensional stereotype (i.e. shoes or sports loving).

    I will now conduct an official survey of my female friends as to who has and who hasn’t discussed underwear trends. Results to be posted soon. —Kate

    April 18th, 2007 | 8:19 am
  8. Joie Jager-Hyman

    Sorry, Ethan. Gotta to go with Kate on this one. To the best of my knowledge, I have never discussed underwear trends.

    Now, onto the topic of women and baseball team loyalty. I have to admit that I’ve been accused of extreme disloyalty in this regard. You see, I come from a Damn Yankees family…especially my brother who is a major Yankees nut. I never really watched baseball growing up (with the exception of second grade and the ‘86 Mets). However, I moved to Boston for graduate school in 2002.

    The following year the Red Sox lost to the Yankees in Game 6 and a dark cloud descended over Beantown.

    And you all know about the miracle of 2004, right?

    Somewhere along the way I became a huge Red Sox fan. Honestly, the Red Sox were the best thing about living in Boston. Everyone was into them. People left work early when they played in the afternoon and went in late when they played until midnight. There was a magical comradeship. And we were winning!!!

    My brother threatened to disown me.

    It is now 2007 and I have been living in New York for 2 years. The Red Sox aren’t what they used to be, and I don’t really watch baseball anymore. It’s only a matter of time before I start rooting for the Yankees.

    For me, it’s not about the team (whose players change from year to year anyway), it’s about the city. It’s tremendous fun to root for a team with your neighbors.

    April 18th, 2007 | 11:35 am
  9. Thank you, Joie. The technical term for what you just described is “heresy.” We’ll have a stake and a cord of wood waiting at Lolita tonight.

    April 18th, 2007 | 12:32 pm
  10. Joie Jager-Hyman

    Nice trash talk, wuss.

    (trash talk is also one of the best things about sports!)

    April 18th, 2007 | 1:27 pm
  11. Ethan, if your parents ever read this they’d wop your wussie-ass. Your mother prides herself on her baseball knowledge and I’ve never heard your father say one articulate sentence on any sport.

    I do question who you’ve been hanging with. I’ll bet there were loads of girls on Tuft’s campus trying to figure out if Venus Williams wore a thong or not. What do you mean not iinterested in sports!?

    April 18th, 2007 | 3:28 pm
  12. Trudi, if you noticed further up the comment chain, my mother already responded to this post. And my mother knows almost as little about baseball as my father. She can name a few players from the Yankees in the 50s, but that’s about it. She believes that when she listens or watches the Yankees, they lose, so she doesn’t follow them. Prides herself on her baseball knowledge? Hardly.

    April 18th, 2007 | 11:26 pm
  13. Kate Torgovnick

    Hi Ethan’s Mom. I am posting this time not to make fun of Ethan, but to put my two cents in on your question on women and sports. I’ll never be a baseball or football kind-of-girl. I’ll rarely follow a team (unless we’re talking about Duke basketball), though I do love going to games with my dad. But I’ve found myself doing a ton of sports writing lately. I’ve spent the past year on a book about competitive college cheerleading. And I’ve written a few sports pieces lately for the Times, including one on bicycle polo which should be coming out any day. I think the reason I’m drawn to it is because I’m fascinated by really extreme people—and there’s certainly a lot of obsession, passion, and a touch of tunnel-vision that goes into getting amazing at any sport.

    April 19th, 2007 | 8:38 am
  14. Theo Gangi

    I think something is missed here– loyalty is the whole point of being a fan. You cannot feel good when a team wins if you do not also feel bad when they lose. You can watch baseball, or root for whatever team you happen to be geographically closest to at the time, but that doesn’t make you a fan. A fan is a vicarious loser/winner. The difference is like being in a relationship vs. being friends. I don’t think all that many women, with some exceptions, can relate to having a bad night due to a tough loss. I have had many. My girlfriend and mother can relate only because they are subject to my moods.

    Becoming a Red Sox fan in 04 is disingenuous as 04 was a ‘miracle’. A real miracle is more like winning 27 world championships, or an astounding drought like 1918 to 2004. Thank you, everyone, for so illustrating Ethan’s gender stereotypes.

    April 19th, 2007 | 7:07 pm
  15. Joie Jager-Hyman

    Ouch. First, I must note that my Red Sox story was not meant to reinforce gender stereotypes. I just wanted to share my perspective with honesty. And I do not think there is anything disingenuous about it as a result.

    Sure, maybe I’m more of a “friend” than someone in “a relationship,” to use your metaphor. But, how can you remain loyal to an entity that is ever-changing? The players themselves have no problem darning new uniforms when the price is right. Just ask Johnny Damon (not that I model myself after THE IDIOT so don’t even go there). Isn’t there room for those of us who don’t have a lifelong obsession with a logo?

    Actually, don’t answer that. Some gender stereotypes might get reinforced in the process.

    And, the 04 championship was the BIGGEST COMEBACK IN POST-SEASON BASEBALL EVER, totally unprecedented. I think the term “miracle” works as much here as it does with anything in sports. Also worth noting: the astounding drought to which you refer is best deemed A CURSE, as it has commonly been known.

    April 21st, 2007 | 9:20 pm
  16. Theo Gangi

    One man’s miracle is another man’s curse.
    As per your question about loyalty to something ever changing, people are ever changing. Should I break up with a girl because she quit her job and cut her hair?
    There is room for casual sports fans. Just not those who switch sides when the other team is winning.

    April 22nd, 2007 | 1:03 am
  17. Joie Jager-Hyman

    Fair enough. You have convinced me to never ever root for the Yankees and continue to passively support the Red Sox.

    April 22nd, 2007 | 11:42 am
  18. Joie Jager-Hyman

    Theo, you must be in a BAD MOOD after last night. Out of respect, I won’t bring up those 4 consecutive homers or anything.

    April 23rd, 2007 | 11:30 am
  19. […] of reading, figuring it was the strongest incentive. But all my friends played them as well. So as with sports, as with anything an adolescent boy touches, we […]

    April 23rd, 2007 | 12:01 pm

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