Narcissus of the Ball Field

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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 randydouble 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.

None of this is news to any boy who grew up in America, playing and watching sports. During my own boyhood afternoons spent out on an endless succession on diamonds, pitches, gridirons, and courts, I watched girls pining after the star players, and I watched that power go straight to many a young head. The sense of an athletic boy’s sexual expectation is on blatant display in another work, “Josh” (2007) by photographer Catherine Opie. The subject is a high school boy at summer football camp. His shoulder pads are wide. His yellow practice jersey is pulled up, revealing a fleshy, sweaty belly. But it is the look on Josh’s face that reveals a conquistador’s attitude that is present in many male athletes. This may come because it takes testosterone-fueled aggression and pent up anger to create a winning athlete. Whatever the cause, Josh’s look is of confident sexual intensity and angry aggression that is jarringly incongruent to his age. To ensure we get the point, Opie has cut off the image at the bottom just below the boy’s crotch. In place of where his sexual parts would be are the tops of his hands, provocatively gripping a football as a warrior would grip a sword (or as a… well, you get the picture). All in all, this image seethes with a reckless male sexual energy.

Following fast upon its depictions of male sexuality, “Mixed Signals” further explores the recklessness, aggression, and violence of the male athlete as an opposite side of the same coin. The figure portrayed in photographer Collier Schorr’s “Anonymous Cowboy” (2008) could be cousin to Opie’s Josh, except now the young man is decked out for a rodeo showdown. His hat is pulled low over his eyes, his hands and wrists are carefully taped up, and his shoulders are buckled into a harness. He still seethes with sexuality, but now it is more menacing, more poised. This athlete’s nether area, so on display in “Josh,” is now covered by one of the cowboy’s tools of battle–a gnarled old leather glove, lashed to his chaps and at the ready for when he meets his bullish opponent. Could there be a better metaphor for the sex-violence connection than a young cowboy about to meet his bull? Hank Willis Thomas continues this theme with his photograph “Scarred Chest” (2003), in which an athlete’s bare torso reveals nine Nike swoosh marks. The scars seem to mark his chest as ace World War II pilots marked their planes with symbols for each enemy aircraft shot down. So too does Shaun El C. Leonardo hint at the war-like qualities of male sports with his installation “Bull in the Ring” (2008). Here, eleven disembodied helmeted heads hover over the gallery in a kind of poised huddle. The scene looks like a futuristic, robotic death-match waiting to begin.

All of these works ring with a simple truth. Rather than encourage men to develop positive traits, sports often empower male athletes to be their worst selves. Over more than eight years of nearly year-round participation in sports, I witnessed anger, aggression, and poor sportsmanship more often than the promised character building. John Thorn, baseball’s official historian, recently concurred, writing about his own experiences with boyhood sports on his blog, Our Game: “Like all games, as I was later to learn, they provided early instruction in the rules of adult society: mimicking its rules of inclusion and exclusion, sublimating its rites of war, and creating a bazaar of barter and status.” My own, more recent observation of adult athletes confirms Thorn’s impression. That is, by the time boys become adult male athletes like Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, and Plaxico Burress their characters are often damaged by the noxious influence of sports.

As to the question why male athletes are so afflicted, ­it’s not necessarily an artists’ duty to answer. Yet, as it happens, “Mixed Signals” does provide one intriguing clue. A final centerpiece of the exhibition is the July 29 screening of avant-garde filmmaker Hellmuth Costard’s 1970 film, Soccer as Never Before [Fussball wie noch nie]. To make the film, Costard employed eight 16-mm cameras during a football match between Manchester United and Coventry to follow the actions–through warm-ups, game play, and final whistle–of arguably the sport’s best, most charismatic player at the time, Man U’s George Best. A unique experiment–at least until a similar film did much the same with Algerian-French footballer Zinedine Zidane in 2006–the focus on the 24-year-old Best, whose shaggy moptop of dark hair and sharp-cut chin made him a national sex symbol, reveals how isolated and human are sports stars when they are not the center of game action. In the film, there are large swaths of time when Best, the star of his team, is away from the ball. For most of the film, in fact, through a 90-minute match, Best stands, walks, trots, and watches, waiting for the ball to come in his proximity. He touches the ball a cumulative total of perhaps 45 or 50 seconds. In his isolation, Best’s sense of expectation is palpable; this is a man who craves attention, who wants to be the focal point for the cheers of thousands of adoring fans. At the game’s halftime, as if to further emphasize his craving for attention, the camera follows the footballer into the innards of a stadium on some other day (this is an after-thought bit of continuity, as Best is bearded in this scene, and clean-shaven during the game). In a small utility room, Best stops and regards the camera for an uncomfortably long moment, gazing into the lens like a temperamental movie star, doing his best to smoulder for the filmmaker.

In the brief moments of action that involve Best, his efforts are pretty to see. In the second half, he displays bursts of dazzling quickness and wild improvisational ability while scoring one goal and assisting in another (Man U won the match, 2-0). Interestingly, in the thick of my own middling involvement in sports at age 10 (playing AYSO soccer in suburban California in 1976), I met George Best. He was a shadow of his magnificent younger self, no longer playing at the top of his sport and relegated to earning an paycheck from theLos Angeles Aztecs of the North American Soccer League (a team, oddly enough, part-owned by Elton John), but he still had a glow about him that appealed to the gathered crowd of kids. What I didn’t know then, in my childhood innocence, was Best at that time was struggling with some nasty personal demons. Always a notorious playboy, Best was becoming known more and more for his excessive drinking. After I met him, Best would be married and divorced twice, would father two children out of wedlock, and would be accused by one wife of domestic violence. In his post-playing career, his drinking got him constant into legal and personal trouble, and eventually, after liver transplants to treat severe liver damage, he would die at age 59.

It is difficult to reconcile the troubled adult soccer star with the polite, handsome athlete who greeted a ragtag bunch of 1970s suburban soccer kids. It’s also troubling to imagine the sparkling and vibrant young star of Soccer As Never Before as a violent and troubled abuser of alcohol. But that’s the ironically dual nature of male sports that artists are intent to explore in “Mixed Signals.” In view of these artists, male athletes are as much stars as they plain humans full of foibles like sexual aggression, anger, violence, and self-destruction. In the end, the images that emerge from “Mixed Signals” are of men who are flawed, lonely creatures.   

Michael Fallon is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications. Read his previous posts here.

Photo Credits (in order of their appearance): 
Marcelino Gonçalves, Receiver, 2002, Collection of Marcia Goldenfeld Maiten and Barry Maiten, Los Angeles
Hank Willis Thomas, Something to Stand on: The Third Leg, 2007, Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York 
Catherine Opie, Josh, 2007, Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Collier Schorr, Anonymous Cowboy, 2008, Courtesy the artist and 303 Gallery 

Hank Willis Thomas, Scarred Chest, 2003, Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New YorkShaun El C. Leonardo, Bull in the Ring, 2008, Courtesy the artist and Praxis International Art, New York 

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