Sporting tournaments: a gynocentric tradition?

A recent article by Doug Mortimer tells a story of a young man who went to a small town high school in the Texas Panhandle:

An avid tennis player, he went to the powers that be at his school and asked if he could form a tennis club.  Sure, go ahead.  Why not?

At first, things went well.  Membership in the tennis club grew steadily.  Then things went too well.  Football players were dropping out in favor of the tennis club.  So the powers that be changed their minds, and the tennis club was deep-sixed.

It is a curious paradox.  In academic environments, where toxic masculinity is routinely excoriated, why is football, the ultimate contact sport – and arguably the most “toxic” sport – sacrosanct?

Musing on the story Mortimer goes on to conclude that what makes football different from other team sports, in least in terms of popular culture, is the belief that “it will make a man out of you”:

In days of old, one could come right out and say that; today it’s sub rosa.  Other team sports, such as soccer, basketball, or baseball, are OK, but no one asserts they will make a man out of you.  After all, even girls play soccer, basketball, and baseball (well, softball).  But girls don’t play football!

Athletic competition goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks, but organized sports leagues are a relatively new phenomenon in civilization.  The sociobiological take on them is they provide an arena for a ritualized form of aggression.  Think of tribal warfare without spears.

So how did boys become men before football was invented?  Playing games was a leisure activity at best.  You could go your entire life without ever playing any kind of sport and no one would question your manhood.

This story and Mortimer’s comments illustrate a fundamental contradiction at the heart of male-shaming, ie. the very things society shames men and boys for – in this case bone jarring football – are the very things that same society encourages. The double message for men and boys is never really resolved and they carry it like a lead weight.

Mortimer makes an important point here, that men in classical times didn’t behave in the same way. Which begs the question of where, when and especially why did this ritualized form of competition come about? Historian Johan Huizinga provides an interesting answer to these questions:

“The warlike sports of the Middle Ages differ from Greek athletics by being far less simple and natural. Pride, honour, love and art give additional stimulus to the competition itself. Overloaded with pomp and decoration, full of heroic fancy, they serve to express romantic needs too strong for mere literature to satisfy. The realities of court life or a military career offered too little opportunity for the fine make-belief of heroism and love, which rilled the soul. So they had to be acted. The staging of the tournament, therefore, had to be that of romance ; that is to say, the imaginary world of Arthur, where the fancy of a fairy-tale was enhanced by the sentimentality of courtly love.” [ ]

Based on Huizinga’s account it seems the modern sporting tournament was born first in France and referred to the joust, sword fighting and other chivalric games, all of which seem to have their origin in impressing women (who sat attentively in the stadiums) and for the gaining of women’s romantic attentions. Same thing today – beautiful women lining up to fuck sports heroes, and sportsmen/teams/clubs doing special deeds for the ladies, from wearing pink jerseys to raise money for breast cancer or raising awareness about domestic violence, and generally sucking up.

And of course we have feminists assisting sporting clubs in the drafting of ‘respecting women’ charters that result in a more general feminist ownership of club culture.

Just compare today’s woman-impressing sports with descriptions of same in the Middle Ages:

Chivalry tornament joust

Above: Female audience attending a medieval tournament

‘Many knights, says our Armoric fabler, famous for feats of chivalry, were present, with apparel and arms of the same colour and fashion. They formed a species of diversion, in imitation of a fight on horseback, and the ladies being placed on the walls of the castles, darted amorous glances on the combatants. None of these ladies esteemed any knight worthy of her love unless he had given proof of his gallantry in three fevered encounters. Thus the valour of the men encouraged chastity in the women, and the attention of the women proved an incentive to the soldier’s bravery’ [ ]

Or this one written in 1818:

The looks, the words, the sign of a lady, were accounted to- make knights at time of need perform double their usual deeds of strength and valour. At tournaments and in combats, the voices of the ladies were heard like those of the German females in former battles, calling on the knights to remember their fame, and exert themselves to the uttermost. “Think, gentle knights,” was their cry, “upon the wool of your breasts, the nerve of your arms, the love you cherish in your hearts, and do valiantly for ladies behold you.” The corresponding shouts of the combatants were, “Love of ladies! Death of warriors! On, valiant knights, for you fight under fair eyes? Where the honour or love of a lady was at stake, the fairest prize was held out to the victorious knight, and champion from every quarter were sure to hasten to combat in a cause so popular. [ ]

You get the picture…

The sporting tournament (from french word – tourney) arose at precisely the same time as romantic chivalry and courtly love, a theme that continues today in the ubiquitous sporting tournament everywhere. With this in mind it becomes the task of today’s sports-minded men to decide just who they are playing the game for; for upper class women like in France? or for simple, natural fun like the Greeks? some other reason?….. the answer is your call.

See also: The role of ladies in the first sporting tournaments