Competence porn (and football)

Professional sports are a fantasy environment.

They aren't tied, or aren't supposed to be tied, to any real-world concerns (and when they are, it causes cognitive dissonance, but I'm getting ahead of myself). When you watch pro sports your brain is meant to put all those concerns aside and temporarily take residence in an artificial universe, just as if you're watching a Disney movie.

But pro sports aren't a Disney movie. They involve watching people perform physical acts most of us are unwilling or unable to do, often in an overtly theatrical manner, and they satisfy various prurient impulses.

That's right. Pro sports are pornography.

And no pro sport is more overtly pornographic than professional US-style football.


Of course, the thing about pornography is that it's inherently specialized. If the porn doesn't hit a kink you happen to have, it doesn't do anything for you. I don't care at all for mainstream film/video pornography, for example, because it's mostly just footage of people having sex in a slightly exaggerated way, and the physical activity of sex is the most boring thing about it. Sexual response, for me, is almost entirely in the mind, which in pornographic fiction means the scenario, the plot--the part mainstream porn almost completely ignores.

Similarly, I stopped writing porn years ago because I write things for other people to read and I realized porn contained a trap: It's very, very hard to convincingly write porn that doesn't push your own buttons, but if you only write porn that pushes your own buttons your niche quickly becomes obvious (which may be more than you want to reveal about yourself), and also you become "the woman who keeps writing about the Doctor getting injured" or "the only person ever to get a breast-inflation story anthologized by Susie Bright."

One format of pornography I am willing to reveal my fondness for, because it's usually completely free of any sexual activity whatsoever, is what I call "competence porn." I am not being as frivolous with my rhetoric here as you might think. Watching someone do their job competently, easily, and well gives me a pleasure rush. It's not overt; I mean, I don't get aroused or have to scream orgasmically into one of the sofa pillows. It's not that kind of rush. But it seems to be in related territory.

This has a number of broad implications. As if my sense of humor weren't already bizarre enough, a lot of comedy is built around the concept of failure and discomfort, and that stuff isn't funny to me. Pretty much the entire oeuvre of people like Steve Carell is off-limits.

It also causes me problems as a writer of Real Fiction because in the Real Fiction world, a protagonist who succeeds flawlessly at everything is boring, and people don't want to read books unless there's some adversity and growth. So I have to suppress my impulses about what I'd like to read--a dauntless heroine who dashes with aplomb and wit through every challenge presented her--in favor of what I can compel other people to read, which ain't that.


Anyway. I like to watch/read competence porn, and I like it enough that I'm willing to overlook a lot of other faults when I do. I don't watch old Jackie Chan movies because of their plots (which seldom withstand scrutiny) or their dialogue (I think Chan himself once said he was a bad actor in three different languages). I watch them to see Chan execute extended stunts which often verge on the physically impossible. No other reason.

I tend to only watch pro sports at very high levels of play for this exact reason. I don't want to watch people play badly, or even adequately; I want to watch only the best. I watch soccer heavily only in World Cup years. I watch football only as the playoffs approach. I watch women's tennis if it's Wimbledon time. (I don't watch men's tennis at all because male tennis players all make me want to punch them in the face on sight.) I watched golf a bit back when Tiger Woods was playing an entirely different game from everyone else, but that era is done and I have happily gone back to ignoring it again.

(Ironically, I don't watch basketball or baseball at all because they fall at opposite ends of this competence spectrum for me: Everyone in pro basketball is good enough at the basic physical feats of the game that in practice it just becomes a never-ending procession of fouls, and baseball is so inherently tedious that even when it's executed with perfect competence it still isn't entertaining to watch, just as an hour of film about the world's greatest accountant doing the books would still be boring.)

The New England Patriots are in an extended period of high competence. They are very, very good at what they do, and they're a lot of fun to watch when they're having a good day. This is why it annoys me that people keep insisting on intruding reality into my pornography.


Of course this is always the problem, and it's a valid problem. As much as we'd like to divorce the fantasy context from the real world, it doesn't always work out. Things happen all the time in porn stories which would be harmful, dangerous, and/or illegal in the real world--and people have been arguing about the acceptability of those things happening in a fictional context since day one.

