Is Some Gay Men's Distaste for Football Innate?

Competitive sports were hard for me. And sports on TV? You would think that sitting on the couch, with the pressure to perform removed, I could glean some enjoyment fromfootball or baseball, but I never understood what was happening.
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The NFL Super Bowl XLVII will be on television this weekend. Excuse me while I go into the other room to read. (I just downloaded Touch Me: Poems by Suzanne Somers on my Kindle.) Yes, I know there are lots of gay men who love sports and play sports. I'm just not one of them. Do I sound "old-fashioned"? Once, when I told a trick we had to use condoms, he called me "old-fashioned." So who knows? Maybe I am.

During my adolescent years I was the epitome of the scrawny kid who prays that the ball will never be passed to him in gym class. Competitive sports were hard for me. I never understood what was happening. Later, the only sports I practiced and loved were solitary ones like jogging and weightlifting. For two semesters in college, I competed on my school's diving team, but that's hardly barbarian warfare; if anything, it's one daisy-flowered shower cap away from synchronized swimming.

And sports on TV? You would think that sitting on the couch, with the pressure to perform removed, I could glean some enjoyment from watching football or baseball, a globally celebrated social ritual. But it all made my eyes glaze over. In sports bars I was always the one being asked repeatedly to stop talking. Sports looked exciting up there on the screen, playing out like a brutal ballet, but I could just understand them well enough to enjoy watching them. Even Jell-O wrestling confused me.

But why? It certainly wasn't from lack of exposure to sports. I'd gone to all the endless gym classes required in school (oh, the hours of misery!). I'd been roped into countless football and softball games growing up. I'd certainly been around people watching sports on TV, perhaps for a hundred or more hours across my lifetime. So why wasn't I absorbing the information as easily as everyone else in these situations? The rules of competitive sports seemed to be in a language I didn't have the capacity to understand. Do straight men pop out of the womb knowing what a "halfback dive" and an "inside zone read" are? Does it boil down to the fact that either you "get" sports or you don't, the same way you "get" art, fashion or camp or you don't? Is straight men's distaste for fashion and art similarly deep-rooted? Maybe I simply lacked the sensibility.

As I got older, I continued to know nothing about the teams whose logos were embroidered on the caps and T-shirts I wore too often in college (the late '80s). For me sportswear was fashion. When people struck up conversations about the teams on my hats, I'd smile and nod. I hung out with an art crowd, spending most of my time with the experimental painters and jazz musicians that congregated in Bruce Hall at the University of North Texas.

I had a friend in college named Trey, who, despite his obsession with '70s performance art and French philosophy, also loved football... and girls. Trey and I had differences but opened each other up to new cultural experiences, striking up our own "gay-straight alliance" before the term was fashionable. I turned him on to James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room and John Waters' Female Trouble, and he turned me on to the art of Joseph Beuys, the philosophy of Michel Foucault and the intricacies of football plays like the "Hail Mary pass" and the "triple option." But much like the post-structuralist theories of Michel Foucault, football seemed confusing and annoying to me at the time. Trey was smart. He had a passions for art and music similar to mine. But he also loved sports, unlike me. Was the difference in our sexual orientations at the root of the disconnect? I had to know.

One Saturday afternoon in the fall of 1989, an enthusiastic mob had gathered at Trey's overcrowded apartment -- a central meeting place -- to watch the big game. Trey was sitting in the middle of the couch in front of the TV, where he'd be for the next three hours. I had no idea who was playing whom. (It was the Dallas Cowboys, Trey's favorite team.) I was huddled around the stereo with other like-minded non-sports types, arguing about song order on Durutti Column mixtapes. Eventually I waded across the room, over crumpled Whataburger wrappers and empty Schaefer beer cans, and plopped down on the couch next to Trey.

I told him that, for once in my life, I wanted to watch an entire football game, from beginning to end, and know every detail of what was happening. I wanted him to explain everything to me, from the babble between the commentators on the pre-show all the way to the victory shouting in the locker room at game's end. I wanted to know every player's name, number and history, and every rule, call, fumble, score, reason for the fumble, reason for the score... all in real time. Trey was thrilled! Why had we never tried this before? It was college, a time to experiment.

Trey leaned over and began speaking in my left ear as the game started, and he kept speaking. I locked my eyes on the screen. With deep concentration and Trey's running commentary, I was able to follow every single pass, tackle and instant replay. As he spoke, I occasionally moved slightly to give the faintest indication of a nod. I don't think I've concentrated on anything so hard in my life. The crowd, the room, everything within our circumference melted away into a soft void. People tried to interrupt with offers of beer or conversation, but we'd extend an arm to shoo them away. The hours became frozen.

