The NFL Draft and the Objectification of Men

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If you’ve got anything resembling a conscience, objectifying others in the normal course of business is an unpleasant thing to do.

After graduating from college in December 2001, I accepted a position as an assistant manager for Abercrombie & Fitch.  The employer was loathsome–all of the claims alleged in Gonzalez v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores are true, and then some–but the worst part of the job consisted of meeting on Sunday mornings with the rest of the management team to grade the appearances of the minimum wage-earning, merchandise discount-receiving brand representatives.  That’s right:  we sat around and assigned grades, A-F, to the hapless souls we’d recruited off the sales floor to wear and fold that season’s hottest articles of clothing.

Some of the other managers were merciless–a result, no doubt, of the sort of arrogance that often accompanies a position of minor authority.  Women with figures that weren’t even the least bit “full” were derided as obese.  One of our better folders, a male of East Indian descent, was described as “stockroom quality” (meaning he should be kept in the back, where he could pass his time applying security sensors to the merchandise).  A young African-American male with extremely green braces was a source of considerable controversy.  Although our best and most eager worker, he was despised by the upper management, who wanted him removed from the schedule as soon as possible.

“He’s not collegiate.  He’s not quality.  What is he doing out there?” the regional manager once asked.

“Folding,” I replied.  “He’s the only person we have who is any good at that, including me.”

“He’s got to go,” I was told.

So for weeks I found myself closing the store by my lonesome, as all of the “collegiate” and “quality” employees proved far more unreliable than the brand rep with the green braces.  I’d dodge his calls as best I could, but since he lived nearby, he’d often arrive unsolicited, only to find me working far harder than I would have liked.  On more than one occasion, he worked off the clock to help me close.

“We just don’t have the hours for you,” I would assure him, in the process feeling about as lowdown and despicable as a person could possibly feel.

After giving my two weeks’ notice, I learned from a pair of co-workers that I graded out as a solid B, for what it’s worth.  “You’re totally too smart to be working here anyway,” one of them added, also for what it’s worth.

♦◊♦

I tell this story for two reasons:

  1. Abercrombie & Fitch was, and perhaps still is, an awful company.  
  2. If you’ve got anything resembling a conscience–and I don’t claim to have much of one–objectifying others in the normal course of business is an unpleasant thing to do.

On the incessant objectification of women, much has already appeared elsewhere by individuals not writing from the position of structural privilege that I possess.  But I do know what it’s like to be Other-ized (i.e., “man’s desire is the desire of the Other“) after having acquaintances and colleagues affix labels to me such as “buff guy,” “totally my type,” “a real musclebear,” “so wholesome,” etc.   The recognition that someone, anyone, happens to be desiring you is disconcerting, to say the least.

A tidal wave of articles appeared in the wake of the Soderbergh film Magic Mike, most asking more or less the same thing:  are men now being objectified in the same ways as women?  This question, while far from irrelevant, doesn’t strike me as the best question to ask…and even then, it’s not a question worth asking about Magic Mike (the so-called “Golden Age” of bodybuilding in the late 1940s and early 1950s would be a far better place to commence such an analysis).

This is a piece about male objectification that has nothing whatsoever to do with Magic Mike, which I haven’t seen but which I have been assured is a perfectly fine film.  It is instead about one of the principal but largely overlooked means of male objectification in our society: the endless 24/7 sports scouting now adjunct to all major fields of collegiate and professional endeavor.  Its fullest flowering is the NFL Draft, an event that occurs but once per year yet is covered as if it were always mere moments away.  The NFL Draft’s official website is a multimedia hootenanny, consisting of thousands of clips of brawny men running 40-yard dashes, bench-pressing 225 pounds for reps, and jumping as high as they possibly can.  When reading through its list of prospects, one encounters descriptions of players similar to this one:

“Thick arms eat up ball carriers coming into his path. Quick, small dancer’s feet and a bit of short-area speed to spin off blocks inside and follow plays across the field.  A bit dense and doughy around the midsection.  Potential for weight problems has dogged him throughout his career.  Huge hands–can palm a basketball.  Gorgeous acceleration off the block. Always-pumping tree trunk thighs allow him to overpower opposing blockers.”

What, I wonder, are we to make of that fulsome and curiously sexualized description?  Some would contend that because the recipient of such high praise may soon become a very wealthy man, he, like Kate Upton et al., is “asking for it” (whatever that means). By making himself eligible for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy, he has given license to analysts ranging from Mel Kiper, Jr. (who has played just as much football as my cat has, which is to say none) to Skip Bayless (ditto) to inveigh against his “wide body” and “lack of intangibles.”  And the owner of this huge body will be covered and, uh, uncovered (literally:  athletes are made to strip down at the NFL Combine to ensure that accurate measurements of hands, hips, etc. are taken) on a loop as we enter the bleak period in early spring when the only things to report on are the NBA (who cares?), the NHL (is that even a real thing?), and college hoops (irrelevant until the Sweet 16 and irrelevant again after the Final Four).

