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Football and the Performance of Gender

Are football players warriors or beauty queens?

Last week, ace cornerback Richard Sherman, flush with adrenaline and testosterone after making a game-ending play, dissed his opponent in the post-game interview rather than, as is customary in the contemporary game, sticking to the script of “we played well” or “we could have played better.” Arrogant braggadocio, ugly machismo, distraction from the team’s accomplishment, or emotional honesty? None of the above.

To understand the flap, we have to acknowledge that gender is something we do, not something we are. Gender is a performance, whether of a girly-girl, a manly-man, or something in between. The performance is shaped by other people’s expectations of how we are supposed to act given their guesses about what our genitals look like. First and foremost, people don’t like having to guess, so we are supposed to let people know, via clothing and hairstyle, which set of expectations to impose on us. These expectations change over time and from place to place. In professional sports, Richard Sherman’s long hair does not discredit his performance of masculinity any more than Samson’s did. If anything, his impressive academic record is more likely to undermine his posture as a warrior.

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The warrior performance is conducive to the role demands of injuring other people. It’s also a persona that capitalizes on patriotic feelings associated with war and enhances fanaticism about sports, even if there is a cost in terms of instigating fan violence.

Football players and other professional athletes are stuck in an uncomfortable gender bind. Like warriors, they are expected to be impervious to pain, to risk their health for the sake of glory, and to join with teammates like combat’s bands of brothers. If two baseball players get in a scuffle, benches clear in a show of rally-round-the-flag support. However, it is equally true that football players do not get paid (typically) for winning, but for gate receipts, ad revenues, and commercial endorsements. In this respect, professional athletes are like beauty pageant contestants, supermodels, and actors. You pay to watch them do things with their bodies.

Part of their warrior performance is to get angry whenever you remind them that they are paid to be watched rather than for valor. They try to make you think they really are warriors in a way that actual warriors don’t.

So the right question to ask about Richard Sherman’s interview is whether it’s good for sales, immediately and in the long run. Like many other football fans, I’ve gotten bored with interviews and stopped watching them—Brady, Manning, Belichick, and Dungy always saying just the right amount of nothing. I stopped watching pre-game shows because they are all so complimentary (but bless Rodney Harrison!). I can’t stand Jon Grudin’s constant lauding of whoever just made a play.

So in the short run, Sherman’s injection of vitality will sell ads to people like me because we are more likely to watch interviews. In the long run, however, this sort of interview is likely to provoke unbridled aggression in other players (indeed, Sherman himself claimed to be responding to another player’s insult, although keeping it verbal keeps it fun). Like many other football fans, I’m getting sick of the injuries, and comments like Sherman’s can lead to more injuries when players try to convince themselves by hurting opponents that they really are warriors and not, well, players.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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