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Can Men and Women Watch Sports Together?

The next installment in a conversation about the plight of the female sports fan

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 yesterday with a note to Hampton about sexism at the stadium and in sports journalism. Today, Hampton responds, and Alyssa writes back.


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Dear Alyssa,

Before addressing your very valid concerns about the culture of sports fandom and women's place in it, let's get one thing clear: You are, in fact, totally jealous that I'm covering the Super Bowl. While I'm down in Dallas, chilling metaphorically at the Playboy party with Snoop and Warren G., you'll be literally chilling back on the East Coast.

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Like you, my heart belongs to another team. But because that team is the Kansas City Chiefs, who haven't won a playoff game in 17 years, you'll pardon me for not weeping over the sad fate of Patriots fans. The point, though, is neither of us have an emotional attachment to a club playing this weekend. Neither of us—if Eagles fans will excuse the expression—have a dog in this fight.

Unfortunately, my rooting interests won't be based on anything as high-minded as how the players behave in their personal lives. For me, it's about greed. Roughly umpteen billion dollars will be bet on this year's Super Bowl, and the plan is for a tiny percentage of that cash to end up in my pocket. When one stands to win or lose, say, a month's wages because of what the players do on the field, any worries about what they might have done off it tend to get shoved aside.

There's just no excuse for the loutish behavior of some fans—like those Jets fans at Gate D. It's awful. But it's unfair to claim that football is to blame for it. The same sort of ugly mob mentality can take over anytime a big crowd meets too much alcohol, and blaming the revolting, possibly illegal, behavior of those idiots on the game of football is like blaming plastic beads for what goes on at Mardi Gras.

There is certainly no excuse for A. J. Daulerio's decision to post that video. It was just unconscionable. Even if the sex was consensual—and that's clearly a pretty big "if"—those people weren't coaches, players, broadcasters, or anyone else who chose to be in the public eye. Posting that clip was invasive, and it turned Deadspin a porn site, plain and simple. The site's founder Will Leitch must be spinning in his grave. Or he would be, anyway, if he weren't still alive.

If we're are going to excoriate Daulerio for doing the wrong thing, though, it's fair to note when he gets it right—like when Deadpsin revealed Brett Favre's alleged sexual harassment of Jets' employees. For years, supposedly ethical sportswriters, for supposedly serious publications, knew all about Favre's douchebaggery. Many, many sportswriters. Like, all of them. But no one exposed the famed quarterback—pun intended. In that GQ profile you cited, no less a personage than Frank DeFord questioned Daulerio's choice to write about Favre's behavior. DeFord claimed there are more important things to worry in sports about than what he called "Brett Favre trying to get laid," and the rest of us call a potential felony.

But Daulerio is no feminist, and there's no denying your larger point: Deadspin's atmosphere is rough. Doubly so for the site's huge, fantastically committed community of commenters, who can always be counted on to keep the tone somewhere between a celebrity roast and a junior high boys' locker room. In fact, you couldn't ask for a more vivid example of how men communicate about sports—and how it can create an environment women find inherently hostile.

The truth, unsatisfying as it may be, is that sports talk feels hostile because that's exactly how it's supposed to feel.

For men, friendship can be a kind of perpetual boot camp, with every guy in the circle acting as a Sergeant Hulka for the other. The unspoken theory is that your buddies insult you to toughen you up, because you'll face much worse in the wider world. For most men, then, insults can be a way of expressing affection. We make fun of each other's clothes. We mock each other for losing hair, or having a funny nose. If guys are really close, we'll even make fun of each other's religion or ethnicity—verboten as that may be. It might seem sad or silly, but insulting each other is how we bud intimacy.

This brotherhood of insults creates a lot of miscommunication between the sexes. A lot. Like when a female fan tells a group of male fans to treat her "exactly the same" as they treat each other. Every guy who hears that knows it isn't is really true—or he learns through sad experience.

In asking to be treated "just like one of the guys," a woman is really asking—at least in a guy's mind—to be insulted. She's asking to be mercilessly teased about anything and everything, from hair to shoes. Tease a guy about his new shoes. He'll probably shrug. Or maybe cuss. With women, things often don't work out like that. Tease a woman about her new shoes, and no one knows what happens. That's because no one has ever teased a woman about her shoes and lived to tell about it.

If guys have an inherent wariness about female sports fans, much of it comes from our fear of screwing up and hurting your feelings. It has very little to do with how much you spent on playoff tickets or how good you are at Celtics trivia. Truly. It's because we know that having a woman around—even if you promise otherwise—usually means we have to be careful about what we say. What fun is that?