♦◊♦

For someone who has consumed sports programming in a thoughtless, uncritical way for decades–as mere filler to occupy life’s thousands of wasted hours–the realization of how dehumanizing this process of talent evaluation is, and how close it is to the wretched labor I once undertook for Abercrombie & Fitch, came as a shock.  And it’s not just pro athletes, as my earlier link to Rivals.com was intended to indicate.  Grown-up, and in many cases washed-up, “scouts” follow around teens and pre-teens in the hopes of discovering an individual who will grow, like a prize pig or cow, into the “next big thing” (George Dohrmann’s Play Their Hearts Out offers one particularly compelling example of this twisted reality).

There are, I suppose, certain redeeming aspects of athletic competition.  But I’m convinced that those are primarily personal:  the thrill of you yourself bench-pressing 400 pounds, running a 6-minute mile, or dunking a basketball.  These are genuine achievements that, even if exceeded by many others, leave you with a deep sense of satisfaction.  The rest of it, this ceaseless watching and critiquing (“look at the body on that guy,” “what a monster down in the low post,” and so on), strikes me as born of ressentiment:  a frustrated coach and frustrated fans living through one or two fine pieces of beef who gambol and cut-block and swim as they too would have, if only they had grown to 6’8″ or run 4.4 40-yard dashes or posted some other arbitrary exercise statistic.  And what of these young gods, these men with the strapping physiques and the can’t-miss talent?  As GMP editor Joanna Schroeder’s conversation with a trio of former top NFL draft picks illustrates, many wind up as frustrated and broken-down husks of the men they never were but others thought they could have been.  They warrant our empathy, too.

Instead of concerning ourselves with Kobe Bryant’s Regenokine surgeries and Luke Joeckel’s pro potential (“can’t miss,” it would seem), we ought perhaps to focus on our own rec league performances and “tough mudder” runs.  By moving away from objectifying the lives of other men, we might draw closer to our own potential, however limited that potential proves to be.

Photo–Flickr/Marianne O’Leary

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About Oliver Lee Bateman

Good Men Project contributing editor Oliver Lee Bateman is a columnist for Al-Jazeera America and Made Man Magazine. His writing has been featured in Salon, The Atlantic, Johnny America, Stymie: A Journal of Sport and Literature, the U.S. Intellectual History Blog, STIR Journal, Mic.com, and NAP Magazine. He is also one of the founders of the Moustache Club of America and Penny & Farthing, two blogzines specializing in flash fiction and creative nonfiction that he co-curates with web developer Erik Hinton, medical consultant Nathan Zimmerman, and freelance writers Christie Chapman and J. R. Powell. Oliver is a lawyer as well as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. Follow him on Twitter @MoustacheClubUS or on Google+.

Comments

  1. These guys are displaying their folding skills at the combine, to go back around to your A&F analogy. My girlfriend was also a manager for that company and your experience matches hers. But it’s a great leap to compare that situation to the NFL where players are not paid minimum wages and where, again, the skills they are graded on pertain to their functionability on the field.

    Mindless superfandom can be obnoxious, but rooting for a team and enjoying watching competitive displays either in person or on TV is not an unmitigated bad. We’re humans. We rally around teams and competition and sport. It is not all bad.

    • Chuck, are you saying that it’s the money that defines what is or isn’t objectification? I would have to really disagree with that.

      I agree that enjoying watching competitive displays isn’t inherently “bad”. But when you’re watcing pro-sports, it’s not *just* about good gameship. It’s about money, it’s about advertising, it’s about branding… and so much more than just watching a game. Drug use or cheating during playing have become common place. The hits are harder than they were 30 years ago I believe. Im not sure people simply want to see a competitive game as they want to see super-human competitive games.

      Oliver, I really like your piece!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Allow me to elaborate.  Over the years, insofar as I considered my appearance at all, it was mostly to gauge my body’s fitness as an instrument for performing various exercises and sports movements.  I never viewed it as something that was worthy of praise as a beau ideal of human development.  If pressed, I’d remark that I was “average” or “below average” in terms of looks, though I’d sometimes add that I “worked at it” (whatever that meant). There were a handful of inarguably beautiful men–the Zac Efrons and Ryan Phillippes and That Guy from The Hills-es–but I sure as heck I wasn’t among them. Despite being grade-obsessed throughout my lengthy academic career, I had received only two marks in this particular subject: a female acquaintance once remarked that I was a “solid 6″ (out of 10, one hopes) and my fellow Abercrombie & Fitch managers had awarded me a “B” (on a scale where a B me… […]

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