In 1968, Bill Stowe explained to me that there were only two kinds of men on campus, perhaps in the world -- Jocks and Pukes. He explained that Jocks were brave, manly, ambitious, focused, patriotic and goaldriven, while Pukes were woolly, distractible, girlish and handicapped by their lack of certainty that nothing mattered as much as winning.There was all too much in Robert Lipsyte's recent piece on the values of American athletics culture in The Nation that was disturbingly familiar to me from memories of high school and so on. And I appreciated, of course, his muddying of Bill Stowe's stark demarcations and denunciations and welcomed his insistence on the fine qualities to be discerned in folks on the Puke end of Stowe's stick. But the truth is that is frankly a pretty low bar, and when all is said and done I still found Lipsyte's perspective more worrying than I presumably am supposed to. I recommend you follow the link for the whole piece and decide for yourself. I leave to the side the rather sticky schticky feel-good rapprochement between liberal lefty Lipsyte and reactionary right Stowe that frames his tale, and from which he draws his blandly hopeful and likely misguided conclusion. Although it is clear enough that Lipsyte disapproves the work of Jock Culture separating us into Jocks and Pukes and erecting authoritarian hierarchies onto that scaffolding, as well as the deeper work of Jock Culture in deranging those in its thrall into robots programmed for destruction (and self-destruction, I would add), the fact is I think Lipsyte retains too rosy a vantage on the world of competitive team sports.
While I don't doubt the correctness of his earlier assessment of Bill Stowe as a "dumb jock" my worry, to put it bluntly, is that Lipsyte may be too much of one himself. Given the competitive jock Thunderdome of Village journalism one wonders if he owes his success as a sports writer in some measure to his own socialization in Jock Culture or whether his socialization into success in those savage precincts renders him now more sympathetic than he would otherwise be to Jock Culture? I must say that there seemed to me to be something defensive about his little genuflections to sense, reassuring though they are meant to be: eg, "I am for de-emphasizing early competition and redistributing athletic resources so that everyone, throughout their lives, has access to sports. But then, I am also for world peace."
Anyway, far more to the point, when I read in his piece that competitive sports were "[a] once safe place to learn about bravery, cooperation and respect" that has become "a cockpit of bullying, violence and the commitment to a win-at-all-costs attitude that can kill a soul. Or a brain" I find myself wondering if this edenic space of safety and solidarity really ever existed anywhere for long enough to manage the wholesome work he attributes to it. I find myself wondering if he is describing as essential what are at best occasional or even accidental properties of competitive sports.
I for one believe that one learns about bravery in standing up for a loser (whether a person or an idea) in a way in which one risks becoming a loser oneself -- not from the experience of being on a winning team. I for one believe that one learns about co-operation in discovering through the exacting experience of patience and consideration and sometimes even mild humiliation that one often actually benefits from the abilities and knowledge of others one did not initially value at all -- not from the experience of getting ahead through unquestioning obedience to a given authority. I believe that one learns about respect when one is treated with respect by someone who disagrees with us and so realize that we can still respect ourselves even when we are mistaken or wrong and others when they are mistaken and wrong so long as we are honest and open in the struggle to be and do better -- not from the ready respect we garner from those with whom we have explicit affiliations or easy affinities. I do not believe that it is in being on a winning team that we find the paradigmatic experience of "belonging," but among friends and peers and others who continue to identify with us even when we are losing (and who we often find only through losing).
It will come as no surprise that I myself was always a Puke and not a Jock, that I was a theater geek, that I never went outside without a book, that my friends were all girls and my enemies were Jocks they foolishly pined over, that I was tormented in gym class, that I was an object in the public ritual humiliation through which my peers enacted their crisis of masculinity, relentlessly punished as the class faggot (which was true, but since I hadn't even come out to myself at that point my "faggotry" then was far more a matter of being an intellectual among anti-intellectuals than anything else). I have no warm and fuzzy thoughts about Jock Culture against which to measure the endlessly many countervailing pathologies I witnessed up close and personal and struggled to understand.
