Mocking athletes isn’t actually very cool

A few months ago, a bit of a meme was going about. It seemed like everyone I knew was linking to a comment thread at a bodybuilding site in which people appeared to be arguing over how many days there were in a week. As a friend who lifts pointed out, the thread was actually quite understandable to almost any athlete who trains — if you’re discussing training every other day, obviously you know how many days are in a week, and you’re thinking in terms of a two week training cycle. (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday.)

Yet, mocking the athletes in the thread, some of whom were confused about the question being asked and others of whom were new to the sport, became a popular activity across the internet. Hahaha, bodybuilders don’t know the days of the week. What should have been a thread limited to people with an interest in bodybuilding became an object of public mockery, turning a useful forum that anyone could visit without needing an account into a somewhat hostile place — this is exactly the kind of thing that leads communities to lock down forums, even though they want members of the public to be able to benefit from them. If you’re new to bodybuilding, say, and you’re shy but want to explore some topics of interest, maybe you want to dip into forums without becoming a formal member.

The problem with making fun of athletes isn’t limited to bodybuilding. There’s an enduring stereotype of the jock, cast as someone with limited critical thinking and problemsolving abilities beyond getting a ball from here to there. Jocks are treated as worthless, good only for entertaining the equally ‘stupid’ people who watch sports and for little else, and they’re devalued despite the fact that they’re performing at the peak of their sports. People like bodybuilders dedicate significant amounts of time to getting their bodies into shape and to get them looking the way they want them to, lifting, running, and engaging in other athletic activities to build up muscle and develop competition-ready conformation. They spend a great deal of money attending competitions, hiring coaches, and getting involved in the sport. Athletes in a wide variety of other fields are equally invested in their sports.

Aside from the fact that this has intrinsic value that shouldn’t be mocked, most athletes are perfectly average, lovely people. Value shouldn’t be assigned on the basis of ‘intelligence,’ a somewhat arbitrary and frustratingly elusive measure in the first place, but if you’re going to go there, lots of jocks are intelligent. They’re very smart people, in fact. Some may not perform well on tests and in standardised environments, but that doesn’t mean they’re ‘stupid’ any more than those with learning disabilities or cognitive disabilities that make it hard to function in traditional classroom environments. Developing an athletic program and sticking to it actually requires considerable understanding of biomechanics, how far the body can be pushed, and simple biology. It requires being willing to commit substantial time and energy to something that could, at the twist of an angle or drop of a weight, ruin your career forever. Jocks rely on their bodies as people in other professions rely on their brains — and jocks need their brains, too, because much of their work involves strategy and the retention of considerable amounts of information.

Take American football players, whom many people in the US see as the quintessential jocks. If you don’t watch football, you dismiss the sport, especially during the Super Bowl, when the country suddenly seems immersed in all football, all the time. If you’re not interested in football, you don’t follow particular athletes, up and comers, and trades. That’s all well and good — I don’t follow football, for example, because I personally am not particularly interested in it.

But the sport is actually incredibly complicated. It’s about much more than a bunch of men throwing each other about the gridiron. Assembling a team requires careful strategising on the part of a coach, who needs to make extremely carefully considered decisions about who to bring on, who to let go, how to train people. The team needs to train both together and as individuals to develop the athletic ability to compete and the cooperative ability to function as a unit when facing down another team. Before individual games, coaches go over strategies and discuss possible moves and outcomes in detail, and players are expected to memorise these and develop their own internal playbooks to take on the field with them.

In the course of the game, athletes need to be ready for anything, tuned to the movements of the other team, including the small, casual moves that could betray a change of plans, a shift in direction, an abrupt change in the nature of the game. Each player needs to be in touch with the rest of the team, focused on what everyone is doing and where everyone is, in addition to being in control of his own patch of grass (or astroturf), aware of what the other team is doing and concentrating on their strategy.

That’s not…particularly stupid, honestly. It’s not my sport, and I prefer to direct my energies elsewhere, but I’m not going to call American football players ‘stupid jocks,’ because they’re not. They’re smart, focused people who have chosen a career and they bring it all to the field. They’re also disturbingly more likely to abuse and assault women, which is something that needs to be discussed in the context of the larger culture of their sport, but if we’re going to focus on mocking people for perceived lack of intelligence, don’t. American football players aren’t just physically powerful. Bodybuilders aren’t just covered in muscles. Athletes in general shouldn’t be mocked for what they’ve chosen to do any more than those in more braniac and apparently socially acceptable positions for liberals — for they are the ones who seem to particularly relish mocking athletes — and pretending that this is okay is deeply disingenuous.

Image: Ra’ed Qutena