Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Watching Football with The Boy

This past weekend all four of us started watching the Jets-Steelers game. The Wife and The Girl peeled off early, but The Boy stuck with me for almost the entire first half.

(I rarely watch football, other than the Super Bowl. This was unusual for us.)

I didn’t have a strong rooting interest going in. My pro football universe consists of the Forces of Light (Buffalo), almost everyone else, and the Forces of Darkness (Dallas). Admittedly, the Forces of Light have had a rough decade, but these things happen. Since both the Jets and the Steelers fall into the middle category, I wasn’t terribly invested. I’ve rooted for the Steelers before, since I like any team that routinely makes the Cowboys’ lives miserable. And I’ve rooted for the Jets before, just because I dimly recall that they once had a quarterback for about ten minutes who was named after Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which struck me as cool. (Browning Nagle -- look it up!) But neither could be called fandom.

This time around, though, it was all Jets. Explaining that to The Boy was tricky.

Although I have nothing against the Steelers as a team, I couldn’t abide Ben Roethlisberger’s sexual assault case. Though never convicted, what he did was apparently bad enough that the league suspended him for four games. I’m no expert on the case; my impression was that it amounted to rape. (I’m at a loss to explain why raping a woman leads to a lighter punishment than staging dogfights does, but I’m no expert on football.) I don’t ask athletes to be role models in all aspects of their lives, but sexual assault was a bit much.

I just wasn’t sure how much to share with TB.

This may all sound trivial, but football is one of those iconically masculine touchpoints in American culture. TB is curious about what it means to be a man, and I’m acutely aware that he sees me every single day. He hasn’t yet hit the age at which I turn stupid; in his eyes, I’m still a pretty smart guy. He wanted to watch the game with me not because he particularly cares about football -- he doesn’t -- but because it was the kind of thing that boys do with their Dads. He wants to be part of the club, and he looks to me to teach him the rules of the club.

So I told him that I was rooting for the Jets because the Steelers’ quarterback attacked a woman, and that that is not how a real man treats women. I told him that a man who treats women that way is not worthy of respect. He seemed to accept that.

Later, after he went to bed, I thought about it some more. He’s not some androgynous cipher, or a tabula rasa. He’s a specific, three-dimensional boy. He’s tall for his age, and well on his way to being tall for any age. He plays basketball and builds sculptures and wants to go to M.I.T. In a few years, the hormones will kick in, and he’ll have to find his way through the sheer hell of adolescence.

He needs a model of manhood that he can actually use. Asking him to transcend gender right before junior high would be stupid, if not insane. He will want to be part of the club, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t.

For all the gender theory I waded through -- and yes, dear readers, I did -- the on-the-ground version of masculinity that I keep coming back to as a regulative ideal is something like a gentleman. Not a Sensitive New Age Guy, since that always struck me as creepily passive-aggressive, and certainly not a frat guy. Something more like a self-possessed, confident man who thinks enough of himself to treat others with respect. Not a saint or a martyr, but a decent man who understands, even if imperfectly, that his actions affect other people. My grandfather was like that, even if he would never use terms like these.

There’s no reason that a good man couldn’t watch, play, and enjoy sports. TB loves playing basketball, and we’ve even made the pilgrimage to the Basketball Hall of Fame. (I can’t wait to make the trek to Cooperstown for the baseball version.) It’s great that he gets exercise and plays with other kids. It’s fun to win, and healthy to learn how to lose. And as he gets older, he’ll find that some level of basic fluency in high-profile sports is a valuable cross-class and cross-race topic of conversation with other men. In some settings, opting out of that would be conspicuous, and even costly in certain ways.

I just don’t want him to have to buy into macho-jock-asshole culture to do it. I want him to understand that there’s a difference between being a man and joining the He-Man Woman Hater’s Club.

Teaching a thoughtful boy is a challenge in this culture. One of his friends at school told him about watching games at a Hooters restaurant with his Dad; I had to explain, carefully, why we don’t and won’t go there. Boys in groups can get carried away -- being in the group while maintaining your own sense of boundaries can be hard even for adults. And if I hear about one more kid at school whose parents let him have a tv in his room...

The Steelers won the game, so we’ll be cheeseheads for the Super Bowl. I’ll explain why again. The game will be fun, we’ll have snacks, and we’ll do a running commentary on the ads. Maybe, if I’m really lucky, he’ll carry some emotional memory of that with him in a few years when the hormones kick in and Dad is suddenly, inexplicably dumb. We’re not quite there yet; he can still hear me. I hope he hears the right things. Roethlisberger may be a great quarterback, but TB has a shot at being a good man.