This one’s for Charlie Stella, crime-writer extraordinaire, who suffers in the purgatory of Buffalo Bills fandom. Here’s my shout out, on the eve of the NFL Draft. (Yeah, yeah, it’s a guy thing. So sue me.)
* * * * *
The reason so many women, smart women in particular, have such lousy taste in men is because they fundamentally don’t get football.
I don’t mean they should watch it more, pretend to like it more than they do, or tune in to NFL Playbook and bone up on the trapping game or the two-deep zone. (Though, on reflection: Could it hurt?)
I mean women don’t actually get why teenage boys want to play the game, and what lessons it can teach you if you’re open to them.
Admittedly, sometimes the lessons don’t sink in. Men are wildly imperfect. Sadly, that may be the most interesting thing about us.
This all came to me when a woman friend, who’s a huge New York Giants fan, told me she’d caught some serious grief from other women for being into football.
“It’s so violent,” they complained.
My friend replied, “Well, yeah, but it’s also really graceful at times—you know, like ballet.”
When she told me this, I stared at her like she’d sprouted a second head.
“No,” I told her, “football’s really violent. That’s what makes it fun.”
Then it was her turn to stare at me like I’d sprouted a second head.
Violence is one of the great riddles of the male sphinx. And football, for a lot of teenage guys, is how they learn to solve it. (In other parts of the world, it’s rugby. Or armed robbery.)
Blame testosterone—that strange ineluctable whatzit that rises up inside you (if you’re male) during puberty, insinuates itself into your psyche like a menacing twin, tries to take you over or at least wrestle you down into the blood and muck.
Call it: The zombie in the pudding. Out of the sweetness of youth it comes. And just keeps coming. And it wants to eat your brain.
The author (right) with his older brother John: the Pre-Zombie years.
About the time you begin having those urges, you also find you have a predatory instinct. And before too long you learn there’s a food chain, and every guy you know is trying to figure out where every other guy fits in. And you’re all hoping—secretly, if the guys are your friends—that they’re lower down than you are.
I was a pudgy kid who began dropping the baby fat around age twelve. For a couple years I pretty much had to fight my way home from school every day. I got my ass kicked good once—this guy named Chappy, flunked his way out of high school into the marines. And I kicked some other kid’s butt once, some greasy loudmouth whose name I no longer remember. The other dust-ups were basically a draw.
There is a profound lack of satisfaction to the average fight, a sense that the real point, which is almost mystically nebulous, remains unsettled—even with the aforementioned ass-kickings. Maybe especially then.
But with its rituals, its discipline, its strategy—they don’t call it violent chess for nothing—plus the fact it’s played before all the people who might feel inclined to mock you, football offers a way to scatter the ghosts from all those unsettled fights.
There’s one major caveat. It only works if you have a coach you respect and trust. I was lucky. I did.
His name was John Dorrian—sometimes known as “Bud” (he taught biology) or “Shag” (he also coached baseball). I count him among the three most influential men in my life.
Mr. Dorrian had all the visual appeal of Ichabod Crane (not the Johnny Depp version). He was tall and reedy, prune-faced, pucker-mouthed, weak-chinned—but he also possessed an undeniable dignity and strength.
An aging jock with an intellectual’s sense of the absurd, he read parodies of the Iliad at pep rallies, with the star players’ names inserted where the Greek heroes’ would have been: fleet-footed Mollica, fire-eyed Molloy. (He killed with Sister Canisia, who taught Latin and Greek.)
He’d been an All-American in baseball at Notre Dame for three seasons before being beaten out his senior year by a freshman phenom, some hump named Carl Yastrzemski:
This mysterious, quiet, intense, intelligent man, this man who knew what it meant to have his dream snatched away but who’d found a way to soldier on—this man took notice of me, and praised my effort.
Not because I was gifted. The reason I played football and not baseball or basketball was simple: I lacked any conceivable athletic talent. The only thing slower than me on the football field were the goal posts.
I played center because it limited the ways I could screw up—all I had to do was remember the snap count, hike the ball, and hit the fat guy. (A lot of fat guys are incredibly strong, by the way. And unpleasant.)
Oh, and I was secure enough in my manhood I could deal with the razzing I got for having the prima donna quarterback plant his hands up my ass every sixty seconds.
But I digress.
The beauty of football, at the high school level anyway, is that it’s the one sport where even a lead-footed no-talent like me could take his shot, because what it actually requires, at least for linemen, lies more in strength and attitude than speed or hand-eye coordination.
What it requires is a taste for violence.
One of the seminal moments in my life was my first tackling drill in full pads. Coach Dorrian taught us the proper technique: Get low, face mask between the numbers, lock him up, put him down.
Full go. Whole squad watching.
I was terrified, and fear makes you too stupid to do anything except what you’re told. (I’m sure there’s a history lesson in there somewhere.)
Two tackling dummies on the ground formed a lane, down which the ball carrier barreled toward me. I lowered myself, aimed my facemask at his chest and launched myself at him.
The thundercrack of that collision was absolutely one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. As I would learn to say later: I almost came.
Oh, and I locked him up. And I put him down. And Coach Dorrian blew his whistle and shouted, “Solid hit! Pay attention, gentlemen. Next!”
As I got back in line, one of my teammates muttered, “Man, I’d never hit anybody that hard.” It wasn’t a compliment. He meant that I was too dense to get that this was just practice.
Part of me thought, somewhat dimly: I didn’t realize I had a choice. But the other part of me was still glowing. I knew I’d crossed some threshold. I was a smart, lonely, scared kid who’d learned how to deliver a blow. And a man I respected had taken notice.
