Monday, October 14, 2013

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My son: soccer champion! (Why is my husband pushing my son so hard to be an athlete?) Part I


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Vanessa from Utah asks: “Please talk about what emotional needs are fulfilled in the man by watching sports, talking about sports, and analyzing sports." For the next three essays I will try to answer this questions. 

I’ve never had much interest in sports. Part of the problem is that I have very little hand-eye coordination when it comes to handling a ball. I flinch, or cower, or put my hands up to protect my face in a straight hand blocking motion rather than a catch the ball and be a functioning part of the team motion. There are a few reasons for this. My dad wasn’t around much to teach me how to play ball as a kid, and I didn’t have much of desire to learn how to do it on my own. I didn’t grow up in a neighborhood where kids played ball in back yards or public parks, but rather next to my grandfather’s beef farm. I learned how to drive a tractor long before I learned to dribble a ball.
I never felt like I was missing out on much until I got older and listened to other men tell stories about playing football or basketball in the back yard. They always talked about these moments with longing, their eyes all dewy, like if they could relive one moment in their life it would be the one where they played ball with dear old Dad.

My lack of ball training led to a lack of popularity in elementary school. Around second grade Sam Burton asked me if I knew how to play basketball. All the boys from my class were there, ready to play in their new ball shoes and gym shorts, game faces ready. In contrast, I was in a pair of plaid K-Mart slip-on shoes, jeans, and a button up collared shirt, an outfit that would become popular once Weezer hit the scene in the mid-90s, but this was ’88, and being ahead of my time in elementary school meant I was scary and strange and subject to scorn and wedgies.

But I didn’t want to feel like an outcast, so I told Sam that I could play basketball even though I’d never put my hands on a basketball. In hindsight, I think honesty would have been the best option here. I’ve known Sam for years now. He’s a nice guy and I feel confident that he’d have tried to teach me to play. But instead I told a lie.
And then to complicate things, I started talking smack to make myself seem more intimidating. As teams were picked, I called other boys “girls” and “queers” or “girly-queers that wore dresses and makeup and wanted to join the ballet”. This sort of talk was good fun in the late 80’s. Now I would probably have found myself the antagonist in a viral YouTube video and the eventual subject of a well deserved verbal smack down from Diane Sawyer.
Anyway, the kids were all laughing at my comments. I think I built up the overall morale of the team. They looked pumped, ready to bring down the hammer, until they saw me dribble with both hands, lose my slip-on, trip over the ball, fall down, cradle my knee, and cry.
The boys I’d scorned called me a girl and a queer and many other sexually derogatory things that would have also made Diane Sawyer cringe. And when I yelled a few insults back, three or four kids kicked me until the recess lady broke it up. I’ve hated ball sports ever since.
I don’t watch sporting events. I watch CNN or shows like Arrested Development. This was a huge selling point for Mel. She never wanted someone who couldn’t step away from the screen because of Sunday Night Football. But I have to admit that I always felt like I was missing something. Like I didn’t fully understand other men and their discourse communities. I know that many TV shows and movies have made fun of manly sports related conversations. A great example is the Saturday Night Live skit where the two guys from Chicago can’t stop talking about the Cubs and the Bears. 

And although their interminable ramblings about sports seems over the top, there really is some truth to it. Every time I meet a new guy they ask me if I saw this game or that. I go to the gym, and most of the TVs near the weight room are set to ESPN. I cannot tell you how many opportunities for manly bonding I’ve missed because, after first meeting another dude, they asked me about a sports team and I replied, “I don’t really watch sports. They remind me of getting beat up.”
Foolishly I keep using this reply as a joke. It’s supposed to work as an icebreaker while giving me the opportunity to change the subject. However, it almost never works. Most men don’t laugh, but instead look at me with compassion, hurt, or scorn. They ask why not? They wonder how it could be possible that another man could not like sports. In the back of their mind, I am sure they ponder on my upbringing, my parents, and my sexual orientation. More or less, many men feel that sports = masculinity. And I have never fit into the equation, so I make them confused and frustrated and not someone they want to talk to.

I keep thinking that this equation will change with time, but even now, in my thirties, it remains the same. This is not to say that I don’t have guy friends. I do. It’s just that I feel like an outcast at times because I don’t share that universal guy conversation entry point: sports.
When we had Tristan I thought a lot about my inability to play ball sports. I thought about my hatred of sports and how it has kept me from connecting with numerous other men. I thought about buffalo wings, BBQ chips, sports on the TV, male bonding, and all the other sports related crap men drool over, and I wondered if I really was missing something significant. I didn’t want that for him. I wanted Tristan to live a normal happy life. I wanted him to have a better life than I had.
So when Tristan told me he wanted to play soccer, I got really excited. I saw this as an opportunity to help him become the man I never was. 
Tristan: Game Face

The first thing Mel and I did was get him on a team. Then we got him cleats, shin guards, and a ball. He complained about how difficult it was to put on the guards, that the cleats were uncomfortable, and that he couldn’t tie his own shoes. “These things are stupid. I don’t want to play.”
The season hadn’t even started yet. He hadn’t even had one practice. We hadn’t even left the house to go try out the new ball at the park. And he was already bitching and ready to give up. I got really frustrated from the get go. Part of it was that I’d paid for the season and it was non-refundable.  I told myself that I didn’t want to waste the money. But really, I was worried that this might be my only chance to get him into sports, to make a man out of him, to give him the opportunity to talk to other men while eating buffalo wings and drinking soda.
“Stop being a girl,” I said. “Man up and get out to the car.”
I’m not really sure what came over me. I’ve never said anything like that to him before. And in fact, I feel like a real douche for saying it. This was something that boys always told me when I didn’t want to play sports. It was the age-old strategy of comparing men to the opposite sex to intimidate them into doing masculine things. And sadly, Tristan looked at the ground for a moment, tapped the toe of his cleat behind him, grunted, and then stepped out the door and into the car. I was determined to make a man out of him even though he was only six.


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Clint Edwards is a tutor coordinator at Oregon State University. He is also the former co-host of the Weekly Reader on KMSU and a graduate of the MFA program at Minnesota State University. His writing has been listed as notable by Best American Essays, and has been published in The Baltimore Review, and through The University of North Dakota, Boston College, Emerson College, The University of South Carolina, and Minnesota State University.