The Guy Thing
"Football," observes Jenkins, 36 and single, "is about boys being with boys doing the things boys do." Or it used to be. According to the National Football League, women now make up 43 percent of the game's weekly audience. Figuring those women might need some guidance, Jenkins—a former SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer who now works for Conde Nast's Sports for Women—wrote Men Will Be Boys: The Modern Woman Explains Football and Other Amusing Male Rituals, a witty guide to the game behind the game on the nation's gridirons.
Raised in New York City in a house full of football fans—her restaurant-owning mother, June, two brothers, plus a father, Dan, who covered the game for SI and wrote the classic football novel Semi-Tough—Jenkins studied literature at Stanford University, then followed her dad into sportswriting. "Games are fun," says Jenkins, "because they're a laboratory for exploring human nature." The author talked football with writer-reporter Cynthia Wang.
What's the first thing a woman needs to know about football?
Actually, I think women already know a lot about football. It's time women explained football to men. We see it more clearly because we haven't been wrapped up in it all of our lives. And there's a certain amount of fun that can be had watching men act out an extreme expression of maleness.
So why is football so important to men?
I think it's a guy's version of a fairy tale—a tall tale with an outsize, Paul Bunyanesque appeal that speaks to men. Football is to men what makeup is to women: a language, a code, a shared experience.
And men take it extremely seriously?
Of course. Open any motivational book written by a businessman on making deals or becoming successful, and it's shocking how much they quote football coaches. For decades men have used football as a management model, as a model for competitive success. A lot of men are raised with this unquestioning faith in football.
Do women fans see the game differently?
I think so. Some women are interested in football purely because of the strategy and nuance and the physical conflict. But I can't tell you how many women comment on the outfits!
There's the beltless pants question, for instance: Why do the coaches wear those Sansabelt pants?
Do some women watch football just to make fun of it?
There is a certain segment of women who watch football in a faintly subversive way. Some women feel that, hey, if we can get over this wall, we'll really be on the palace grounds. Which is why a lot of women deflate the game—to tear down the wall a bit.
But you claim that women can enjoy the game for what it is, right?
Definitely. The essential drama of football has nothing to do with gender. When a guy drops back and another guy streaks down the field to meet up with a ball that has flown 40 yards through the air, only to be crushed by another guy as he makes contact with the ball, that's the central act. Is the passer going to throw it before he gets hit? Is the receiver going to catch it and hang on when another big guy hits him? You don't need a genetic imprint to appreciate that. It's got enormous power, and it's a lot of fun!
Will women ever think it's enough fun to play football rather than just watch it?
Sure, that's changing big-time, right before our eyes. In 1994, 295 young women played high school varsity football, but now 791 are playing. The National Women's Flag Football Association has an annual tournament in Key West, Fla., every February that draws about 3,500 women. They started with 8 teams; now there are 32 teams playing.
But will women ever be able to play with the guys?
I think women playing contact sports is the next interesting evolution of this whole process. Five years ago we didn't think a woman could dunk a basketball. We still don't let women play five sets of tennis, you know, so how do we really know what women are capable of? We haven't had several centuries to hone the outer limits of our physiques the way guys have. Guys have been exploring the more extreme athletic possibilities of their bodies for centuries. Women are just starting.