Sports, Man

What does a guy do if he knows nothing about sports? Fakes it, of course.

I am a man. Sometimes I’m also a dude, guy, buddy, and on special occasions a chief. Not to be too tribalistic about it, but being a guy involves membership into a club where the initiation is being born with an outtie instead of an innie. I have, however, a crippling disorder that often bounces me from this brotherhood, like a suburban teen trying to buy Jager. It is a condition that has plagued me all my life.

I don’t know how to talk about sports. I’m completely sports-illiterate.

Let me set the scene. My wife and I are invited to some friend’s house to ostensibly drink alcohol-based beverages and eat foods of a deviled or toothpick-speared variety. Upon entering I am immediately struck by the reality that there is a game on: a football game, baseball game, women’s field hockey—it doesn’t matter. The plasma-screen TV glows menacingly. Immediately my body breaks out into a sheen of cold sweat. My vision blurs. My left arm goes numb. I taste copper. No, I am not having a stroke. I am just in full tilt panic because I know what is coming next. Someone hunched near the screen will say something like:

“With the Diamondbacks going around the horn on that last one it hardly matters if Quentin is on the DL for a hammy.”

But all I can hear is the sound adults make in Peanuts cartoons: WAH-WAH-WAH-WAH-WAH.

♦◊♦

If a guy approaches me wanting to chat about sports I’ll launch into a thoughtful dissertation on what is arguably one of Huey Lewis and the News’ finest albums. Go looking for me at a bar and you won’t find me huddled around the big screen with the fellas. That’s me gossiping with a gaggle of girls about how Patrick Dempsey so totally grew into his looks.

Besides having no speed or coordination, my biggest obstacles in football were catching the ball, and my complete lack of desire to do so.

I suppose I can’t talk the talk because I never walked the walk. When I was young, I rarely engaged in sports. A fat kid who bruised easily, the only time I broke a sweat was when I leaned too close to the toaster oven waiting for my pizza bagels. I was so fat my parents had to rub Vaseline on my thighs to keep them from chaffing (I wish I had not just written that). At Christmas, as I sat holding the brand-new baseball mitt I knew I’d never use, my greedy, coveting eyes trained on my sister’s freshly unwrapped Easy Bake Oven. Oh, the brownies I could make with that, I thought.

In instances, like recess, when forced into outdoor activity, I drew toward the four square or tetherball courts—low-impact games, or girly games, as they’re also known. But my date with the ladies was never to be because I’d inevitably get called over to play football. The other boys mistook my girth for athletic prowess. It was my job to disabuse them of this notion. Besides having no speed or coordination, my biggest obstacles in football were catching the ball, and my complete lack of desire to do so. Whenever a ball came hurling toward my face I automatically (and rather healthily, I think) swatted it away. Often this swatting motion was accompanied by an involuntary squeal of unbridled fear, like “Meep!” Over time the other boys stopped picking me for their teams and discontinued talking to me in general.

♦◊♦

Worse than football was a little something called “Smear the Queer.” If you are not familiar with this delightful pastime, please allow me the honor of introducing it to you. The game begins with a cluster of boys. I know it would be PC to say a “cluster of boys and girls,” but let me just say, ladies, I am giving your gender credit by leaving you out of this. Besides, once we’re talking about a game called “Smear the Queer,” I think we can throw any pretense of political correctness out the window. To continue, you have this cluster of boys. In the middle of this huddle there is a ball. All eyes watch this ball with great intensity. Finally, one boy swoops in and snatches it.

This lucky devil has become the “queer.” Now the only goal of the rest of the boys is to “smear”—i.e. tackle, pile on, and beat the holy hell out of—the queer. What’s more, the primary goal for the boy with the ball is to hang onto the ball and endure as much punishment as possible. There is no other reward for the queer other than getting crushed beneath a squirming mass of boys. Don’t you just love a game that is both homophobic and homoerotic at the same time? Eventually the ball is given up. Another lad dashes by to yank it and, viola, a new queer is born. Smear the Queer has no system of scoring. It is not a game you can win. The only purpose of the game was to explore your awakening bigotry.

