Saturday, February 03, 2007

The asportual male

The only one?

Growing up in the rustic isolation of California's great Central Valley, I knew I was the only one. Perhaps in the big cities I might find others of my own kind, but in my formative years I was utterly isolated.

Fortunately, I didn't care all that much. That certainly made it easier to endure my uniqueness.

All of my experiences in school confirmed that I was growing up alone. No one else shared my predilections. I was confident, however, that college would contain other birds of my feather. In fact, I was sure when I received my acceptance letter from Caltech that my isolation was about to end.

Wrong again.

It turned out that my brainiac classmates at Tech were just about as fascinated by sports as the students I had known in elementary and high school. This discovery stunned me. I had been so certain that it was just a matter of time before I encountered my peer group. Generalizing from a sample of size one (apparently not a good idea), I had assumed that other really smart, clever, and literate boys would be as disdainful of sports as I was (and am). Nope. My smarty-pants peers clustered around the televisions in the rec rooms and commons just as happily as the denser types of my high school cohort. Damn.

I still recall one small glimmer of light, which I glimpsed in a newspaper during my teen years (as best as I can remember). It was an article published in the Fresno Bee, and I believe it was a story plucked off one of the wire services. I might even have clipped it out, in which case it is lost in the bundled bales of ephemera from my youth (tucked in various boxes and drawers both in my home and my parents'). The title was “The asportual male.” The article reported that the non-sports-obsessed male was more common than generally assumed, but such males were often invisible because they chose to “pass” as sports fans by dutifully sitting through game broadcasts, perusing sports pages, and occasionally traveling with sports-minded buddies to local sports stadia. The horror! Thus I learned that I was not alone, but that most others of my inclination had gone into hiding.


Sui generis

I must not have been adequately socialized during my youth, because I can't imagine enduring long hours of tedious sports viewing just because it's the cultural norm for American males. Perhaps it would help if I had developed a taste for beer, but that remedy doesn't appeal to me. (You can imagine how attractive I find sports bars.) Perhaps the oddest thing about me is that I never felt compelled to pretend an interest, although I can see in retrospect why other young males would prefer to conform. We are a mostly gregarious species.

In my entire life, I have never watched a football or baseball or basketball or soccer game on television. Sure, I've seen plenty of snippets. I have a father and a younger brother who never miss a chance to watch whatever organized sport is going on after the holiday feasts at Thanksgiving and Christmas. As Dad gets older and deafer, I have to retreat ever greater distances to escape the blaring boob tube and breathless babbling of the commentators. One works out accommodations.

I have, however, managed to sit through two high school football games, one of which was the junior varsity coach debut of my college roommate, who had just taken a math teaching job at a local secondary school. I sat with his parents in the bleachers and replied honestly to his father's question about the team's prospects by saying that (a) I had no idea, (b) I had never seen one of their games before, and (c) that I had never seen a football game before. The man's eyes bugged out. He turned to his wife in utter astonishment and said, “Did you hear that? Can you believe it?” I was in my twenties at the time. The experience of those games was more than enough to sate my virtually nonexistent curiosity.

A few years later I was working in downtown Sacramento, an aide in state government. I had an office in a big office building that housed several state agencies. My agency was a small operation and my few colleagues soon learned not to bother to ask me if I had “seen the game last night” or what I thought about some recent newspaper article about Sacramento's perpetual quest for respectability through acquisition of a national sports franchise. (I think they eventually got one. Like I care.) Others in the building were slower to learn, many an elevator ride lapsing into an uncomfortable silence after my typical response, “Oh, was there a game last night?”

At least the couple of years when I had a college roommate, before I could swing a deal for a single apartment, had fewer complications. My roomie was delighted to discover that the newspaper's sport pages were instantly available to him. The subscriptions were mine, but those sections were always pulled out and tossed to one side, where he would eagerly pounce upon them. Of course, it was occasionally a bit awkward when I'd decide to grab lunch at a local lunch counter. I'd be there browsing the daily news and someone would ask me if I was done with the sports page. You betcha! I'm so done with it that it's not even here. It's back at the apartment where my roommate is probably chewing the pages in rapt bliss.

A glance at any other newspaper-browsing patron would usually reveal a guy poring over a sports section. Sometimes the business section, but that was a distant second.

Staying the course

While the sports-loving tendencies of my Caltech classmates had been a big surprise (and, frankly, a huge disappointment), surprise #2 was waiting in the wings. Years later, now out of government service and working as a teacher, one of my faculty colleagues invited me to his birthday party. It was a convivial event, with plenty of soft drinks for teetotalers like me. My colleague and his partner had a circle of interesting friends, many of whom were gay. And several were eager to chat about recent sports news. As the clueless idiot I was (and, probably, mostly still am), I had assumed that sports talk was the province of straight guys. It was a neat explanation for why many asportual males nevertheless felt it necessary to pass as sports fans. As with most neat explanations, it was much too simple-minded to be universally true.