As for the guy who’d muttered his critique? He got stuck on hamburger squad.
Later that day, Coach Dorrian huddled us up to make sure we knew that hurting someone was never the point, and anyone who deliberately tried to injure another player would be off the team. No exceptions.
“But,” he added, “when you play with discipline and focus, at full speed and within the rules, this game can be a lot of fun.”
Which was exactly what I’d tried to tell my woman friend, the New York Giants fan, and what I wanted her friends to get. But to do that, you have to really unpack what Mister Dorrian was trying to say.
He was telling us: I know you’re violent, and I know you like asserting your will. I’m going to teach you skills to do that. But the other guy likes asserting his will too. And in this context, asserting your will involves inflicting pain. That’s where the rules comes in. That’s where the discipline comes in. They’re there to teach you the difference between being aggressive and being a punk.
Not that the lessons are unambiguous. Of the many things that get shouted at you—and you get shouted at a lot in sports, that way the lessons sink in deep, become a part of muscle memory—but one of the most insidious things that gets bellowed at you in football, the thing that plays on your deepest insecurities and haunts you, comes during blocking drills.
You line up in your stance, face the man across from you. You wait for the coach to blow his whistle, and when he does you fire out, lock up, drive, and as you do he’s caterwauling at you so loud the words echo through your brain, your blood stream, every fiber in your body.
What he says is: Punish that man!
Now, you may ask yourself: Punish him? For what? What did he do?
But I got it. On some level, I understood that that man bore the Mark of Cain. He was violent. Just like me. My job was to subdue him, control him, defeat him. My manhood depended on it. Because he was me.
I realize not all guys come away from football having imbibed that lesson. And it’s no doubt glib to blame their coaches.
Admittedly, it was nothing Coach Dorrian explicitly said that made me self-direct this notion of punishment. It was his example: his decency, his integrity, his commitment both to aggression and to playing by the rules. The phrase “tough but fair” gets thrown around so much it’s virtually meaningless. Unless you’ve had a Coach Dorrian in your life. Then, as I suggested, it becomes part of your muscle memory.
As for the guys who didn’t get the message, in my experience they fall into two distinct camps: Those who want to be pitied for their failures, and those who expect far more praise than they deserve for their success. The brooding Byronic losers, and the Apollonian golden boys.
The psychoanalyst Karen Horney defined masculinity as “an anxiety-tinged narcissism.” The anxiety comes from the guilt of violence — and the shame of being its target. The narcissism is a disguise, a way to pretend the shame and guilt are somebody else’s problem.
And all too often that’s what they become. They become a woman’s problem, in particular.
And sadly, all too often, women jump on board, perpetually nursing Mr. Pitiful out of his bottomless funk, or latching on to Golden Boy with his blowfish ego and riding him as far as he’ll take her, even if she knows it will never be all the way. (Sometimes, of course, they’re the same guy.)
And smart women are particularly prone to this mistake because they more than anyone are repulsed by violence. They get fooled by the mask in masculinity. Like the men they fall for, they want to pretend the zombie in the pudding is a myth. Or if he’s real, he’s out there somewhere, wandering around inside other men.
“My man is smart, he’s sensitive, he abhors violence.” To which I can only respond: Run!
Maybe it’s because I was an offensive lineman — the patrol cop of football — and never got pampered like a star.
But what football taught me was how to recognize within myself the things I hated in the other guy and use them to my advantage, while never losing track of the simple humbling fact that he was just like me. I learned to be proud but never to gloat, because as soon as the whistle blows my golden moment—or my moment of shame—is over, and I’ve got to get ready for the next play.
Football didn’t teach me squat about masculinity. It did, however, teach me at least a little about manhood.
Mister Dorrian retired after my sophomore year and was replaced by a man I’ll call Joe Bonaparte. The only thing big about him was the chip on his shoulder. He had the cocky swagger of a star jock whose heyday was long gone. And so he took out his frustrations on people he deemed lesser than him. Like his players.
I became a starter junior year but lost interest. I had nothing to prove to a man like Joe Bonaparte. And I was getting a little cocky myself, a little mouthy; coaches hate that, especially from a player they know is smarter than they are. I lost my starting job. Curiously, I cared a great deal less than I thought I would.
Then, in the last game of the year, the guy in front of me got hurt. Coach Bonaparte looked around the sideline, spotted me, pointed and said, “Corbett, you ready to go in?” I couldn’t help myself, the inner smart-ass just took over. I said, with mock wistfulness, “You remember my name . . .”
And that, as they say, was the end of that.
A few years after I graduated I ran into Mister Dorrian at a local mall. He looked rested and healthy (we’d heard rumors he’d been ill). He asked me how I was doing, and I wanted to tell him how much he’d meant to me, how much I’d learned from him. I wanted to say, in whatever mangled fashion I might manage to get it out, that he’d taught me a lot more than how to block down on trap plays, neutralize a nose tackle, or dig a linebacker out of the hole. He taught me what it meant to grow up. That I had to control my aggression, I had to deal with my guilt and overcome my shame. Women, in my future life, would thank him. Maybe even the smart ones.
But I said none of these things. It would have seemed gushy, and that was most definitely not Shag Dorrian’s style. We kept it simple, exchanged pleasantries, shook hands and said goodnight.
But as I walked away, I felt a small swell of pride.
He’d remembered my name.
The author, circa his playing days. (Note hair. Please.)
I realize this post has little to do with crime or writing, but violence lies at the heart of what we do.