♦◊♦

So no, I didn’t care much for sports. Had you met my thinner, teenage self, he would have told you that sports are nothing more than a mindless, brutish distraction. Of course, while I said that, I would have been wearing a snug turtleneck and matching black beret, and sipping espresso from a cup that apparently came from Barbie’s Dream House. Once the day came when the espresso ran dry, the turtlenecks shrunk in the wash, and a girl scout made fun of my beret, I realized that to get along in this world I needed to at least have a fake interest in sports.


By piecing together sound bites from sports-recap shows, I patched together a sort of pidgin sports talk. I’d catch a game now and then; maybe glean something from the commentators. I knew just enough to get me in trouble. One day, armed with a couple key phrases pulled from SportsCenter, I initiated sports talk with a coworker.

“Hey,” I said, “that Johnny Damon had a hell of a grand slam the other night.”

To which my conversation partner replied, “Oh yeah, Damon’s come a long way since hitting .149 with a .568 slugging percentage back in the Gulf Coast League, right?”

To which I replied, “Um. He has pretty hair.”

When happening upon a scene of guys watching a game, I boldly and fool-heartedly broke out my sports talk, sounding like a 19th-century English dandy: My word, what is this, my good fellows? Could this be a game of footing-ball? Why, I could watch footing-ball for a fortnight. What a ballyhoo! Did you just witness how that green-helmeted gentleman just sacked that red-helmeted gentleman? That must be good for me, for I have followed the doings of the green-helmeted gentlemen ever since my days at preparatory school. It is my sincerest wish they succeed in overcoming those reds or I’ll have to cry into my kerchief.

♦◊♦

It may sound like I have brain damage when I talk about sports, but a funny thing happened while faking interest in them: I developed actual interest in them. Beneath the statistics, jargon, and convoluted rules, there is something at the core of sports that attracts me: passion without consequence. Sports fanaticism is a kind of real world Valhalla where Packers fans and Bears fans can come together and vicariously beat the living tar out of each other. The winners rejoice like they actually accomplished something, and the losers grow back limbs and heal their wounds in time for next Sunday. Plus, is there anything more relaxing than watching other people work hard?

So if I come to your house to watch a game, please do not judge me too harshly. For are we not both engaged in that time-honored tradition of watching stuff instead of doing stuff? That, I believe, is a language we can all understand.

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About Cole Gamble

Cole Gamble's writings on the crimes of Willy Wonka, man-eating beds, and tales from his cringe-worthy life appear at Cracked, Babble, The Daily Beast, The New Yorker, Funny Crave, Mental Floss, The Huffington Post and Salon. Find him at his site, Fun with Cole and on Facebook.

Comments

  1. Oh Cole. How you’ve saddened me with this admission.

    I don’t trust guys who don’t like/can’t talk sports. Hell, I don’t really enjoy the company of women who know nothing about sports. That’s not fair and it’s not right. I’m close-minded in that regard. It’s the same thing with vegetarians (seriously—how can you not crave meat?!!?). But I can’t help it. It’s the truth.

    But having said that, I have more respect for the people who don’t like sports and stick to that dislike. Pretending to like sports, or arming yourself with just enough knowledge to make you look foolish, is an even worse transgression.

    And by the way, I’m not sure where you’re from but “Smear the Queer” was called “Muckle” in my neighborhood.

    • Hey I did say I like sports, and honestly, if sports talk were Spanish I have enough now to order drinks, get directions from strangers and ask my mugger to not point the gun at my groin.

      • I know, I’m just giving you shit.

        And I meant to add that, on the flip side, I’m not a fan of what I call “Statheads” either. The guys who feel the need to memorize ERA, batting average, RBIs, etc. It’s all too mechanical for me. Sure you can throw a few of those numbers in to bolster an argument, but my eyes glaze over when someone mentions VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) and starts spouting MoneyBall rhetoric.

        There’s a happy medium.

