Around this time of the year, a question looms in the minds of many women (and some men): Why do men watch football?
Why is it that a man will sit down for six hours in front of the television set when football games are on, yet he won’t sit still for more than 10 or 15 minutes for anything else when he’s at home? What is that? What’s the big attraction?
What needs are being met, what yearnings in the man are being satisfied by watching football hour after hour, week after week? (3)
Bob Andelman attempts to shed light on this mystery in his book, aptly titled, Why Men Watch Football.
The answers come in two categories: (1) Men watch football for entertainment. It is a pleasant diversion and distraction from their dull routines. (2) Men watch football to meet deep psychological needs and desires.
The first answer – football as entertainment – is certainly true. Football provides an exciting source of stimulating amusement.
But it offers so much more.
Like good therapy, football satisfies many psychological and social needs in the lives of men. Following is a list of some of the needs Andelman highlights:
Football is a means of male bonding. Many males play football during their childhood and adolescent years. The game is a source of bonding between men and other men, and even more particularly, between boys and their fathers.
For some males, doing something related to sports was the one arena in which they felt some closeness with their father consistently. That creates an emotional basis throughout the rest of their lives for some sort of connection with sports. It also creates a motivation to use sports to connect with other males, be it their own son or their male friends. (24)
Football is a means of venting male aggressiveness. Andelman writes, “Men play football as a means of venting their aggressiveness, though in a sublimated, safe way” (56).
Football is a war-like sport. Football is not promoted as a party, but as a war between two opposing teams defending their city’s honor. “[F]ootball is steeped in military terminology and strategy: the blitz… the bomb… down in the trenches… aerial assault… field generals… quick strike” (83). “Even the names of the teams are almost all war-like: Vikings, Patriots, Chiefs, Buccaneers, Raiders, Chargers, Cowboys. And the animals that teams choose to represent them are aggressive by nature: Rams, Seahawks, Falcons, Eagles, Bengals, Broncos, Lions, Bears” (84).
The war-like strategy of football appeals to men:
Military games have a lot of appeal to many men. They involve strategy and calculation: the manipulation of varied components to accomplish a common goal, outsmarting, outwitting, outplaying and outfighting an opponent. Your army exists to battle and win; to achieve its goal it fights both offensively and defensively. Football is a military game with military correlates. It appeals to men on that basis. (84)
The game of football appeals to men’s territorial instincts. Keeping the enemy away from one’s “turf” is vital to winning the game. Ultimately, the winner not only adequately defends his position – the winner invades and conquers the enemy’s territory.
The battle on the field for power, control, and dominance is alluring to men. “A power struggle takes place on the field, and the players understand that the moment they step out on to the turf. It’s going to be brought forth with much more clarity than in virtually any other social setting” (99).
Ultimately, football stops short of all-out war. Though it is an aggressive sport, there is no blood-letting violence (except by accident). Andelman writes of this important distinction: “I do not think of the great linebacker who is all over the field and making crushing tackles as necessarily a violent person. A strong and an aggressive person and a competitive person, but not necessarily violent” (95).
Football provides a window of meaning in an uncertain and chaotic world. Life is unfair. Not everyone plays by the rules. For a few hours on Sunday the tables are turned and life makes sense. “Many men lack other sources of positive reinforcement in their lives, according to the experts. Football provides a temporary reinforcement – a sense of security and a sense of meaningfulness” (63). Even if one’s team loses, all is not lost. One only has “to wait three or four days until the prospect of recovering or righting a wrong begins to present itself” (63).
This encourages men to go out into the world and “play the game of life” with newfound inspiration and hope: “I think it is a very natural thing to make analogies between the fans’ everyday life and the situations and obstacles that they have to overcome being in the particular social strata that they are in and what is being symbolized on the TV screen for them” (64).
Football meets men’s social needs. “Were it not for football, many men would have nothing to talk about” (86). In many cases, “sports talk is the glue that holds many men’s relationships together” (106). Football gives men something to talk about: “Psychologists have observed that women tend to communicate more freely over a vast range of topics, including emotions. Men tend to be more limited in their communication. Sports, particularly football, gives us men something to talk about” (87). Even more, it provides men with a socially-acceptable reason to hang out with friends.