As for women who pretend to like sports to meet athletes, avoiding that label is easy. Don't wear heels to a ballpark. Kidding!

Seriously, though. If you don't want to be treated differently because of your sex, take sex out of the equation as much as possible. Men compete. If sports are involved, we compete even more. Throw a woman into the mix, we turn to idiots.

The most important thing a woman can do to gain acceptance with male sports fans is to never, ever, for any reason, mention that you find a player attractive.

It. Just. Isn't. Done.

First, that injects sex into the conversation. Never a good idea. See above, re: men are idiots. Bring up sex, you are inviting guys to think about you sexually. Secondly, nothing alienates the average heterosexual male football fan faster than reminding him of the game's massive latent homoerotic appeal. You might as well badmouth America or take a wiz in the guacamole.

Okay. Maybe it's best to stop before this turns into a service piece—or a dissertation. I'm looking forward to your thoughts, Alyssa. Assuming that is, you're still speaking to me.



NEXT: Alyssa on why sports are all about sex

Hi Hampton,

Richard Greenberg, in his play about a gay baseball player who decides to come out, Take Me Out, has one of his main characters joke, "The whole mess started with a really beautiful park. And in the park were a man, a woman, a serpent, and this tree." Of course sports are about sex. Roger Angell—perhaps the greatest baseball writer of all time, and a man who seemed to have a lot fewer problems with that concept than those who have come after him—wrote about the movie Bull Durham, "It's certainly the first movie that ever suggested (and enjoyed) the fact that ballplayers are sexual animals, objects of vivid interest to women. They do beautiful things with their bodies, it says, and we watch them not just to see who's going to win."

If straight women and gay men are the people who get that, and are comfortable with that essential truth at the heart of sports, doesn't that mean that my plans to be the future Mrs. Wes Welker make me a better fan than you are?

I kid. Mostly. But I think what we're stuck on is this: you're saying straight women interrupt the brutal rituals of dude-bonding over sports. And I'm saying that women's ways of fandom are just as important, and that men's bonding rituals marginalize that at best, and threaten women who are fans at worst. Is what we want irreconcilable?

I also think you're underestimating the extent to which women can talk trash about sports. I spend a lot of time with my guy friends calling Ben Roethlisberger a rapist potato, dishing third-hand gossip about Derek Jeter's sex life, and talking about Eli Manning's big vulnerable dumb puppy eyes and how disgusted I am that the Patriots' collapse elevated his stature in the game. But I also mostly watch sports with fellow Red Sox and Patriots fans, so we're a united front. That mockery's a collective project aimed at demoralizing the other team, so we don't need to turn on each other. If we're watching with a fan from another nation, you're probably right—I'll leave tearing them down to my guy friends. I tend to think my theory about how Peyton Manning should make buddy comedies with Vince Vaughn after retirement is funnier than calling a guy sitting two down the couch from me an asshole. But I don't need to say any of these things, or to be more or less of a jerk, to be right about BenJarvus Green-Ellis's potential before the rest of my regular sports-watching buddies acknowledged it.

And you know what? If the game's just about going for every jugular in the vicinity, then I don't really need in. But I think there are a lot of legitimate ways to be a sports fan, whether you're a guy or a girl. Be you a statistics obsessive who lives with a radio plugged into your ear, a veteran manager of a thousand fantasy teams, or yeah, a girl in a mini-skirt, jersey, and big hoop earrings hollering from the bleachers that a pitcher has a God-given right to check the runner at first in response to a balk call, I pretty much believe all fandom is created equal.

And I tend to think the experience of rooting for a team, or watching sports in general, is richer when all those kinds of appreciation can co-exist and can bring people together in joy and agony. As Mason, the gay accountant who becomes a baseball fan during the course of Take Me Out says after going to a major league game for the first time says, "It was the first crowd I had ever agreed with."

I'm comfortable with the idea that sports are about competition and sex and America, and all that stuff we invoke when a bunch of guys run onto a field to chase a ball around. I don't feel any particular need to shut down or regulate dudes yelling at each other. But I don't really believe that if all women who love sports stopped commenting on athletes' sex appeal, guys would suddenly make the collective spaces of fandom, from stadiums to sports blogs, reasonably safe places for women. (As a side note, I think we can agree that horrible behavior at stadiums, from extreme profanity, to drunkenness, to physical altercations, is a problem for huge numbers of people without regard to gender. It's a real tragedy that people who are unable to behave make it impossible for families to come to games together.) Why should one way of appreciating sports have pride of place over all the others?