A while back this video made the rounds:
It documents an amateur boxing match between a male Marine and a female soldier (“soldier” in proper parlance referring to uniformed Army) purportedly on base in Iraq.
I’m not noting this for the butt-whooping the soldier received; it’s fairly predictable that even at pare weight classes with similar fitness, a male contestant in a sport involving a lot of pure strength and aggression is going to have a major advantage against the female.
What I do think is notable is the scene at 3:25. The soldier has been counted out and then helped off the mat, and the Marine approaches her to tap gloves. She appears to refuse to tap his glove.
That’s a very un-classy way to end a bout, because acknowledging your competitor is a key mark of male competition.
The concept of “sportsmanship” is a subtle one, but largely encompasses complementary truths:
- Compete to your ability
- When it’s over, it’s over
In every organized sport I’ve ever participated, the game ends with the two teams lining up for handshakes and saying “good game” to each other. In a lot of cases it’s perfunctory, most athletes have little interest in praising the opposition after a victory or a loss. What it is, however, is ceremonial and structural – an official demarcation that the competition is over, and we’re all just guys now. It’s the door through which you cross from competing to being friends again. You rarely see professionals having protracted good-game exchanges (baseball teams appear to shake their own hands; playoff hockey series are a well-publicized exception), but at the secondary and even collegiate levels, the practice is common. I’ve even heard arguments that they help to prevent intra- or post-game violence outside the bounds of the sport.
COMPETITION BREEDS RESPECT
There’s an element of the male psychology that accords respect to another man who chooses to compete with him. I first discovered this empirically. When I was in college, I visited a friend of mine during his summer enrollment. He invited another friend of his who was known to be an unalloyed party animal. I found out quickly that the reputation was true…this guy’s combination of charm and booze consumption made Van Wilder look like Rick Moranis.
After a couple of nights where he nailed the balance of a box of Rolling Rock beer (before it was sold to Anheuser Busch and made into swill) and an incident in which he urinated on somebody’s bedding, I took the liberty of looking him in the eye, saying “fuck you pal, you’re an asshole,” and leaving the room.
Turns out that incident caused him to grant me immense respect, my friend told me – so few people had stood up to him that I was in rarefied company, and I guess like a woman who assumes the guy who doesn’t kiss her ass has some kind of special social aura around him, I was put on the short list of this guy’s trusted pals.
I’ve written about bullies before, but he wasn’t a bully, he was just fucking around – he didn’t need to be smacked to get out of somebody’s way, all he needed was for someone to tell him “hey man, knock that shit off.”
I recalled at the time that this was simply a replay of a schoolmate of mine who had teased and ridiculed me in middle school. As we got older, I became more effective in standing up to him and challenging him at things he was good at. The result was that ours turned into an equal friendship. I was in bands with him, and he convinced me to turn out for football. He wound up being good enough to earn a spot on a bigtime college football team; I went up against him and I lost every time. I wasn’t much competition, but I was competing, and that was the important thing – he knew that we were totally kosher off the field, but that I was a fighter and wasn’t going to back down until coach blew the whistle. Showing him that I was prepared to take him on at things important to his own self-image amplified my status in his eyes.
That mettle-testing opened up our softer sides too. He wrote songs and smoked dope, and so became very spiritual in nature. This was an opening for me to express my emotional side, one that had previously gotten me mocked by him exactly, which in turn added a thoughtful and introspective safe space to our friendship. It has been highly rewarding to both our lives, but it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been strong enough to stand up to him and earn entry into that “locker room.”
Further on football, the boys on our team took pride in drawing assignments to cover or defeat the opponent’s best players; they felt that as leaders it was important they set an example that they weren’t going to back down from a tough matchup. It was easy to look over and see my buddy taking on the 270-pound college-bound offensive tackle and get motivated to do my job.
So competing is important among men. Guys don’t really have to shit-test each other because the male social environment contains an implicit contract of competition – we understand that we’re supposed to respond to challenges by competing, and that those who compete frequently or well have enhanced opportunities in the social order.
However, it’s also critical to acknowledge that the competition is a game, to not take it personally. That’s what is communicated by the post-game handshake. It’s a way for the loser to say “nice job,” and the winner to thank the loser for putting up a good fight. Even if you are hurt or humiliated, it’s an offer you need to accept as a way of showing there’s no hard feelings. So it was instantly noticed by me that a woman who was said to have talked a lot of trash going into a fight lacked the class to even tap her opponent’s glove and acknowledge that she had been beaten fair and square. I can’t be sure but I figure if she’d been boxing in the military she would have been drilled into that practice. I can say that if a dude had done that, particularly a man in uniform in full view of other uniforms of two services, he would have taken a major drop in respect. His own unitmates might have even wondered if he had what it took to fight with them.