People like sports because they find them entertaining. I don't find them entertaining, so I have no obligation to pay attention to them. Sports fans find the world full of instant friends and instant opponents. It's probably more interesting as a topic of conversation between strangers than, say, the weather. While I'll never go through a conversion experience that makes me sit through a game again, I suppose I have a clue why others do. I can continue to use the many hours I save by not watching sports to improve my life in other ways. Better ways. Such as reading books. Appreciating fine music. Constructive ways.


Anyway, I'm not really alone. I hear that Russell Baker wrote a column in which he came out as an “asportual male.” His example gives courage to others to similarly declare themselves. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran several column-inches of comments from readers who were apparently reacting to some game or another that is scheduled for this weekend. (Honestly, I can't tell you at this moment who is playing in the Superbowl, although folks are always prattling about it. None of that registers with me.) I enjoyed the frank admissions of those who said they were going to find something else to do tomorrow, as will I. It appears that I am not alone, even if I don't know these people.

Of course, there will always be some bozo like this:
It's not necessary to have an obsession with sports but an interest is definitely needed. Not every American man needs to be fanatical, but if you're watching “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” on a day classically known as one of the biggest sports days of the year, you're wandering into feminine territory. I believe it is important for men to be physical to be considered masculine. Whether it's participating in sports (or other physical activity) or living vicariously through the athletes on TV, I do believe it's necessary to enjoy sports every once in a while.

Thanks, BS. Love those initials, man!


Anonymous said...

Good post. I join you as an asportual male.

You are not describing just American males. The same applies in Spain or Italy, for instance, where sports = soccer, to make it worse.

Moebius Stripper told me about a game in which the last person to learn who won the Super Bowl this year wins. I remain invincible, as I don't know yet the result of any year's Super Bowl.

Terrence Cole said...

I am an American male. I am asportual and proud of it.

I had no idea the superbowl was this weekend until you mentioned it. It's good to see that great minds think (or don't think) alike.

I happen to know that the last "super" bowl involved Seattle somehow because of this asportually inclined Penny-Arcade strip:

So it would seem that we asportuals aren't alone.

Thank you for the heartwarming post.

Blake Stacey said...

I grew up in Alabama, and I don't know the rules of American football. This may be my greatest claim to uniqueness within the human species. (I was apparently the first person to say the phrase "cyberpunk tentacle porn" on the Internet, but I have the feeling that the Japanese equivalent was already out there, somewhere, so that doesn't really count.) Thanks to various movies and comic strips, I have a vague grasp of the most basic rules of baseball, but I'm not sure I could follow a game and understand what's going on. Frankly, I don't care — unless Boston is about to break out in a riot, at which point I'll pay attention and enjoy myself.

John McKay said...

I only know the names of the teams competing because I saw them written on baked goods while buying maple bars for breakfast.

johnny phenothiazine said...

Not every American man needs to be fanatical, but if you're watching “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” on a day classically known as one of the biggest sports days of the year, you're wandering into feminine territory.

Yeah right sure. I'm a down South red-necked construction worker. Does this look "feminine" to you, pal?

Unlike the fortunate Mr. Cole, I was aware that the Stupid Bowl was this weekend. I know which two gangs of tight-pantsed steroid freaks were going to bash heads. I even know the name of one team's quarterback. (Which team he's quarterback of, I'm not sure though.) Why? Because those GOD DAMN SONS OF BITCHES that I WORK WITH haven't been able to SHUT THE FUCK UP ABOUT THAT MORONIC GAME for FIVE GOD DAMN MINUTES IN A ROW at any time in THE LAST TWO WEEKS.

And before that, they couldn't stop talking about the championship game between Ohio State and the U. of F., which my daughter attends. And how revoltingly insufferable they were when the "Gators" managed to win that game! The worst of it, I think, was how they kept saying things like "We intercepted that pass" or "We sacked the quarterback." "We" didn't do anything, you maroons; the tight-pantsed steroid freaks intercepted the pass, and you sat on your ass, watched, belched and drooled.

How happy I will be when this rubbish is finally over and done for the year! I hope BOTH teams lose.

Anonymous said...

I am the only person who attended Florida State University for 5 years and never attended a football game. (People react in shock and horror when you tell them that.)

King Aardvark said...

As a both nerdy and sporty male, and Canadian at that, I have one surefire cure for asportuality: tune into the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The level of passion and intensity will win you over even if you have no idea what's going on.

raunchpup said...

Super Bowl ? I thought that was how my fave restaraunt advertised there famous large crock of French onion soup....No???
Call me Asportual???

RM1(SS) (ret) said...

A little late to this conversation, but....

I was 47 or 48 the first time I saw even snippets of a Super Bowl game. And that only happened because I was in the Navy, I was on watch, and the duties of my watch required me to pass through the lounge where the rest of the duty section was watching the game, at least twice per hour.

Anonymous said...

Fortunately I come from a family of asportive males. What a waste of time. But of course that gives us asportives an edge in that we can use those long afternoons for something productive.