Do these reflections resonate with your understanding of men and women and violence, or do you find them wildly off the mark?
How have you had to come to grips with the real (as opposed to fictional) violence in your life?
Does your real-life experience with violence find its way into your writing — if so, how?
What say you, Murderateros?
Great post, David! I don't need them to be about crime fiction writing. This was just perfect. 🙂
Sadly, in football, I have been a fan of the Cowboys so my life lesson isn't about violence; it's about learning the challenges of acceptance and loss. Again and again.
I've watched football for about 10 years, but didn't really understand why anyone would want to play until I watched Friday Night Lights. (I know it sounds like I'm kidding, but I'm not.)
On a totally separate note, I love that picture of you! (Still not kidding.)
Aha! At last, I get it. Thanks for the explanation, David.
Great post. Brother Charlie is not alone in Bills-land….
Love to watch football when I have the time, but I do cringe when I hear the audio of those full-body hits and the wind knocked out of a player. Cringe even more when one is really hurt.
But I learned a lot about myself when I was studying Tae Kwon Do. I learned how much I like sparring and punching and that I can take a hit too and carry on even though it hurts. I learned that yelling fiercely, right from the gut, with an intensity meant — and able — to intimidate, is incredibly satisfying.
Alafair: Friday Night Lights was an incredible show on a number of levels. Call it GLEE for jocks. (And the one person I knew would dig the pics was you.)
Pari: Exactly. And women who've played competitive sports like lacrosse and basketball learn some of the same lessons, though the violent aspect is dimmed. Football is a martial art, when played right. But the star system we attach to sports perverts the spiritual message martial arts provides — unless you get a coach like I had.
PK: As a 49ers fan, I have to admit I do not feel your pain. I was saying just yesterday how the Cowboys, since the Staubach era, have been a team I love to hate. (But I loved the Meredity-Lilly-Garrison teams of the early 1970s.)
John–you poor man. The Bills are the Vikings of the AFC, except recently they're more like the Syracuse of the AFC. What happened? As an Ohio boy, I had a secret fondness for those teams — you had to be tough to play in Buffalo.
And Karen: Thanks for the acceptance. Glad you got a giggle out of it.
But I thought SOMEBODY would get ticked at my throwing down the male-female gauntlet like that. You guys are so NICE. Whazzup wid dat? I was trying to be wildly provocative. I feel like I've failed . . .
David, you're full of crap, but it's intelligent, insightful crap. (that any better? do you feel redeemed?)
MF: I want that as a quote on my next book cover:
"David Corbett is full of intelligent, insightful crap."
BTW: I've already received one email from someone who went to my high school. He saw the Bishop Watterson jersey and went: I didn't know there were any authors who attended Watterson. Which shows my incredible marketing prowess. Not even my high school knows I exist (not that I didn't try.)
Would you be surprised to learn that I was a wide receiver in high school? They wouldn't let girls wear pads because we were supposed to be gentile — we played flag ball. But we had a middle linebacker named "Babs" (Barbara) who was 6'2" and weighed like 250 and I wouldn't skrim with her, she would have killed me as I was around 5'11" and weighed like 100 pounds. But I could run and catch, not in that order, which helped. As a result, I not only understand football, but also I get it. Broken collarbones aside (what happens when you get hit in flag ball and go flying), we had a play book, loved body contact blocks and muddy fields.
So, I wasn't really the cheerleader type. I also pitched baseball for 37 years, which explains that obsession, and some of my physical ailments.
I took up fencing for a while as well — fun with a weapon. But my favorite physical sport, and I couldn't do it for long because of a neck injury, was boxing. I helped someone pass the Nevada bar exam and in trade he taught me to box. There is nothing more satisfying in the world (ok I exaggerate) than hitting the big bag dead on perfect. whoomp. Sigh.
Wow. I never cataloged all that before. Are you sure you're not a shrink?
Charlie Stella tried to post, but got bumped. Here's what he wrote:
Boy, did I need a macho-like dedication today … after the beating I’ve been taking on FB because of my blog a few days ago (I’m a recently confessed GLEE GEEK) … my very dear, ultra conservative buddy (Doc) nailed me extra hard yesterday …
I understand the sweet zone of violence on the football field well. I assume fighters feel the same when they connect with a particularly powerful blow … what I always found interesting is how lost in the moment one becomes at such times. Rapture? Well, maybe for a few seconds, but getting popped (as opposed to doing the popping) is almost as good (a feeling and a lesson). I’ve caught a few pops (on and off the football field) and while it is much better to give than to receive, the pain of getting humbled are the experiences we’re least likely to forget.
As for your friend (the Giants fan) … ignore her (especially if she lives in New York and continues to root for a Jersey football team) … she’s confused … many Moonachie (what Mayor Koch called them) Giant and Jet fans remain so … as draft day approaches and the owners of the means of production (I couldn’t resist) tighten ship, I have no problem should the NFL come to a screeching halt before my beloved New York State Buffalo Bills blow yet another draft pick … because if the season doesn’t happen, they remain New York State Buffalo Bills and are precluded from that step closer to International infamy (Toronto Bills?) and/or equally as bad West Coast Craziness (Los Angeles Bills?).
Oy vey …
Allison: Oh girl, I would so love to be your shrink.
Knowing you as I do, none of what you confided surprises. Except that you're only 5'11".
The desire for contact is fundamental. I just watched WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE last night, and what are the most memorable scenes: When Max bites his mom, when Karel busts up the houses, the dirt clod fight, etc. We crave combat, which as we know can be a curse. Without the tutelage of wise elders or fellow combatants, that goes wildly (excuse pun) astray. But ignoring it is equally unwise.
