Jock Talk


You know what kills me? As a woman writing about sports to other women, I often feel like I need to explain things. The Xs and Os of sports, the specified lexicon, the references to players past and present—I never know how familiar readers are with all of this stuff. My guess is it runs the gamut: Some of y'all would know a hook slide from a hook shot, others might not know Yao Ming from Willie Shoemaker. But my guess is more men than women would pick up on the lingo.

Writing for men about sports is easy, because then sports-oriented words and references serve as shorthand, instantly conjuring up all sorts of complicated feelings and narrative. It's efficient. It makes writing and reading about sports a rich exercise. For instance, I can mention Joe Louis, and for anyone who knows his story, that simple name brings up all sorts of issues and emotions about race, poverty, and American history. But anyone who doesn't know his story would think, Oh yeah, that old boxer guy. Or take the tale of the Rumble in the Jungle—holy crap, what an amazing American saga, again a boxing story about race, rebellion, and redemption, politics, prowess, and pride. Not to mention one of the coolest winning strategies ever employed: Muhammad Ali's Rope-A-Dope, itself a hell of a metaphor for all sorts of things.

So, yes, a sports tale involving "major" (read: men's) national sports, with all their colorful language and symbolism and touchstone allusions, can be as complex and meaningful as a David Foster Wallace novel. But from a young age, women get left out of the sports conversation. Girls are elbowed out of the discussion and pushed toward the softball field, which doesn't quite hold the same collective meaning for us as, say, Yankee Stadium. The sports page, with all its hot opinions and dramatic pictures and box scores (statistics are an special sports idiom), automatically goes to the males at the breakfast table—the females get "Home & Garden" or whatever the fuck they call the section with Dear Abby and Cathy cartoons. Women end up marginalized in Title IX sports ghettos where the more facile a woman's athletic ability is, the more it's seen as an instrument that siphons resources away from men's sports.

In the end, the conversation is closed: No one wants to talk about the women's college tennis team, even if it wins a national championship, but a winless football team still infuses everyday chatter.

So that means talking sports in an, er, arena such as this one gets tricky, because if I have to engage in a long exposition explaining the metaphor, the power of the metaphor gets taken away. And if I don't, then no one knows what I'm talking about. Either way, the story gets changed, and again we end up in a different conversation than the one society at large is having.
But screw it—I like the conversation we're having! It's fun, right, and it's our own. It's just time to make it one of many options, instead of a default. Let's work on that, shall we.

So here's an assignment: This weekend, rent When We Were Kings, the documentary about Ali and George Foreman's Rumble in the Jungle—it is an amazing, beautiful film not just about a storied boxing match but about a huge moment in American cultural history. Ditto The Fight, which is a part of PBS' American Experience collection, about the battle between African-American boxer Joe Louis and Nazi symbol Max Schmeling.

And then next week, let's talk.

by Jonanna Widner
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10 Comments Have Been Posted

except i don't really want

except i don't really want to talk about fighting. when it comes to the sports section versus home and garden, i'll pick reading about growing things versus punching people in the face, and not give two shits what a man thinks about it one way or the other. i'm all for feminist critique of sports, but this blog has so far been nothing but insulting.
instead of harping on women for not giving enough of a crap to participate in "the conversation... [that] society at large is having" (which, you know, thanks for excluding what you consider to be the majority of women from "society at large"), why don't you take that disinterest more seriously and examine why sports maintain a privileged, serious position in societal discourse while some things like, say, gardening or housekeeping or empathetic advice-giving, garner such disdain. i reject professional sports as a personal interest because they are a waste of time and resources, not because i don't know the rules.

Fair enough...

only this is kind of what I'm talking about. You might not like the boxing part, but Muhammad Ali's story is amazing. This man who spent most of his time "punching people in the face" risked his entire career to stand up for the anti-war movement and civil rights and for his rights as a human being. This man was a peace activist, and a civil rights activist, who refused to fight in Vietnam, and went to jail for it.
He was a hero, and even if he had never stepped in a boxing ring again, he would have remained a hero. And the details and intricacies of his life comprise one of the most inspiring and important stories of our time. But to knee-jerk dismiss that because he was a boxer is to also dismiss the fact that this was a man who brought consciousness to millions of people, and who had to battle an oppressive society to do so, and that he fucking won out over the US government in the end. He was more subversive than most of us could ever hope to be.
The thing is, all that stuff was intertwined with the fact that he was a boxer. I really wish you'd watch When We Were Kings before you judge. If you already have, well...ok, we disagree.