Football reinforces gender stereotypes. “The professionals believe football mirrors much of modern American society – the good, the bad and the ugly…
Football provides a sense of clarity about gender. There are fully armored men on a battlefield, fighting over territory like in the good old Dark Ages, using their bodies as weapons to blast other men back. On the sidelines are scantily clad cheerleaders exposed with no armor. On television, the camera cuts back and forth between the rugged, battling men on the gridiron and the tender, supportive women on the sideline.
‘It provides a real sense of clarity between what men are and what women are,’ Dr. Messner says. ‘Women are there for support and sexual distraction, and what the men are doing on the field is really the center stage and what really matters and why we are all there.’
TV commercials during football games represent the same imagery, further reinforcing the differences between the sexes. (108)
For better or for worse, football reinforces popular stereotypes that boys are violent, aggressive, and dominant. “[T]his line of thought suggests that to be passive and sensitive, intellectual and introspective is sissy and girlish” (109). This is certainly the most negative aspect about football. There is nothing wrong – nothing inherently non-masculine – in not liking football. As noted, masculinity can be expressed through the “quiet strength” of reason and compassion. That is why the next aspect is so important.
Football appeals to men’s love of beauty. This might throw you for a loop, but football is not just sheer violence. It involves strategy and teamwork. Even more, in its best moments, it’s a beautiful “combination of intensity and finesse” (101). “Not every man enjoys watching the violence in football. Many are drawn in by the beauty of the game and the bona fide grace of the athletes” (100). Many men would take the splendor of a deep bomb over a great hit any day. “It’s easier for men to talk about the brutality of football than it is to acknowledge that the sport, played at a very high level in certain positions, is very, very skilled and almost ballet-like” (102).
Football allows us to associate with winners – or remain faithful to losers. When our team is winning we share the victory. “We” won the game! When our team is losing we do one of two things. We reaffirm our commitment – we don’t want to be fair-weather fans – or we begin to speak of our team with second person plural pronouns: “They” are having a bad season, “they” are losing. Either way, we feel good about ourselves through our association with “our” team.
Football allows men to escape the women in their lives and their responsibilities. Football may be one of the last great hide-outs for men.
Perhaps the greatest unspoken reason that men love football is because it gives many of us a few precious, uninterrupted hours away from the females in our lives.
Football presents one of the last great places where men can hide out. It’s a game that women are not going to start playing any time soon and that few women care to attend in person, so men can still be men and watch the games, hootin’ and hollerin’ and behaving like fools. (145)
Men not only escape the women in their lives, but they also are able to get away from the world of adult responsibilities: “Watching football presents an opportunity to escape into a less responsible mode and to recapture the boyhood exuberance and enthusiasm of rooting for your home team with the other guys” (88).
Football provides excitement in an otherwise “normal” life. Andelman notes that “in kind of a boring world, routine, hum-drum, day-to-day… we look forward to these things because they bring excitement to an otherwise unexciting life” (127). Football is a wake-up call to men whose lives have become a bit too predictable, dull, or dreary. Though men are not directly participating in the action, men benefit from being spectators: “Men enjoy being fans as much as they enjoy being participants” (98).
In light of the numerous positive aspects of football (and in spite of some of the potentially negative aspects) Andelman praises football for its contribution to the modern male. He writes, “watching football is good medicine for some of what ails the modern man. It’s an inexpensive form of regular weekly psychotherapy, available to millions of men, without an appointment, on weekends every fall” (156).
So men, whether it is reliving your adolescent years, strengthening bonds with your father or friends, venting aggression, or simply escaping your weighty responsibilities for a few hours, let’s all drink a toast to the sport we all love (and if we don’t, we’re probably afraid to admit it) – football!
All together: Go (insert your favorite team here)!
The mystery of male behavior has been revealed. In short, we love football because it is good for us! You have every reason in the world to remain stationary for three to six hours, scream and holler like a banshee, and shove endless amounts of fatty foods and carbonated beverages into your system. It’s therapy! Or, at least, let’s keep telling ourselves this until the women in our lives force us to do something truly productive!
Quotes excerpted from Why Men Watch Football by Bob Andelman
© Richard J. Vincent, 2006