I grew an inch in college. I'm 6' now and shrinking. (That was high school.)
Oh man, I'm feeling so timid and "female" here. No contact sports. I was a cheerleader. And yes, I love football for the ballet-like precision of it.
Love seeing you with hair, D!
I'm Brazilian. I can't understand American Football to save my flippin' life. I just don't get the appeal of a game that stops ever 30 seconds o_O
I'm not the sporty type, either. I watch the World Cup (of soccer, of course) every four years and Volleyball in the Olympics every four years. Besides that, my idea of sport is Poker, Snooker and Chess. 🙂
Dave, the nurse in me feels compelled to tell you that testosterone does not arise from pudding (ahem)…great post tho'. I'm not proud of this, mind you, but I learned early how to defend myself and have sent more than one viscious redneck boy home bleeding and cryin' to his mommy…my s.o. discovered this hidden talent when he came back all cocky from martial arts camp and told me to try and uproot him. "Muscle memory" kicked in and I stood on both his feet and pushed hard on the middle of this chest…leaving him and his 6' 2", 225 lb. self staring up at me from the ground. Which I guess is my way of saying that I do understand that satisfaction you speak of it…and it has made inhabiting a character who is about to indulge (and I do get violence as an indulgence, BTW) in fisticuffs easier. Still don't like football, tho'.
David is having trouble getting through Firefox, Safari, server, whatever so hang tight and he'll be on soon to reply.
David is having the devil of a time posting his responses to your comments. Hold on. We'll figure it out.
"How have you had to come to grips with the real (as opposed to fictional) violence in your life?"
Decide beforehand where lies your own personal line in the sand.
Kill anyone who crosses it.
What a great post, David! And such a handsome photo of our new Murderato from his football days.
You gave me an insight into football and coaching that I never knew. I wasn't involved in sports in high school because I played saxophone and that was how I got the girls, and, as I understood it, the reason to play sports was to get the girls.
I did get in one fight with the school bully, who stood about two feet taller than me. He was picking on my girlfriend (again, the reason for everything) and I had to challenge him to a duel. It was a grueling gladiator show and I came out on top. If I'd been a football player I might not have had to fight that battle. However, it was a defining moment for me, so I wouldn't want to trade it away.
And, Louise – get us a photo of your cheerleader days, please! Maybe we can photo-shop it to the photo of David – you guys will look like the Homecoming Couple.
Hey, quick, y'all: Post a bunch of snarky things about David's yearbook photo, before he fixes his computer glitch and gets back online to respond 🙂
Please excuse my not responding to your marvelous remarks. I've been trying for over an hour to reply, but every time I do I get told the connection has been 'reset" and I should try back later. No matter what I've tried, it hasn't worked. I've tried one comment at a time, nothing. I've rebooted. Nothing. I've tried separate browsers. Nothing.
Louise has very graciously offered to post my replies, so here goes:
If I lived in Brazil, I wouldn't give a flying f**k about football either. Who needs blocking drills when you've got batucada? Who needs a slot receiver when you've got samba dancers? (BTW: Do you know the group Nação Zumbi? They're one of my favorite bands: http://www.nacaozumbi.com.br/ They're what The Who would've sounded like if Pete Townsend had been Brazilian instead of British.)
Eloise: Knowing you as I do, I can just picture you planting your SO on his can, no problem. You're small, but you're mighty. Probably comes from being a nurse. (And yeah, I get why folks don't like football, but I'm really enjoying the comments about understanding that impulse: to deliver a blow, to feel that power, and to realize it comes with a reckoning.)
Stephen: Yeah, I gave up football because of my punk coach and I took up guitar, which as you so wisely note, was a better way into the whole girl thing. Though in the Midwest, football had considerable cache with the goyles. And your experience with the bully is intriguing — he had you size-wise, but you took him. I'm guessing you either really liked your girlfriend, or you realized if you didn't kick this sucker's butt you'd end up his bitch until graduation. Everybody's idea of hell.
Zoe: Actually, I had an idea you'd check in with something along the lines of: "I felt this surge of power the first time I used a flamethrower. On my sister."
And Louise: I'm with Stephen. I want to see the pom poms.
Thanks for being patient with me:
"Does your real-life experience with violence find its way into your writing — if so, how?"
I meet a lot of violent people in my day job and see the aftermath of real, uncontrolled violence. It definitely affects my perception of the crimes and criminals I write about. As I've written before, most real violent crime isn't part of some master plan, or often any plan at all. All too often it's just a stupid and pointless fuckup by people who've made one bad choice after another and who are just too addled by drugs, alcohol, or just plain garden variety stupidity to figure a way out.
The ones that really scare me, however, are the ones who seem to live every day wrapped in a cloud of baffled rage. Something in their lives has gone terribly wrong, they don't know why their lives are in such a mess, and they're ready to explode at any moment. That's when people really get hurt or killed.
One of the things I always liked when I studied martial arts was the emphasis in controlling and channeling anger and the darker emotions and using them for forward moving positive energy. I think that may have been one of the things that's kept me from turning into one of that second group of people. At least so far.
Dammit, JT, we get another philosophical, smart person on the blog. Why can't we find bloggers where I don't have to think so damn hard??
