Narcissus of the Ball Field



Aphorisms about the virtues of sports are a common refrain of American boyhood. Sports, grown men preach, are necessary to teach “good sportsmanship” and how to be a “team player.” Sports encourage you to put forward your “best effort,” to develop “self-discipline,” gain positive character traits (fairness, grace under pressure, graciousness when winning/losing) even as you master new physical skills. But, despite this sententious view, haven't you sometimes wondered—given the actual evidence—whether sports really make a positive difference to boys striving toward manhood?   

A new exhibition currently up (through August 7) at the Andy Warhol Museum of Art in Pittsburgh raises questions about the true meaning of sports to males and about what sports reveal about maleness. Called “Mixed Signals: Artists Consider Masculinity in Sports,” the show features works by 17 artists—including Matthew Barney, Catherine Opie, Collier Schorr, and Sam Taylor-Wood—who look at how sports affects the social construction and coding of masculinity in our society. If these artists’ investigations are to be believed, sports may play a far less beneficial, much more complex role in the development of a boy’s character than common wisdom would have us believe.   

Consider first a main theme of the show: The cockiness (in all senses of the word) of the typical male athlete. The painting "Receiver" (2002) by Marcelino Gonçalves, for instance, depicts a mirthfully self-assured young football player kneeling on a sideline or during practice. Painted with exaggerated, cartoonish features, the figure looks like a howling wolf from a 1942 MGM cartoon—full of predatory bluster, manly unabashedness, and braggadocio enabled by his position on the football field. (The fact that the title of the work is a randy double entendre doesn’t hinder this impression.) And while Gonçalves exaggerates this character to make a point, the sex-starved look is familiar. It has appeared in thousands of images of male athletes through the years. Hank Willis Thomas's wall piece "Something to Stand on: The Third Leg" (2007), meanwhile, is a visual one-liner that goes one step further in portraying this attitude toward sex. A version of the famous silhouette image of the “Jumpman”—a spread-legged Michael Jordan leaping for the basket used to promote Air Jordan products—it differs from the original in one particular: Thomas's image has a full third leg extending down from the figure's crotch. This is the leg that male athletes strive to plant on the ground, Thomas suggests, as soon as they reach stardom. 



Heidi Utz
2/8/2019 10:12:05 AM

Good article. But it’s not really all that odd that Elton John would own the Aztecs, as he was a prominent fan, president, and chairman of the Watford FC in Britain in the 70s. And now his son plays in their junior league. He also has a home in LA, so it makes total sense that a huge soccer fan would be eager to own the Aztecs.

6/20/2011 6:24:05 PM

I would guess that sports, historically, were used to prepare young men for war. War encourages young men to kill and die without thinking while wiley old men grow richer and mothers grieve and ask why. And we wonder why we can't achieve world peace, compassion, cooperation, kindness. What we champion says a lot about our distorted beliefs and values as a species. Recently I spoke to a young man with a criminal conviction record that will limit his job prospects forever. I asked what happened. He said, "I used to love to fight."

6/20/2011 4:01:40 PM

The article is all true. And what's more, sports support the rubbish that we get better results from competition than we do from cooperation. (A look at our current congress should answer that silliness.) And instead of making products better to get our business, they're made cheaper and designed to wear out. Where are kids taught all this "competition"? Athletics, of course, and schools that support it. (Wait, I thought an athletic supporter held up....oh, never mind.) Remember the famous quote "We must all hang together or we will surely hang separately." Cooperation, not competition, is and will always be, our best routs. We compete only when there's not enough (of something) to go around. It's a fear based action that supports physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual disease. We need to stop it.

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