King Kaufman's Sports Daily

"Beer, Babes, and Balls": Inside the "Neanderthal" -- but sometimes surprisingly liberal -- world of Jim Rome and sports-talk radio.

By King Kaufman

Published December 12, 2007 11:00AM (EST)

"Beer, Babes, and Balls," David Nylund's study of sports-talk radio, doesn't exactly look like an academic book. The paperback cover has two of the three titular elements: A football, a baseball and a basketball appear to soak in a huge glass of suds.

Could be a clue that a babe isn't pictured. Then there's the subtitle: "Masculinity and Sports Talk Radio." Nylund is an assistant professor of social work at Cal State Sacramento with a Ph.D. in feminist cultural studies. His dissertation, which became this book, studied how sports talk relates to contemporary ideas of masculinity.

"You can't judge a book by its cover," he says. "I sell tons of copies just bringing it to sports bars with drunk guys, but it's a pretty feminist analysis."

It's a bit academic and fairly rough sledding in places -- "I'm going to do an Esquire magazine piece to dumb it down a bit," Nylund says -- but it's an interesting read. The book is part of the SUNY series on Sport, Culture, and Social Relations, which also produced "In the Game," Eric Anderson's book about gay athletes, discussed in this space two years ago.

Nylund argues that sports talk, though much of it is, as he puts it, "Neanderthal," plays an important role in the lives of the men who are, almost exclusively, its listeners and callers -- a group that includes Nylund, a Detroit native who calls himself a passionate fan of that city's teams.

"Sports radio does appear to have a communal function and is a particularly interesting site to study how men perform relationships and community," he writes.

He argues that talk radio provides what sociologist Ray Oldenburg called a "third place," in contrast to home and work, a usually sex-segregated place where men "engage in male camaraderie."

That is: Male bonding. It's a role once played by public meeting places such as pubs, cafes and main streets.

Nylund pays particular attention to Jim Rome, not just because his is the most popular sports-talk show but also because Rome places so much emphasis on defining masculinity, and does so in ways that are, at times, unusually liberal for his field.

In order to find members of sports-talk radio's scattered, invisible audience to interview, Nylund had to spend a lot of time in another such place, sports bars. Coincidentally, he was spending his lunch hour in a Sacramento sports bar when we spoke by phone this week.

My standing joke about sports-talk radio is that I listen to it when I want to feel really smart.

I agree.

Because so much of it is so dumb.

Yeah, it is.

But that doesn't seem to be your approach. You talk a lot about the intelligent discourse that goes on there.

That partly is because I'm also a therapist. I work mainly with gay youth. I'm the counseling director of a GLB teen center in Sacramento, even though I'm straight. I listen to sports radio mainly because it's sort of my escape. You know, some people do reality programs.

As a clinician, the way I work from a narrative therapy perspective is to always look for the contradiction, the unique outcome, the exception, and I found exceptions in sports-talk discourse because there's always something happening in sports that relates to the larger culture, the latest being the guy [Sean Taylor] who was shot and killed. There's always talk about race, and "if this person was white would they have been scrutinized in the same way in terms of their moral character?" Or you name it, there's tons of examples in my book.

And I think particularly, Jim Rome takes a rather, I wouldn't say progressive, but a liberal stance on issues around social justice, racism, against domestic violence and also supporting gay athletes. Gay male athletes. Of course he's very negative against women. He calls Martina Navratilova "Martin." Or any transgender.

So I think the thing about sports-talk radio is that it's a little more civil and allows for more diversity of opinion than political talk radio.

Let's talk about Jim Rome, because the main part of the book is about his show.

Mainly that is because he's a national figure, and he is, I think, illustrative of or a signifier for a contemporary man. He's very metrosexual. He dresses really nice. He's definitely been influenced, even though he might not admit it, by feminism and gay rights. He wants to be a good dad. He talks about his kids. He supports sort of the "don't ask, don't tell" kind of gay policy.

And then at the same time, you know, as a guy you don't want to be out of the club, so he does all the other stuff. Like, "I don't want any more of those e-mails, clones," but then he says [some of the same things]. So he doesn't want to completely lose his base, but he brings his base along once in a while. And I have talked to clones who have changed their opinion about gay athletes because Jim Rome redefines being a man as actually having the courage to come out.

You write about how, when fans are complaining about, say, the New York Yankees buying up all the good players or wanting a salary cap, that's one of the rare places in mainstream media where you get anti-capitalist rhetoric.

Exactly. They don't call it that, but it's really a metaphor, or a microcosm, of the larger global economy. You know, companies not being loyal to their base, etc. etc. Working-class fans I interviewed, and who I continue to interview, talk about how they can't afford to go to the games, their team leaves them, etc.

In my opinion, there's no space to critique our current economy, whether you're Democrat or Republican. They're all on board around, basically, the government's to support corporations, rather than the old liberal, Keynesian economy, where the government's there to at least try to mediate the market forces. Everybody's on board now, I think even Barack Obama or Hillary: It's just unrestrained capitalism.

So I listen to radio. In order to do the research I also listened to Howard Stern and, you name it. NPR. And the only place where I hear some critique of our economic system, other than, oh, you know, Air America, is sports-talk radio, of all places. So I think in some ways, that's the potential.

I'm stretching. You know, masculinity studies tend to always talk about how men are awful and there's no hope for masculinity. As a therapist I can't come from that frame or else I might as well just give up my job. So I'm looking and trying to punctuate some of the exceptions in the book. It's a stretch, I know. Ninety percent of it is just Neanderthal.

Explain how sports-talk radio helps define masculinity and vice versa.

It's not coming from a place of evilness, but men are feeling uncertain with a lot of the economic changes and also gender changes. Women have changed. There's gay rights, there's more visibility. Whenever that's happened -- for instance, organized sports and a lot of those male-only clubs like fraternities and the Boy Scouts, it started with industrialization, when there were fears of boys being feminized because they were being raised by their mothers. The dad was out of the house, and also they were being taught by women schoolteachers, so that's how organized sports started.

I think that men find some comfort in a space that's male only. And in some way, that's OK. It serves as a "third place" over the air as a place for men to get some of their needs met for friendship and connection. I mean, I do it all the time. I'll run into somebody from Detroit who might be from a different class or racial location than me, and we can have a conversation because we both love the Tigers.

So there's that bonding aspect across generations and across different social locations for men. I think that's what talk radio serves, and I think it serves an important function.

We still live in a male-dominated culture, but there's one area in our culture where women's knowledge is privileged, and that's the definition of intimacy. Intimacy means talking in a certain way, and crying, or talking about something in depth. And male bonding is seen as not intimate. But it really is. It's a form of intimacy that should stand alongside other forms of intimacy.

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    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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