The other evening, I was in a bar watching the World Cup with some Dutch men. The Netherlands was playing Argentina, and all the men were wearing orange shirts. They cheered and groaned, pounding the table with their fists and yelling at the television. They were surprisingly emotional, for the Dutch.
I learned that one of the fans was a leading expert on pension funds. He showed me a photo of what he wears at home in Amsterdam when he watches his team play. It's an entire orange outfit, complete with a tail (I never gathered why). His wife always kisses the tail for luck.
What is it about sports that can turn the most sober, solid men into crazed fanatics? Whatever it is, I'm envious. Sport gives men access to an intensity of experience that leaves most women simply baffled. We are relegated to the sidelines. Our job is to make the popcorn. I can't say I'm bitter about that, because even though I enjoy rooting for the home team, I just don't care that much.
Sports is the purest embodiment of things guys love – competition, prowess, aggression, combat, winning. Even couch potatoes – especially couch potatoes – can get their thrills vicariously. Plus, sports is simple. There are winners and losers and scores and rules and, unlike life, the outcome is usually clear. As in combat, there are the good guys (our side) who are righteous and brave, and there is the despicable, evil tribe from across the valley who deserve to get the crap kicked out of them.
Men get as emotional about their teams as I get watching Gone with the Wind. When the Canadian hockey team beat Russia back in 1972, I thought it was … well, very nice. Men thought it was the greatest moment since the end of the Second World War. The gritty little guys had kicked the communist robot juggernaut's ass. To this day, they can all remember exactly where they were when it happened.
My husband's deepest sports bromance is with the Boston Red Sox. He grew up in Quebec's Eastern Townships and his dad used to drive him down to see the games. For his entire life, he stayed loyal to the Red Sox, which were a lovable but awful team because of the Curse of the Bambino. (You can look that up.) At last, in 2004, the curse was broken and they won the World Series. "I can't remember if I thought I was going to burst into tears, or whether I actually did," he says.
Women confirm their values by sharing the most intimate moments of their lives with other women. Men confirm their values by talking with other men about what happens on the field. Sports is a safe house for their emotions. It's a place where they can let their feelings show and not be judged. It's also a safe house for masculinity, Canadian blogger James Howden writes. In a world that has become increasingly feminized, sports is a space where men can get away from women and have "honest, fulfilling and meaningful encounters with other men."
We're talking about "man love" – and it's rampant both on and off the field. Man love was what was going on when those phenomenally attractive Dutch players wrapped themselves in a group embrace as they steeled for the sudden-death kickoff round. They reminded me of soldiers in the trenches during the First World War, pledging their loyalty to their comrades one last time before they went over the top into the jaws of almost certain doom.
It's not for nothing that we think of sports and war as two sides of the same coin. And sure, female athletes should be honoured too. But we honour them not because they play like women but because they play like men. (Though usually not as well.)
Playing sports teaches boys what it means to be men, which is something that only other men can teach. They learn to be tough and aggressive, to play to win, to suck it up when they lose or get hurt. These are valuable life lessons, though ones that aren't particularly fashionable in today's caring, sharing, feminized, personal-best world.
These days it's popular to ridicule sport, to pathologize and exaggerate its testosterone-charged excesses. But the values associated with sports and masculinity – perseverance, striving for excellence, risk-taking, self-sacrifice – are at least as necessary to society as the nurturing values of compromise, sympathy and understanding. And they're thrilling to see in action.
Which still doesn't explain why sports matters to them so much. As sportswriter Bill Simmons puts it in a quote on Mr. Howden's blog, "That's just the way it's always been. Ever since I can remember. You get older, your life changes … and yet, one thing never changes for anyone who truly cares about sports. See, there's no feeling quite like watching your team blowing a big game. It's devastating. It's paralyzing. It's the only feeling that a 6-year-old, a 42-year-old and a 64-year-old can share exactly. You never get over it. You never stop thinking about the three or four plays that could have swung the game. It becomes something of a sports tattoo. You live with it forever, and then you die."
Anyway, the Dutch team lost to Argentina in the penalty shootout. Everyone was sad. The man who usually wore the orange tail had been convinced that they might go the distance. Maybe it was his fault for not being home so his wife could kiss his tail. We'll never know.