On football: love it. Raiders fan since I dated a guy in high school who had season tickets. Stayed a Raiders fan even after we broke up. Even after the Raiders moved south. And even when they returned home. Love them when they suck and when they win. But I didn't really understand football beyond the basics until my daughter started high school and I started going to the football games and watching high school football. Really watching from the sidelines and listening to the players and coaches and fans. I've come to admire them all so much that even though I don't have a son on the team (or daughter — at my kids school for the last three years we've had a female kicker. The first kicker was a soccer star and got a full-ride to college for soccer. The second kicker, last year a freshman, is also a soccer star. Amazing girls. I digress.)
My oldest son has played junior pee wee football going on three years. He's not a football player. He's smart (seriously smart) and funny and he hates to be hit on the field or tackle. But he won't quit. Which I admire. (He wanted to last year, but I told him he had to tell his coach himself. He wouldn't.) I tried to get him into baseball or soccer, but nope. That's okay–he'll probably cure cancer or build the best bridge. He's already told me he's going to MIT. I said yes, as long as he gets a scholarship.
Anyway, loved the post even though it made me think, and as the fellow Murderati members know, I don't like to think too hard.
Alafair: I heard that!
JD: I love this remarks of yours — One of the things I always liked when I studied martial arts was the emphasis in controlling and channeling anger and the darker emotions and using them for forward moving positive energy.
Man, that's the whole point, ain't it? You describe the lost and angry very well. Your remarks remind me of a buddy, Joe Loya, who grew up abused, became a bank robber, then had his epiphany during an 8-year stretch in prison. He wrote an incredible memoir: THE MAN WHO OUTGREW HIS PRISON CELL. His website is here: http://www.joeloya.com/about.htm He's a remarkable man, and he's become like a brother to me. And he talks a lot about the fact that so many guys who end up behind bars are under the influence of a stew of drugs, rage and stupidity. But he also puts the lie to the "redemptive character arc" so many people love, especially in Hollywood. He says it's a big lie. There is no redemption. He's still a criminal, but he's learned that acting on that aspect of his nature is destructive — not just to him, but the people he loves — and he's just learned to handle it. But you never rise above it or leave it behind. It's always a part of you, and denying that is truly dangerous.
BTW: I dedicated this post to Charlie Stella, then neglected to provide his website info (Doh!): http://www.charliestella.com/
JD: I know a few too many jocks who walk around in that cloud of baffled rage you describe. Scary.
Allison: Wow, I love the fact you blame JT for my post. Talk about a free pass!
I was a Raiders fan until Al Davis decided to ruin Marcus Allen's career. And being an Ohio State grad, I followed the whole Jack Tatum thing with interest. Which brings up an interesting side-note: the risk of serious injury in football.
Your son wants to go to MIT, and yet they're learning more and more about the long-term effects on concussions. Cris Collingsworth, the former Bengals receiver, now questions whether he'll let his sons play the game he loves so much and played so well given what's being discovered about the seriousness of these kinds of injuries. (If your son finally decides enough is enough, that's a great reason to give his coach: "I intend to go to MIT, and they tell me I may need my brain when I get there.")
I think sports in general and martial arts in particular provide the good lessons I took away from football, without the threat of life-altering injuries that football presents.
But I'd love to hear more about what you learned on the sidelines of the high school games you attended — as long as you don't think too hard about it. 😉
Actually, Zoë has the M-14, I have the flame-thrower.
It amuses me, David, that you'd taunt women who know how to handle guns really really well with the "women don't get violence" adage. I am assuming you have stocked up on Kevlar and body armor.
[I loved this excellent blog. I'm just answering your challenge, since no one else did.]
As someone who has posted here regularly about football (I know, I know, to some people's great despair), there are plenty of women who grasp the lure of violence, who feel it, and who sublimate it exceedingly well. We just have entirely different methods, but I think the fundamental understanding of the desire is there in every young adult. Some turn it inward, mean girls bully, browbeat and coerce, boys fight, adults manipulate or go to war. And some play football.
I had to break up a few fights when I taught high school. I found that breaking up fights with boys was much easier than fights with girls. After I stepped into a conflict between a couple of guys, one student asked me why I did it, when earlier in the week I'd called for security to break up a cat-fight.
I told the kid that when guys fight, they're always somewhat marginally aware of the fact that other folks are watching. There's a performance aspect to fighting for guys. That means there's a moment of distraction when I can get in there and stop things. (I didn't mention that, at the time, huge baggy pants were in style, and they made great handles — just grab the back of the pants and yank, and you never even have to touch the kid). It's not that I couldn't be hurt by the guys, but that they had a primal glee that allowed me to intrude, because at the end of the day, a lot of the fights were to impress the ladies, even the old, fat ones.
Girls, on the other hand, fight to win and they don't give a rat's ass who's watching. It's all focus and nails and biting and feral ferocity. Girl fights are the absolute worst.
Thank you for your brilliant articulation about this, David!
I could kiss you. Thank you for picking up the gauntlet I so sloppily threw down. (And accept my apologies for confusing yours and Zoë's weaponry.)
Yes, I don't believe for a minute that women in general don't get violence or the need to find an outlet for it. But I have been amazed at how often men who just refuse to deal with this in themselves somehow gain a certain cache. And then there are men who do wrestle with it, however imperfectly, who get seen as dolts and trolls. I don't think denial is attractive in anybody. And I really don't think violence is something to celebrate. But I think we run from it in ourselves at our own peril. (I also think we celebrate it mindlessly all too often.)
There's a great essay by William James titled "The Moral Equivalent of War," in which he challenges his fellow pacifists to understand that until they grasp the virtues that soldiers embrace in combat, and understand not just the attraction but the value of those virtues – like honor, discipline, obedience, self-sacrifice — the peace movement will fail.
