My aversion to football actually has nothing to do with the sport itself, and it wasn’t something that I realized until I’d hung up the phone after a conversation with my sister, who’d said, “I don’t know what it is about football season, but it always makes me so depressed.” It was then that I made the connection. I am a gymnast and a huge advocate for sports, which I believe have actually saved my life by giving me a strong foundation of endurance, discipline, and perseverance. I have nothing against football or its fans, but for some, football season represents much more than the actual sport, partly because of its ability to bring large groups of people together to drink. Each game also represents a powerful, hypermasculine event, and if a male watches football, then he is undoubtedly considered a “real man.”
My family used to own a bar outside Boston, and I literally grew up there, doing my homework on a swiveling bar stool and getting sodas from the bartender, who also happened to be the sister I just mentioned. My dad, a man I always wanted to know but never really got the chance to, sat at one end of the bar, immersed in his bottomless glass of beer while watching football games. My mom sat at the other end of the bar, opposite my father, reflecting the actual status of their marriage: separated and living apart.
Drinking and getting drunk was our family curse, but football season brought it to deeper, more intense levels. Maybe it was because football season is associated with the beginning of the holiday season. I know that Sunday football games can give people a break from the monotonous slog of everyday life, but in my experience, football season always ended in fights and the arrival of police officers. The soundtrack that accompanied many Thanksgivings was the endless white noise of fans screaming at the various bowl games. That relentless cheering from the background triggered repressed feelings from my youth, and oddly, it seems that I have carried that over into my adult life.
As a child, I wanted to connect with my father, especially while he watched the game, because he was buzzed from his beers and easily approachable. I liked playing football as a kid, because I needed to burn off the endless amounts of energy that I possessed, but I never really liked watching it. I’m not a watcher of life but a doer, and if I watch something, I always want to participate and do it. Even to this day, if I am watching gymnastics on television, I have to do a few handstands to feel normal.
I’m not even sure whether my dad actually liked watching football or just liked the excuse to get drunk and yell at the TV screen. Football games bring people together, but in my family, with the heavy drinking, it rarely ended well. My father ultimately left us, and then the holiday games were a constant reminder that we were one man down, and we wondered whether he would ever return again for possible overtime.
My first boyfriend loved football, and I would watch the game with him because I wanted to be with him and support his hobbies. Unknowingly, I’d recreated the situation from my childhood. He sat there, watching the game, beer in hand, yelling at the television. However, by then, I was participating in my own sport of intravenous heroin use, and I remember noting the distant sounds of screaming fans while I drifted in and out of consciousness.
One year, I left rehab against medical advice, but I swore that I was going to stay abstinent. To my drug counselor I made the excuse that it was Thanksgiving and I wanted to go home to be with my family, even though I would be marching right back into the very environment from which I was subconsciously trying to escape. My family was so happy that I was not using and looked forward to seeing me for the holiday, but on the drive back I made a last-minute pit stop to pick up a small pharmacy of pills. By the time dinner was ready, all the pills I had taken kicked in, and I became an semi-conscious mess at the table, nodding off to the sounds of the cheering crowd as my head touched down on the table. Why was I constantly reliving this scene? It had nothing to do with football per se but with what football seemed to bring into my life.
After being in recovery for a while, I dated another guy who loved football. Again, I sat there — this time without a drug in my body — as I watched the man in my life drink and yell at the television set. “Dad, is that you?” I thought. Yes, it occurred to me that I had been dating my father again and again. I was still that little boy who wanted some acknowledgment from his father but was forgotten in the latter’s drunken haze and the static noise of the game.
As I’d done for my other boyfriends, I wanted to support this one and his hobbies, but I remember him saying one time, with that honesty that intoxication often brings about, “I don’t even like football. I only chose it because it was the most masculine thing to do, and I didn’t want anyone to know I was gay.” That was something I could completely identify with: I had done the same thing in so many aspects of my life. I too had fallen victim to trying to appear more masculine or hetero to avoid judgment and humiliation, and to fit in.
When I was a child, my father once yelled at me, “Grow up and be a man!” That statement echoed in my head all throughout my life. Be a man! But what is a man? If I liked football more, would I then be a man? What is masculinity?
My experience with this subject might not be someone else’s, but after years of watching this behavior in many other gay men, I believe that masculinity has nothing to do with what kind of sport one watches, how much weight one can lift, how many sexual partners one has, or how much facial hair one can grow. To me, a man is someone who is emotionally strong and confident in who he is, even if those around him disagree. A true man has integrity and values and respects others. He exhibits true strength through his ability to admit the truth, and he is someone who takes responsibility for his actions, in all his affairs.
My recovery and acceptance of my sexuality is my own testament to and affirmation of masculinity. I admit who I am in a world that doesn’t always accept this. Even though I would rather hide behind my many masks of false masculinity, I try not to, realizing that the masks I hide behind are uglier than the reality of truth. Sometimes I would rather get drunk and yell at a TV screen, or stay loaded in whatever my drug du jour may be, but I have a lot of responsibilities I must show up for. I have an obligation to others to be an emotionally strong human being, even when I don’t want to be. Today I am financially responsible, and I don’t recklessly spend money the way I did when I was in my active addiction. I have learned that when I make a decision, I must try to ask myself, “How would the man I always wanted to be react in this situation?”
I am not saying one needs to get into recovery in order to be a man; I am just saying that for me, this was the only way I could grow up. In my past, I was so intoxicated that I could not see or care how my bad behavior affected others, and I hid behind my reckless behavior to take the focus away from the truth. I was a scared little boy. I was… my father.
My father became a man too, when he stopped drinking a few years ago. He finally grew up and took responsibility for all the things he was hiding from. It took both of us many years to grow up, each on our own path, but for now we try our best to help others instead of hurting them. I have never been prouder of him.
Recently I walked down Ninth Avenue in New York City with the autumn wind blowing the fall leaves. It is the season that I dread, and I could feel it in my bones. I walked by several bars and heard that all-too-familiar sound of screaming fans at a football game. It made me think of my childhood, my father’s old behavior, and my ex-boyfriends. I wondered if they are still in the same place I walked away from. I wondered if they have grown up and become the men they always wanted to be.