It’s OK to Have the Hots for Baseball Players: A Manifesto
Baseball's gatekeepers haven't quite figured out how to deal with female fans both liking what they see and knowing what they're talking about. Let's fix that.
Photo by Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Over the past few years, as my baseball fandom spiked to near-ridiculous levels, I found myself using a stock phrase when discussing my favorite players. "It's not a sex thing," I'd say when extolling the virtues of Justin Verlander or Buster Posey or Clayton Kershaw. For whatever reason, it was important that people (men) knew I was a serious and unemotional devotee of the sport, someone not to be dismissed as a mere fangirl lusting after butts in belted baseball pants.
Female baseball fans will know what I'm talking about—this nagging impulse to reassure others that you're not there for the obvious aesthetic on-field show. Romantic appreciation for male athletes is certainly one of the more common accusations levied against ladies who like the game; it's a way to dismiss women's interest and knowledge as lesser than our male counterparts. In a culture where female voices are so often excluded—a quick glance at any roster of mainstream sportswriters and personalities bears this out—the perceived sin of attraction is another reason to keep the "Members Only" sign up at the boys' club.
"As I started heading to more ballgames, I found random male strangers perfectly willing to point out that there was no way I could really know the game, and that any player whose name was on a jersey I might have been wearing was only someone I thought was hot," says K, a 37-year-old Blue Jays fan. "I tried my best to try to change their minds about it, but it was generally met with verbal pats on the head."
It's definitely true that being hot for players has long been a no-no for "serious" female fans, one that's ingrained in us from the age when crushes first start to blossom. (Male fans as well, obviously, but that's another essay entirely.) Mabel, another 37-year-old Jays fan, remembers feeling judged for her desires as soon as she was old enough to have them. "The timing of when people started wondering why I liked sports roughly coincides with young adulthood," she says. "Like, it's cute and OK for a 13-year-old to adore John Olerud. But a 17-year-old doing the same is wrong, as she's a woman, or close to."
While the expression and service of male heterosexual lust is one of our more pervasive, culturally permissible pastimes, female longing is policed well beyond sports fandom. It's viewed as everything from dismissible (think boy bands) to dangerous (slut shaming). Women who want after male athletes wind up being labeled as jersey chasers or gold-diggers or (significantly, predictably) worse.
Female sports fans in general are treated like a stock list of stereotypes: served up infantilizing Hello Kitty merchandise and given institutionalized opportunities to "better understand" the game, invited to wine-soaked MLB-sponsored ladies' nights, or dressed up in Victoria's Secret gear that invites kisses on the kiss cam.
Further, it seems that sports culture can't reconcile female desire with knowledge, so if you're admiring the finer points of Josh Donaldson's unstoppable swagger—his "liquid hot sexual gold," as certain aficionados have been known to call it—you can't possibly understand the mechanics of his MVP-worthy work at third base. Logic would dictate that I can find him stunning and still understand how the game works, and even be an expert on it. Yet, for whatever reason, acknowledging that I notice how pretty he is somehow becomes a shameful admission. I am forever a guest in a man's house, and am expected to watch what I say and police what I feel accordingly.
Quite frankly, I've grown real tired of pretending that Bryce Harper isn't a scorchingly beautiful specimen of masculinity. I've become exhausted denying that Buster Posey has the most adorable, angelic boy-band face I've seen since perusing Tiger Beat as a teenage girl. I'm weary from saying that Justin Verlander's pants look "uncomfortable," or that Matt Kemp looks "like an athlete." I've actually come to think that every time I deny my inevitable attraction to players—I'm only human, and you know what Matt Kemp looks like—I'm supporting that terrible notion that real fans don't have crushes, or that crushes hysterically cancel out all other considerations, and finally that women should simply shut up about how they feel if they want to watch a game with everyone else. A more cynical observer might even wonder if this gag rule has more to do with a threat to the general fan base's masculinity than any real "respect for the game."
Other female sports fans shared my overall disdain. Leesa let me know that she loves Josh Hamilton's batting bounce and beard, and that her favorite thighs in baseball belong to Mike Trout (Leesa loves baseball thighs). For a long time, though, she kept those feelings to herself. "I learned very quickly that a lot of men, once they heard I had a crush on a player, it was over," she says. "They would write me off as just being girly about the whole thing, and think that was the only reason I watched instead of realizing that it was simply an added bonus."
Britt, a 32-year-old marketing coordinator and San Francisco Giants fan, heartily agrees. "There's absolutely pressure to not be seen as a 'cleat chaser' or just some shallow bimbo—which is bullshit on every conceivable level," she says. "There's so much gatekeeping for female fans in sports, there's a pressure to never do or say anything that could get you kicked out of the club."
Given that men have long dictated the conversation around professional sports, carving out a place for female desire could actually be considered a subversive, even progressive act. But this call for a revolution on frank, open lust raises a fundamental question: Is it sexist to objectify players? Is wanting after them culturally harmful? It shouldn't be, as long as it stays within reasonable, respectful limits. ("I wasn't handing them my underwear," says Mabel. "I just enjoyed from afar.")
Male professional athletes are valued and richly compensated for reasons far beyond their sexual appeal, a luxury not afforded to their female counterparts when it comes to earnings and endorsement deals. Mainstream sports media certainly doesn't exploit male desirability—in fact, it rarely even considers it—nor does it pander to those who desire them. Hotness is a mere accessory, not a necessity, to a male athlete's overall career success; unlike women, they have perceived value beyond some deeply misogynistic, out-of-ten bangability rating on a lad mag website. (Hell, athletes' far-less-public wives and girlfriends are far more egregiously objectified than they are.) Their sexual attractiveness isn't systemically oppressing them.
What's more interesting is that when I polled even a small handful of women about their most desired ball-players, the diversity of the list was striking. In its totality, it undermined any suggestion that female desire promotes a physical archetype that men are pressured to adhere to. Kevin Kiermaier, Dalton Pompey, Ryan Vogelsong, Troy Tulowitzki, Elvis Andrus, Mitch Moreland, Mark Buehrle, Barry Zito, Cole Hamels, Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, Prince Fielder, and Brian Dozier all made the list.
Their comments on why these men were their favorites also had a respectful and notably non-dehumanizing sweetness about them: "It looks like his hair would be nice to run your hands through." "He has the prettiest eyes." "His grin is charming and contagious." "His voice is soft, husky and melodious." Many cited how baseball players inspired a sort of innocent desire akin to that of their youth, before the complexity and predatory nature of sexism set in. It would seem that the allure was not only for the athlete but also for the safety the fantasy itself conjured.
"I think the biggest challenge is that we simultaneously want to dispel the myth that all women are into sports because athletes are hot, while also supporting the idea that there's nothing wrong with that," says Britt, the Giants fan. "It's a difficult line to walk."
Maybe a key element of obliterating that line is talking openly and comfortably about how desire fits into this game we so enjoy, a conversation that begins with admitting that it can exist, and that it does. The more sports culture treats women as human beings with feelings and not as some caricature of what women are supposed to be, the more likely the space will become safer and more welcoming for everyone. As absurd as it might seem, the freedom to talk about desire without judgment and dismissal is definitely a part of that.
Out of everyone I spoke to, 17-year-old Nationals (and Bryce Harper) fan Nicole offered the most clarity on the issue. "Even though I am painfully shy, baseball has helped me open up and speak in situations I never would have spoken in before," she said. "I have become more confident in my baseball knowledge, so I haven't been as afraid to point out that that guy rakes, and that he's also really hot."