In my own clumsy, tongue-in-cheek way, I was trying to say something similar. Denying our own aggression is a recipe for disaster. And sometimes rituals we may not care for very much actually provide some folks with a perfect way of dealing with their inner demons.
I just said the thing about some women having lousy taste in men to get a rise out of people – especially the many smart women who read this blog (yes, I’m including you, Ms. Brennan, however much you want to deny it). Thank God, Toni, you answered the call!
I await the flamethrower.
P.S. I want to once again say THANK YOU to Louise for posting my Comments for the past few hours. After the first few went through, I’ve just been unable to do anything to successfully post. No other internet problems, just that. Lucky me.
Very interesting ideas, David. But frankly, I have thought for a long time that men's football and basketball were both elaborate dramas expressing repressed sexual desires.
Hey David – and Toni
I would like to state for the record that I have never used a flamethrower on my sister. Not even when she stabbed me almost in the eye with a pitchfork.
M-14? Can I have a Barrett M82A1 Light Fifty instead?
David, I like you! 🙂
Nação Zumbi is not my type of music (I'm ashamed to admit I don't like Brazilian music much), but they're okay! I'm glad you like them. It's always good to see others appreciate our culture!!!
Z, I will work on getting one of those for you when you're on your way back here. We'll go shooting again. 🙂
David, you're far too sweet for me to actually flame. I knew you had a point for that gauntlet–just figured I'd let you utilize it.
Sandy — Your remark, “Frankly, I have thought for a long time that mens football and basketball were both elaborate dramas expressing repressed sexual desires,” is provocative. Maggie the Cat was of much the same opinion in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, of course, though her scope was limited to her husband and his best friend. (Brick and Skipper, lest we forget.)
And, of course, D.H. Lawrence, with his wrestling scene in Women in Love, hinted at much the same thing. Though again, it was rooted in two specific characters. I’m not sure he was making a universal point.
But why football and basketball and not hockey, baseball, lacrosse, boxing, tiddlywinks? If it’s repressed desires at issue, why don’t gay jocks give up sports once they come out of the closet? And are women’s rituals equally interpretable as cloaked sexual dramas — are knitting circles really hotbeds of secret lesbian longing?
I can honestly say I never once entertained the thought of kissing a guy I was blocking. Not just because we were both wearing face-masks.
I had a gay older brother — he’s the blue-eyed curly-haired one in the picture of the two of us — and so I had more than enough occasion to indulge any repressed homosexual longing. His friends were very keen to meet “John’s little brother.” Even he — who, for a period, like many gay men, thought all straight men were faking it — gave up on thinking I was confused. (He was not trying to recruit me, as some among the righteous might think; he was being my older brother, and trying to help. He ultimately realized I just wasn’t interested, and let it go.)
Now, that doesn’t mean men aren’t confused in their affections, and that football and other sports don’t give them a socially acceptable opportunity to express that fondness. But camaraderie is no more closeted lust among men than it is among women. Fellow feeling is not repressed fellow groping. Sometimes a cigar really is a cigar.
If you have evidence to the contrary, of course, I’d be interested in hearing it.
Oh god, football. There was only one thing scarier while watching out for the health and safety of future surgeons of the world. But first, football. Over the years, I had an enormous number of medical students from other countries come proudly to my office, proclaiming their pride in having just played "American football!" I know. I know. My youngest student arrived at the age of sixteen with hockey skates. And he was huge. I told him a puck in the mouth was okay, but he better not play football. No, of course not. He was a fire spinner, and where might he park his fucking Harley?
The girls, were just as troublesome, of course. One convinced me to let her converted the tennis court to a roller hockey pit during the cold weather. They would skate down the stairs past my open door, just for a good laugh, as they threatened to take up carpentry– the other thing that scared the hell out of me. Carpentry. Damn. I had to remove the table saw because these brilliant kids would remove the safety from the table saw. I would put it back on and the next day find it tossed into a corner.
Oh… Harley Boy? He's a plastic surgeon now. Roller girl is an oral surgeon.
Let's try again.
Wow! I got back on. How cool is that?
Fran: I love that insight about how differntly boys and girls fight. I shared it with my girlfriend, who was raised with sisters. I was raised with all brothers. We’re both, not surprisingly, somehwat intrigued if not obsessed with la difference, as they say. But neither of us ever thought about this angle.
Yes, there is something social about guys fighting. It’s expected of us, we do it to gain dominance – which is a social value. (My girlfriend’s insight — she shoots natural history documentaries.)
But girls, they just want the bitch to die. (Joking.)
I wonder, despite the all-out nature of the girls’ methods, whether there isn’t social aspect to it as well. They too are establishing heirarchy. There just aren’t any rules, not in violence.
Guys, we’re taught there are things you don’t do, because even if you win that way, you’ll be thought less of. The point is dominance, not just victory, and dominance is meaningless if others don’t accept it. (Now, once you get to crime, cruelty is not just respected, it’s expected.)
But girls aren’t inhibited in this way. Claw? Scratch? Bite? Kick? Let’s get it on, Tammy.
Zoë: I think your refusal to use a flamethrower on your sister demonstrated considerable restraint. And yes, I think every woman should have the assault rifle of her choice. But why not an MP5—I hear from a cop friend they’re smokin’ little bastards (but that could just be the homoerotic bonding talking).
Barbie: I suppose if you live in Brazil you can take or leave anything local you please. Such a luxury!