And just to clarify: My point about the Home section is not to express disdain about the work of keeping a home or gardening. I was more thinking:

a) The Home section automatically goes to women, Sports to men. That split down the gender line is weird and unfair to both sides.

b) Of course gardening and housekeeping are worthwhile endeavors (though I am curious about your intense defense of Dear Abby). Shit, I read the gardening tips before I even turn to the sports page. But the Home sections in general are patronizing to women and it pisses me off, and I'm surprised, judging from your comments, it doesn't piss you off too. I'm sorry, but articles on how to lose weight and advice columns about how to keep a man and sections filled with recipes and bridge columns (not because a woman might like to cook and play cards, mind you, but because of some archaic mindset that envisions women as 50s housewives who are *expected* to cook and then while away the hours with their lady friends playing silly games) are not my idea of empowering.

I also agree with you that sports--especially on a big scale--are very problematic. But I am a feminist and I love sports. Much of the feedback I've received about this blog is from people who feel the same way. It's a complex issue, and I"m just trying to get a conversation started about it.

Thanks for your comments. I hope you keep reading.

Great comments!

I am loving the Jock Bitch discussions, especially because I am relatively new to the sports discourse. While I totally agree with the comment that home & garden stuff is great, it's also important to acknowledge that sports (and by sports I mean the athletes, the metaphors, the games, etc.) makes up a big part of our culture, and just because women are left out of that doesn't mean we can't talk about it, or start changing the dialogue through our participation. (And of course, both home & garden and sports discussions should be for men, women, and whoever else wants to join in.)

Thanks for the film recommendation! As someone who isn't drawn to the Sports section or the Home & Garden section (I am more of a front-page/crossword nerd) I am grateful to have advice as to how to participate in this discussion as a non-sporty (but opinionated!) feminist.

Thanks J., for the thoughts,

Thanks J., for the thoughts, couldn't agree more. Simply because sports are associated with "masculinity," all of a sudden, sports played by men become so important as to become a cultural glue and phenomenon and religion. Sad truth is anything associated with "femininity" is devalued and never garners the same kind of attention and seriousness as something as silly as two grown idiots punching themselves or tackling themselves or trying to get a silly ball in a silly basket.

And Joanna, you're confusing two very different things, namely sports and social activism. If a social activist HAPPENED to be a sportsperson/artist/engineer/homemaker/WHATEVER, that doesn't have to with sports or whatever. By the way, you're also missing the point that the reason Ali was able to be taken seriously was not only because he was a man but a man who enjoyed respect based on the fact that he was a SPORTS HERO.

You're not necessarily writing "to other women."

Writing about sports to people who are interested in "feminist response to pop culture" is not the same as writing to women.

how is that exactly?

how is that exactly?

Not everyone who reads this

Not everyone who reads this is female-identified.

Of course not everyone who

Of course not everyone who reads this is female-identified! Which is a good thing--a great thing, actually.
Let me try and put it another way: I am a feminist, and one of my responses to pop culture is to have this blog directly address women.
That is only one of many responses available, and that's the one I've chosen in this particular case. I've chosen to do so, because even to this day, women are not addressed directly--by the media, by blogs, by other people--when it comes to conversations our culture has on a collective basis.

There's a lot of issue with

There's a lot of issue with women as sports fans all over the place-I spent an entire masters' thesis looking only at professional hockey and the women who follow it. Just there, in the least big of the "big 4," women are being stereotyped and mis-marketed to on a regular basis... when they bother to realize we exist at all.

If you're interested, thesis is here:

I don't object to being marketed to as a woman, I just object being marketed to as a stereotype.

Former film reviewer jumping in to say...

...that <i>When We Were Kings</i> is also, quite simply, also one of the best effing documentary films ever made. I don't know bupkis about boxing in specific or sports in general (e.g., not long ago I said to colleagues who wanted me to go out bowling with them, "But I don't even know how to <i>play</i> bowling!"). Fortunately, such audience ignorance melts away in the hands of intelligent (but not patronizing) filmmakers; and even if you think "some dumb movie about boxing" will cause you to die of horror and boredom, you're wrong (and Miriam Makeba is gonna prove it to you).

I haven't seen <i>The Fight</i> (though I'm adding it to the queue right now) but the same is certainly true for, say, <i>Hoop Dreams</i>: You don't have to know from pick-and-roll to understand the story and have your heart torn out by it. I'm as ashamed of my woeful sports ignorance (thanks to my having grown up before Title IX? or just because I was a skinny, uncoordinated nerd?) as I am of any other indefensible prejudice—not unlike, say, my long-standing reluctance to read "male" novelists like Pynchon and Gaddis and, well, David Foster Wallace. What I find is that the more I foreclose on my cultural options, deciding certain avenues are shut off to me, the more pleasure I deny myself. And life is too berloody short to miss out on any more of the only artifacts which justify human existence.

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