Sports Aren't Sex, They're War

In the run-up to this year's Super Bowl, two of our regular contributors, Alyssa Rosenberg and Hampton Stevens, will be discussing the challenges that face female sports fans, who are perhaps in greater number than ever. Alyssa began the conversation earlier this week with a note to Hampton about sexism at the stadium and in sports journalism. Yesterday, Hampton responded, and Alyssa wrote back. Today, Hampton writes about the nature of sports.


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Dear Alyssa,

Of course fans should feel physically safe. All fans. Everyone has the right to personal safety. Of course we agree that sexual harassment is unacceptable. When Brett Favre played for the Jets, women who spurned his creepy come-ons saw their careers suffer... allegedly. That's beyond gross and wrong. It's criminal. Rightfully so.

But it's a massive leap from believing that a woman shouldn't be sexually harassed in the workplace to thinking that all women, everywhere, should be kept safe from feeling like second-class sports fans. That's impossible because of how men communicate—especially how we communicate about sports—but also because of the nature of sport itself. Our conflict about fandom, it seems to me, stems from a fundamental disagreement about what that nature is.

Sure, sports can be sexy. The athletes have beautiful bodies, and they can do beautiful things with them. But sports are not about sex. The notion of sex as being the essential truth at the heart of sports strikes me as a major misreading—of both history, and of how sports function in our society today.

Richard Greenberg is a fine playwright, but sports were emphatically not born in the Garden of Eden. They were born on Mount Olympus. There's absolutely nothing Judeo-Christian about the idea of staging athletic competitions for public consumption. The concept is purely pagan. For the ancient Greeks, athletics were utterly central to the notion of the good life, and it's no coincidence that the Greek word for athletic competition was the same as the word for battle. While the game of American football (i.e. land acquisition through force) may be the most obvious example, all organized sports are a form of symbolic combat. Sports aren't sex, in short. They are war. They are stylized combat—either as a training ground for real warfare or a psychological substitute for it.

Granted, the average straight male football fan too often denies or ignores the game's sexual subtext. But those female and gay male fans you describe? They make the opposite mistake—they put too much emphasis on the sexual subplot and so miss the main narrative: violence. On a court, gridiron, pitch, or diamond, the point isn't to look pretty while playing. You play, like the man said, to win the game—and you do so by physically imposing your will on the opposition.

The idea that sports are about sex strikes me as an intellectualized version of mentioning that you find a player handsome. It introduces aesthetics into a realm where aesthetics should play no part. Essentially, it tries to make art out of a competition. That doesn't work.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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