Playing with the Gaze

My family is filled with football fans, ever since I can remember I’ve been surrounded by the culture of football. My cousin played and I went to almost all of the high school football games. However, my closest interactions with the sport and the players was during my individual running seasons when I would run during the time of football practice. I would use the same facilities as the players during their practices, and was a witness and victim of derogatory language and violence. One time during a high school practice, I walked in on three football players exchanging homoerotic language and gestures. Because I interrupted their space, I was approached and sworn to secrecy about what I had witnessed, and was threatened of “getting my ass handed to me” if I told anyone what was happening.

For this class, however, I observed football games at local parks and soccer fields to see how the players set up their game and how they play. One audacious time I said to myself, “I should go play and see how this goes…” From my previous experience, I had certain expectations that I would be the target of ridicule, and it turned out true. As we were playing, each team captain, which were the two players with the largest body, chose his team and his set up. I had asked the group if we were playing ‘tackle’ or ‘flag’, which decides whether or not players can be physically tackled to the ground. The team captains response was that we would play tackle because “men who don’t play tackle football are pussies” (I apologize for their language). Here, I noticed both a male dominance over women, and an intermale competition of masculinity. Although very closely related, they each deserve full analysis. By equating men who do not play tackle to a female body part (which has historically been subject to scrutiny by male figures of power), they are essentially relating weakness to the female body. By comparison, they structure masculinity to equal strength and dominance over femininity. Therefore, in order for them to be strong and competent men, they must not be “pussies.” In addition to this being a misogynistic phrase, it symbolizes the need for men to police each other so none of them will become too effeminate. Therefore, we “needed” to play tackle with each other to challenge and solidify each other’s masculine potential as male bodies.

I was opposed to playing tackle because I had no knowledge of how hard these guys would hit me since I just met them. I had no protective gear, which made me fear for the safety of my body. In this moment I realized how pads and helmets in organized football games create an environment that actually encourages violence because of the assumed “protection” from the padding gear. And, like I expected, I was no longer welcome to play. But, I changed my mind and said I would play just to see if they could even chase me down. After the second play, I ran faster then my opposing team and scored the first touchdown and decided to leave the game right after. My departure meant that the teams were now uneven, which made them cuss at me using the same derogatory language above. My finals words to them were “a real man would solve his problems before complaining about them” to which they replied with shock and silence 🙂

My encounter shows how men, who do not have to play at the professional level, internalize the misogynistic and hyper masculine culture that football promotes. These men not only bring these ideologies to the recreational sport, but they carry these expectations into their personal lives.

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1 Response to Playing with the Gaze

  1. Sarah McCullough says:

    Wow. That is a really intense encounter to me. I often find stories of the verbal brutality of some men’s sports shocking. These are worlds that I often do not have access to. You give a precise, insightful, and targeted critical analysis. Thanks for sharing.

    On the more optimistic side of things, someone just shared with me a story of Michael Sam being given a standing ovation at a basketball game recently. The times, they are a’ chaning… (or so I hope).

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