By the end of the second quarter, I had hit a stride and realized that I could predict what was probably going to happen next, based on things that Trey was saying. It was working! I could follow a football game! Was I enjoying it? No, but it didn't matter. What mattered was that I could now (and probably even today) describe the game's chronological events like reciting the plot of a favorite film or book. I felt like I could have a conversation with someone else who had seen the game and talk -- really talk, not pretend to talk -- about it with them. It was all so exciting.

With overtime the game went well over four hours, but in the end the Cowboys won, and I knew why! What a rush! I "got" it! It was a personal best. I felt like I was entering Trey's secret garden.

I also felt a little dizzy...

At their team's victory, everyone in the room began howling and leaping up and down. It sounded like a swarm of wasps stinging my ears. I clamped my hands over my ears, still sitting, facing the screen. My posture had grown compacted, and my brow was scrunched between my eyes, which were shrunken like raisins. I had remained motionless on that couch for nearly four hours.

I tried to stand. Trey's living room looked different than it had before, more sideways than usual. I had the same feeling one gets after waking from an unexpected nap, a momentary "where am I?" I looked around the spinning room with my newly football-keen eyes. Was I OK? I realized that I had sat down on the couch again without remembering having done so.

"Mark!" Trey exclaimed. "We did it! Do you want another beer? Are you OK?"

He noted that I looked pale. I felt pale. I also felt the need to go home. But mostly I felt a piercing pain in the upper part of my head -- not a headache in the ordinary sense, but more like an all-over-the-body headache.

Trey tried to wallop my shoulder with a hearty smile, thanking me for the experience. Halfway through his words, his face dropped again.

"Wow, you don't seem OK," he said with concern.

"You blew my circuits," I mumbled to him in the wrong tone. My eyes must have looked wild.

I stood up and attempted to walk to the front door. Sounds seemed further away than they should have been. I tried to push the purple spots away from my vision so that I could say goodbye to my friends. They just stared back. Where was their team spirit? I looked down and noticed that Trey was holding my hand as I walked through the crowd. "Oh, my god," Trey said. "Let me help you, Mark."

When we reached the door, I went outside. A crisp autumn breeze brushed against my face. I inhaled deeply. It felt bad.

"Let's go to your car," Trey said, leading the way.

He asked for my keys. Friends don't let friends drive drunk, but friends also don't let gay friends who watched an entire football game on TV and had their homosexual circuits blown drive, either.

We pulled up to the rambling house in Denton, Texas, that I shared with a bunch of art types, my formal friends, other gays. Trey assisted me to the front door. Stumbling, I felt like I was wearing roller skates.

I tried to sleep. My bed felt like concrete. By 1 a.m. my vision was blurry, I felt sick, and that searing, piercing pain grinding down from the top of my head into my jaw was getting worse. I called Trey. When I described my symptoms, we both got scared. Trey picked me up again and drove me to the university hospital. When the nurse asked why I was there, I said, "I'm gay, and I tried to watch a whole football game on TV." Trey and I both chuckled, then I winced in pain. The nurse just stared. I told the doctor on call the same thing. (Trey forced a laugh the second time.) The doctor had no diagnosis. Then I told him that no, seriously, it felt like I was coming down off mushrooms or LSD, but much worse and more painful. He ignored my analogy, examined me, and diagnosed me with a migraine, giving me a special medication. I'd never had a migraine before, and I haven't had one since. I took the medication and slept almost 24 hours. I woke up feeling better, but drained.

I'll never forget that day, or that football game. Today, I still can't walk past a sports game on television without averting my gaze and feeling my enlarged hypothalamus throb and tell my palms to sweat a little, as a warning.


But that was all a long time ago. Now? It's the 21st century. Gays are team players in lots of fields, from the marriage equality movement to the Republican Party. Football is as institutional as ever. There are gay sports teams and out players aplenty worldwide (a whole other new thing I can't keep track of). It's the "new normative."

But I haven't changed.

I'm the "old abnormative." So go ahead and invite this proud gay cliché to your Super Bowl party. I'll bring a cheese ball and myself. Who's playing? Wait... don't bother. I won't know who they are anyway, and I'll be there to support everyone. You newly enlightened guys and sports-positive gays can gather around the television and howl for your team while embalming yourselves with Coors Light. M'accusent d'être démodé, but this 20th-century queen will forever associate the ritual of football with being, well, not "boring," just kind of... dark. Your "Ultimate Snack Stadium" made of hot dogs and pizza sticks looks like the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to my eyes. Your nine-layer taco dip tastes like Dante's Inferno to my tongue. Excuse me while I place my (football-shaped) cheese ball on the coffee table and slowly back out of the TV room and shudder to myself. Oh, and may I also add: Hooray! Score a home run! Whatever! Call me "old-fashioned." You'll find me in the kitchen with the other "girls," dishing about Girls (probably). Go, team!

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