I've enjoyed playing sports, and now consider myself a jock, but I can't even get interested in watching the sports that I play. I pretend to watch sports in bars sometimes, but my real interest is the ladies, and the sports is just a cover. Sorry to hear about CalTech, but it is private after all.

Anonymous said...

A bit late, apparently, but I can definitely relate to the lack of interest in sports. I don't, offhand, recall the response of certain of my classmates when I pointed out that their hypothesis that my lack of interest in watching sweaty, muscular men jump on top of each other or "chase balls" was a sign of being "gay", but I don't, sadly, think it shut them up. :(


"Yeah right sure. I'm a down South red-necked construction worker. Does this look "feminine" to you, pal?"

I see what you're saying, but I can also imagine my little girl growing up to work a job that could result in similar photos (especially if trains were involved). ^.^

PS: (the blockquote tag isn't allowed? Someone please tell me this is just a thoughtless oversight...)

Anonymous said...

I hope BOTH teams lose.

Rāmen, brother!!!

As a both nerdy and sporty male, and Canadian at that, I have one surefire cure for asportuality:

"Cure"? Asportuality is not a bug, your majesty. It's a feature.

tune into the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The level of passion and intensity will win you over even if you have no idea what's going on.

Hah! If anything, it would freak me out. Mass psychosis, you see.

the blockquote tag isn't allowed? Someone please tell me this is just a thoughtless oversight...

It seems to be massive stupidity on the part of Blogger respectively Google. The list "You can use some HTML tags, such as <b>, <i>, <a>" seems to be exhaustive.

I just tried: neither <strike> nor its ScienceBlogsHTML version <s> are allowed.

Anonymous said...

This year's superbowl fell on the same date as a regular local twice-a-month ballroom dance. I'm happy to report that the women didn't outnumber the men by more than the usual proportion. Apparently some men, asportual or not, prefer dancing a waltz or cha-cha with a woman to "watching sweaty, muscular men jump on top of each other." (Thanks, Azkyroth, for that phrase.)

no said...

What's wrong with being feminine, anyway?

Anonymous said...

I am selectively asportual. I watch the Stupid Bowl and the Stanley Cup Finals, sometimes the World Series although I think professional baseball barely qualifies as a sport. The most interesting baseball game I ever say was that playoff game in (Chicago?) with the clouds of gnats.

Anonymous said...

I know this is over two years old, but this story is so similar to mine that I had to comment.

I went to a small rural school in Texas, and every year, the first day they'd line up all the people who were signing up for "athletics". I was always the only male who didn't unless one of the others was injured (often something related to sports).

Like you, I went to Caltech and made the same assumption you did about what other students would be like. I was also a little surprised and disappointed when, on the shuttle ride to the campus two other students enthusiastically struck up a conversation about sports.

That said, I do think there's a lower level of interest in sports among males at Caltech (especially, these days, outside of Fleming and Page) than among the male population in general. I'm still on the low end, though, I'm afraid.

From what I've seen of the gay male population, its members are less interested in sports than the straight male population, but the level of interest is still non-zero for most of them. Actually finding anyone else with zero interest in sports is so unusual that I feel a sort of kinship with people who share this trait (or lack the trait that most people share).

In retrospect, my social ineptness likely had something to do with why I felt no need to try to "pass".

Zeno said...

Thanks for sharing your story, Escuerd. You and I are clearly birds of a feather. I may have had it slightly easier, growing up in California and not in Texas. At least we never had line-ups for signing up for sports. (Even if we had, I'm sure that I would not have found it necessary to get in line just to fit in.)

super mario said...

thanks. Very nice work...

Kaleberg said...

I've never been much for watching or following sports, but a friend of mine is a professional dilettante, and I was most impressed when she carried a full 15 minute conversation about football. Her mom was a big Redskins fan, but my friend herself never followed sports. She just picked things up in passing in a way only a true dilettante can. I doubt it is a skill I could master being more of a putterer than a dilettante, though I imagine being able to converse on just about any topic could be useful.

(I once freaked out a young female substitute teacher who was trying connect with my all male high school English class by asking why sports writers use such colorful metaphor. I told her it was to cover up the basic monotony of the games. My all male high school didn't make a big thing of sports. It was something one did for oneself, like listening to opera or learning Hittite. Our football team even won the city championship, and maybe eleven guys at our school knew about it. On the other hand, I was pleased when the math team's football team trashed the debate team's football team since I did follow our math team's competitions.)

Anonymous said...

growing up as the only asportual male in my entire family, i have a particular hatred for american football because that was the only sport ever viewed by my relatives (male and female alike). ever since i was a youngster i could never, for the life of me, wrap my brain around what was supposed to be so damn entertaining about it. i think that's my main complaint with it, its tediousness. luckily, as an adult, i manage to avoid it altogether.

Anonymous said...

I have been unashamedly asportual all my life. Zero interest in organized sports. While the sports nuts were watching their "ball games"--my generic term for all that nonsense--I was often making love to their wives and girlfriends.