Just as the porn industry often has shady, injurious conditions behind the scenes--actors being swindled or mistreated or forced to perform dangerous acts--football has its problems it tries to cover up, most notably the growing recognition that to become a pro football player is to take a serious risk that you will be unable to form complete sentences, walk steadily, or remember your family's names twenty years after you retire.

Both industries are full of people whose backstories you'd really rather not know. Tom Brady is an asshole who has never gotten over his resentment at not being taken seriously in the draft; he has a chip on his shoulder a mile wide. Bill Belichick is probably the greatest coach ever, but at a horrific cost; not only does he know no morality when it comes to a football context, he has utterly no existence outside a football context. It is rumored he has a spouse and a home, and I've seen PR photos of him playing golf, but I personally think that during the two months or so a year when he doesn't have any games to prepare for and does not yet have next year's scouting and prep to do, he goes into standby mode in a closet deep under Gillette Stadium while his systems defragment and self-repair.

I don't want to have to think about those things while I watch a football game. And normally, in most years, I wouldn't. There are two problems this year: Donald Trump, and the hatred everyone else has for the Patriots.


Trump is a problem because there is basically no media that isn't about Trump right now; he and his team of grotesques have invaded every possible topic of public discourse. Brady and Belichick both have shown signs of being Trump supporters. I agree that this would normally be enough to put them on the anathema list, but I want to temporarily suspend that during the game so I can watch them do what I want them to do--which is to say, dismantle their opponents utterly and dance on the bodies. I have no interest in watching a game which isn't a rout.

(I don't especially care which way the rout goes. If the Falcons destroy the Patriots that'll be fun too. I don't actually have local loyalties when it comes to sports. I'd rather watch the hockey team that wins a lot than be Bruins-live-or-die. Some folks would say this means I'm not actually a sports fan. Guilty as charged.)

As for the rest of you ... I understand that you might not be watching for the same reasons I am. I understand that perhaps you do have local loyalties (foolish though they may seem to me) and you'd like to see your team, or any other team, win for a change. And I grant the Patriots have been fairly insufferable about it. I understand why you'd love to see them fall on their faces.

I also understand that you're justifiably annoyed that the Patriots have done unethical things several times, although I think you're ignoring the fact that they don't win because they cheat; they win because Belichick has been willing to subsume his entire existence into winning football games.

(I'd also like to note that the general hatred of the Patriots in the rest of the country plays up the feeling of martyrdom here. I saw a Super Bowl t-shirt in the mall yesterday which read, without intended irony, NEW ENGLAND VS. THE WORLD. Remember that to many people in these parts, we're still the underdogs with four shit sports franchises, and every time some other part of the country hisses at us we just get meaner and more paranoid. I don't personally agree with the local inferiority complex, and I feel it's our problem and not yours. I just mention it in case you were unaware of it. New Englanders are very circle-the-wagons people, psychologically.)


I just want to enjoy a football game. I can't be all-resistance all the time; I have to take a moment or two to scratch my itches. So, yeah, I'm watching the Super Bowl, and yeah, I might say a thing or two about it while it's happening (the thing I'm most likely to do is call out when someone makes a boneheaded mistake, because this organization does not tolerate failure*).

* Deliberate Blofeld joke.

This is a temporary situation. For the rest of the year you can fuss at me about how horrible football is and/or the Patriots are and I'll agree with you. Actually, you can fuss at me even during the game, if you'd like. I don't have a problem with trash talk, as long as I think it's only that. I got worried that a friend of mine was legitimately mad at me the other day because I said something positive about the Patriots. It's bad enough, and everyone's so tightly wound right now, that I worry about people breaking off friendships with me because of a damned football game, and that's an additional stress I don't need. It's supposed to be porn. It's not supposed to have consequences.

Ah well. Football fans in all other parts of the country, remember this: Brady has one, maybe two seasons left before his arm falls off. Belichick has a job for life, sure, but he's 64. Nothing lasts forever.

They could even lose the game!

04     February 2017     06

top     edit