But I’ve long been of the opinion that what’s best culturally in the Americas is currently coming from its southerly regions. (I also like the music of Caetano Veloso and Egberto Gismonti, and the novels of Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, to name three other Brazilian exports.)
Toni: Thank you for refraining from the flamethrower. I don’t crisp prettily.
That was priceless.
It reminds me of John Frank, a tight end who played for the 49ers while he was going to med school. (He roomed with Steve Young, who was going to law school — half the team's IQ in one apartment.)
Frank's family (he was Jewish) just could not understand why he was wasting his time playing football. And then, in his next-to-last year, he hurt his hand.
Your hand! his family cried. You're going to be a surgeon, why are you ruining your self on this schmegege game?
He contributed to the 49ers Super Bowl victory over the Bengals (the second one — and Frank played a material role in The (winning) Drive, as they call it to this day) and then retired. His family was thrilled.
Then his con man father ripped him off for millions.
There's no place like home.
I realize I might be coming off a wimp here in the land of Rati. But nope. I'm not. I love all that competitive stuff and bumping and banging, out of breath, excitement – though definitely not at the Zoë or Toni level. Just give me a field hockey stick, and I'll see it finds its way behind anyone's shin guards. I'm also into wheeler rugby and had a special attack frame built for my new chair. So watch out.
Toni – you're on. Definitely.
David – hey, the MP5 is a nice weapon, but it's a submachine gun rather than an assault rifle. It's accurate, with very little climb. But 9mm against 12.7mm? From a semiautomatic rifle with an effective range of over a mile? One that fires a round at trisonic speeds, so the target drops about 4 seconds before anyone hears the shot?
Surely you jest, my friend.
As for my sister, the scar has faded and I'm the forgiving type.
Yes, my love, I know the MP5 is a submachine gun, but cops are much more close-quarters in their thinking — which is why they love shotguns and machine guns so much. (God forbid they should actually have to aim the damn thing. SWAT snipers excepted, of course.)
I didn't realize the Light Fifty had a mile's range. With a heavy round. Crikey.
I tend to be very brand loyal. It's been 25 years since I went to my first Raiders game and just fell in love with the team and excitement. There's nothing like being a Raiders fan at a Raiders home game. 🙂
My son, the smart one, likes the Colts. Go figure. I have NO idea why. Last year he memorized stats for the team. As far as MIT, I don't expect he'll play football after this year. He really doesn't enjoy it. I'm more concerned about my youngest who WANTS to play. They have a mighty mites team. I figure all the guys are little at this age, but after a couple years I'm thinking soccer. Still pushing baseball, too. My oldest (a girl) has been playing volleyball for five years. She'll be a senior next year and a starter. My second is the runner–no competitive sports, she just tries to beat her own time for the mile or two mile or cross country courses.
As far as what I learned — most of the football players on the team (we're D-5 champions, very small school but usually win sectionals in all sports) are not dumb. They care about their health, they practice for hours (and train in off-season), they care about the team as a unit and about the players as individuals. They are always the first to volunteer at the school for other events (of course, they might be "forced" to but they do it with a smile!) When one of them suffers, they all suffer. The team wins, or the team loses. They learned to be the best they can be, and the best for the team. And listening for the sidelines, I realized that even though the coach yells and criticizes and disciplines, he always supports the player, never tears them down individually. Like I said, we have had a girl kicker for three years. Some of the other teams will intentionally try and rush her to intimidate her. Our team protects her so she can do her job–nailing every extra point she can get. And a few field goals. But no one on our team had an issue with a girl playing–probably because she can out-kick all of them.
There will always be asshole parents in every sport, but most of them support their kids wholeheartedly. They sit in the rain and cold to watch games huddled under blankets and tents. They show their pride even when we lose. But just being at the games is what really matters to their kids.
Team sports is about winning, of course, and it's also about community and striving for excellence. (Yes, I can quote Vince Lombardi day and night! And he was a brilliant student, teacher, football player, and coach.) When my son is playing football he has more self-discipline about his homework, was more respectful to us at home, more polite to his teachers, and generally a better attitude. That could also be in part because he crashes as soon as he gets home 🙂
Well, for somebody who griped about me making her head hurt, you sure have a lot of great stuff to contribute. (Big surprise.)
I love what you said about the kids and sports, and I think it’s absolutely true. There’s something about that daily grind, the need to meet goals, the routine and the constant push for improvement that just infects everything they do. And yeah, they sleep better too.
Good luck with the young one who WANTS to play. I know it sounds weird, but I learned firsthand it’s true: You play hard, your chances of injury are less. The two times I got hurt was when I slacked off. So if he plays, remind him: Play aggressive, play smart.
But there are other sports. Remind him of that, too.
I would love to love the Raiders, I was fascinated with them from as early as I can remember – the pirate logo helped, so did black & silver — but Al Davis ruined the brand for me. It became all about him, not the team, and I’ve just lost the warm & fuzzy mayhem feeling.
Now – any more complaints about how hard the newbies make you work, and I’ll make you drop and give me fifty.
Do I make myself clear?
David, I missed your lengthy response until I got back onto Murderati. Sorry. What came to my email was a short reply. "Why football and basketball" and not other sports? Well, I dated a guy in high school who was a wrestler; and I said, "Whoa!" when I saw some of the stuff they did. But why football and basketball? Because football and basketball are what I watch. Ever look at the basketball court and the way so many of them are painted? ? Ever listen to the talk of commentators who use such words as "penetrating"? As for football, you said it about whose hands are where and for what purpose. Think also about imagery in that sport. Tight end… I really don't need to say more, do I?