What seems to me the heart of Lipsyte's argument is crucially wrongheaded. He writes:
Sports is good. It is the best way to pleasure your body in public. Sports is entertaining, healthful, filled with honest, sustaining sentiment for warm times and the beloved people you shared them with. At its simplest, think of playing catch at the lake with friends. Jock Culture is a distortion of sports.As somebody who has danced on a dance-floor with a diverse crowd of joyful strangers, as somebody who has marched with marginalized losers in a show of solidarity for justice, as somebody who has indulged the exhilarating adventure of public sex with a revolving cast of anonymous partners I really must protest that his assignment to "sports" of all things "the best way to pleasure your body in public" testifies to a rather impoverished and conventional imagination of the possibilities open to bodies in this world. I am far from denying there are pleasures to be had in playing catch at the lake with friends, any more than I would deny the pleasures of dangling a string in front of a kitten, but I really have to protest both the implication that his Ralph Lauren ad with Buffy and Scooter tossing a ball at the Lake House is really so universal after all or that it takes us to the heart of what can be "entertaining, healthful… honest" and all the rest (can he not hear how creepily sanctimonious and fascistic all this spit-spot playing field hygiene sounds even in his thoroughly domesticated for Nation readers variation?) in bodily exertion, peer to peer.
While Lipsyte rightly worries about the aggressiveness promoted by competition and the uncritical authoritarianism of team cohesion, I daresay his romantic attachment to sport restrains him from going deeper, and grasping the poisonous adrenaline heart and hard-on of the Jock Cult. Since human beings are deeply inter-dependent on one another our whole lives through, since we arrive into a world which precedes us and exceeds us and makes us even as we collaborate in the making of it, the "autonomy" and "responsibility" we aspire to and value, while real and important, are also profoundly ambivalent. To believe any of our accomplishments are entirely our own, that they owe nothing to the multicultural archive into which we are born and nothing as well to the efforts of the diversity of peers with whom we share the world, to fancy instead our endowments derive entirely from our own solitary efforts or singular superiority to others who lack them (or to attribute these achievements to a homogeneous and superior "we" against alien and inferior "theys") is always to indulge in a profound self-deception. And to the extent that our self-esteem is bound up in maintaining that deception, it demands an incredibly costly expenditure of effort wasted in a pointless spectacle of self-aggrandizement that manages mostly to be pathetic while it works and is almost always destined eventually to a failure that will be all the more devastating the longer it has been staved off in the first place.
I believe that competitive sports is an engine feeding this wasteful and deranging form of delusive self-indulgence. Jocks are in the throes of a compulsion to "winning" that provides a delusive hit of a "goodness" that is profoundly inhuman in its presumed "godlikeness," tinged with the destructive and self-destructive delirium of self-denial and megalomania. I believe that the momentary superiority of Jocks is written on the broken bodies of the Pukes they terrorize… but as well it is written on the inevitably failing, ageing, finite bodies of the Jocks themselves.
While Lipsyte speaks of competitive team sport in terms of the "pleasure [of] your body in public" it would be better to speak of competitive team sport as the ritual humiliation of bodies, the denunciation of bodies, the reduction of the body to Puke through the assertion in Winning of the Jock-Body as an imperishable, invulnerable, angelic spirit-body. The Jock-Body is a body at the ready for human civilization's many bloody-minded body-minded rituals of dehumanization, enslaving bodies to pile up loot, killing bodies to pile up skulls, bodying forth the Babel bodypile that would reach up to heaven and leave the earth behind and the body behind and the people behind and, hence, death itself behind.
It's a stupid wasteful destructive madness and there's nothing good in it, even if sports have an incidental yield of harmless pleasures to recommend them. Lipsyte is right to be worried, but he has scarcely begun to tear the lid off the hell of Jock Culture and the hell it makes on earth.
Jock Culture more essentially and perniciously consists of the ceremonial substance through which we are educated and incited into that self-denying madness of self-assertive victimizing victory-mongering to the ruin of the world. Contrary to Lipsyte's assertion that "Jock Culture is inescapable" it is more deeply true that the failure of Jock Culture is inevitable. Since it is the eventual exposure of the Jock as Puke that is really inescapable, it would seem to me that the education or circumvention of the wasteful delusive self-destructive tendencies exacerbated by Jock Culture is indispensable to the well-being of the individuals vulnerable to its siren song and to the flourishing of societies dedicated to equity-in-diversity.