  2. I took a different approach to this problem. I take active pride in my sports ignorance and actively promote it. I figure that anyone who is put off by that probably won’t be my friend anyway. It’s a good social filter.

    So, yes, my friends all know that I thought the Dodgers still played in Brooklyn. Even the ones who weren’t there to hear that in person learned about it later when I told them. If you can’t laugh at yourself what can you laugh at? I find the whole thing amusing and don’t mind the teasing that comes with it.

  3. I dated a non-sports fan once. One of those guys who prided himself on not even owning a TV, much less a flat screen anything. Years ago, an NFC playoff game went into double overtime. Double overtime never happens. Double overtime and I was at freaking Barnes and Noble because they guy wanted to “get out of here and get some coffee.” Here being recognized as me sitting on his couch squinting at a non-antennaed, non-cable-ized 13″ screen he’d found in an upstairs closet.

    We, uh, weren’t a match.

  4. Conversely, do you know how hard it is to find a gentleman who can live without talking sports at least 3x per day? I hunted long for him, and once captured, have done my best to convince him not to run. Is hobbling still illegal?

  5. Henry Vandenburgh says:

    Hate it too. I practice and am into martial arts though. Track in high school, and can watch the Olympics. Hate it that women are now into sports, and couldn’t date one who was.

  6. Can we move on to a new social tradition now? says:

    I don’t like to watch or talk about sports. Know next to nothing about team sports, in particular. But for me, the most annoying aspect of sports is the “understanding” that as a guy in (American) society, you’re supposed to be well-versed in the topic. If you’re *not* well-versed in it, then you are viewed with disrespect if not downright ridicule. I’m also dismayed by the sheer earnestnes of guys’ sports conversations. Really? Once in awhile, sure. But all the time? How about putting that much energy and passion into learning about and fashioning your own opinion about world politics? Art? Environmental issues? Energy policy overhaul? Learning a new language? A reasoned approach to understanding the dynamics of a global economy? Your local zoning laws?

    At least, however, sports is still one notch above “reality t.v.” in terms of redeemable qualities.

  7. Would it make you feel better that at my school we generally called it “Kill the Guy with the Ball”? Frankly for years I thought queer was simply a reference to the game, hardly an exploration of bigotry; I suspect the homophobia/-eroticism is present only in the perception of adults who have other reasons to chase and pile on others. At least it was this way for me; I just wanted the damn football.

    Nevertheless, it’s essentially a game of reverse tag; instead of running away from whoever is “it”, everyone pursues him. So he tries to evade. (Frankly I’m surprised you don’t mention tag as an example of athletic ostracism – the slow are easily caught and may only tag someone with difficulty after a lengthy period of embarrassment. At least in Smear the Queer, the Queer chooses to be so, and may abdicate by simply dropping the ball.)

    The game makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: humans always were weaker and less dangerous than the prey they hunted. It took packs of humans to chase, tire, and bring down prey. At the same time, these prey animals were worshiped and feared for their strength and speed.

    So should it surprise you that young boys would want to ape adult behavior like this? To keep hold of the ball for as long as possible; to be swift enough to evade capture and strong enough to throw off the first few pursuers; to embody the qualities of what ancient humanity worshiped? They are not piling on the queer to cop a feel – they’re hunting him down. He is not grabbing the ball in order to get other boys to hop on top – he’s grabbing the ball to try to be swifter, stronger, more elusive than all the others.

    It’s also a good reason girls don’t participate in this game – they never (perhaps very rarely?) participated in the prehistoric hunt, either: their responsibilities lay elsewhere.

    I can understand why someone who knows plainly they are slower, weaker, more physically vulnerable wouldn’t want to join in – the game tests qualities they know they lack, and ignores other talents they may have in abundance. You were unable to succeed at the game, and you hate it. Is it possible that this is the reason you think the game is an exploration of bigotry fit only to train young boys to channel any feelings of homophilia towards violence?

    • An example of how the culture of school sports has had a negative impact in the lives of nonathletic boys. What a disgrace!

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