Uh, yeah Sandy. You do.
I just want to say what a delight it is to be part of the Murderati brood. This is like taking part in a daylong party conversation, where everybody's smart and engaged and ready to deal with the big issues. Like male narcissism.
But I want to make a particular statement of profound thanks to Louise Ure, who not only gave up a lot of yesterday fielding her own blog here, but today had to play wingman for me, because of computer issues. That is really above and beyond, exceedingly kind and gracious, and deserving of big time props.
Especially from me.
Louise: You are the absolute best. Thank you thank you thank you.
How could I forget — one other Brazilian export I love: caiparinhas!
Thanks for chiming in from so far away.
Late to the party, sorry about that. As a former collegiate lacrosse defenseman and for-the-hell-of-it muay thai kickboxer, I agree with just about everything you've said. However, I never got the cathartic moment you did from "Punish that man!" For me it always came across as more of a kill-or-be-killed kinda thing. I wasn't punishing myself for being violent, (I was respectful, staying within the rules, because I wouldn't want him cheap-shotting me either), but I was surviving to live another play or game or round. Here was an opportunity to release the tension created by restraining myself against all of the loathesome, vile, and just plain mean-evil thoughts that I couldn't seem to keep from going through my brain, while also tasting a little of the thrill of fear without having to stare down a knife or gun in the process.
Here's sorta what I mean: I was once practicing a series of blocks and punch combos with my sparring partner at pretty much full speed. He missed a block, and I hit him so hard I jammed his jaw back in his head for a second, pinched his sinuses, you get the idea. He didn't go down, but he was pretty much completely out. And I had the hardest time with it, but not for reasons easily understandable by people who have never competed in violent sports.
See, on the one hand I felt bad, because we were just practicing, and I really didn't mean to hit him that hard. At the same time, I felt the little high that naturally violent people get when the monster in the back of their brain whispers, "Hell yeah, I just knocked you the fuck out." And I felt horrible for that, too. So I honestly didn't know which to feel worse about, the fact I rung the guy's bell in a simple practice session, or the fact that a very big part of me enjoyed it so much.
My trainer knew exactly what I meant when I told him how conflicted I was, and explained it kinda like you did, which made me feel…more normal, if not really any better about it. But explaining it to someone who already thinks MMA, or lacrosse, or football is, "just a buncha savages" is like a heavy kid trying to explain the conflicting joy and guilt of ice cream to a sea anemone. You have no chance, so why bother?
I effing love your post. You got at something I was only hinting at, probably because I didn't think of it as clearly as you had to given your experience. The games allow us an outlet for emotions and impulses that otherwise we not only have to keep in check — in a lot of cases we have to renounce. Or pretend to. With, as far as I'm concerned, unhealthy results. Competitive sports put us in the ring together, so we all know what's up. We know why we're there, and we know the conflicts at issue. The rules are there to protect all of us, but I also do believe they're there to instill insight and discipline.
I'd be interested in how your sparing partner took it. Seems to me everything was in bounds. But that can only soothe the pain of a reverse-engineered jaw so much.
Thanks for chiming in — better late than never.
David, I think all this is true, but also believe that women do it too, in a disguised format. This is the main reason I opted out of a doctoral advisee relationship with Carol Gilligan– she sees gender issues as either/or, despite differing cross cultural gender roles and behaviors, as well as new understanding of gender identity and associated behavior along a spectrum. Of course, Prof. Gilligan is the one who "wrote the book" and I might be viewed as a case of "failure to thrive!"
The trash heap of intellectual history is filled with the seminal books of supposed authorities.
I think the response from the women in this comment thread testify to the validity of your insight. There is nothing inherently male about aggression, though I do believe boys experience the biological and social forces surrounding violence differently than girls do. I'm inclined to believe those differences are of degree, not kind. And as women gain a greater foothold culturally, and are permitted to hold the reins of power more frequently and unequivocally, those supposed differences will become increasingly ambiguous.
There was a piece the other day in Foreign Policy about how women legislators continue to be less inclined to ratify violence than their male counterparts — but the opposite is true of women in chief executive and cabinet minister positions: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/04/25/iron_ladies?sms_ss=facebook&at_xt=4db724c75611a039%2C0
I think you chose wisely. And spoke wisely.
Yes… thank you, Davd. I'm not often supported in my decision, as it has career consequences. I'd rather be myself, though – and not be afraid of discovery. You do express it much better than I, though. Part of it's my keyboarding difficulty, and the rest constant distraction by multiple brief seizures… really not as bad as it might sound, yet definitely a slower-downer!
…not to leave out your intellect, however. Mine apparently got in the way. Oh fuck, I'll just blame it on seizures and muscle spasms. Yeah, that sounds good.
Reine, you bring up a good point, too. The "mean girl" mentality of some women, in particular directed at other women, is another kind of violence, although not physical. But psychological violence is sometimes worse.
Karen & Reine:
It would be an interesting discussion on its own merits, an exploration of how the "meanness" of girls compares with the 'violence of boys." Fran posted a great comment about how, as a teacher, she far preferred breaking up boys' fights rather than girls'.
However, I don't think girls are culturally encouraged to be mean, whereas boys are encouraged, within bounds, to be violent. And learning how to handle that says a lot about what kind of man a given boy will turn out to be.
But there's a great deal that girls are not encouraged to do that they are nonetheless tacitly permitted to get away with — perhaps because meanness is hard to enforce. How do you prove someone said something the way someone else heard it? And where is the evidence of harm? We don't take hurt feelings as seriously as a bloody nose.