Jock Itch: Forrest Gump and The Athlete’s Problem

Describe the typical male “Jock” for me. If you were to recreate a jock archetype, what exactly would he consist of? Regardless of any individual preference for—or dislike—of sports, I’d be willing to bet that athletic enthusiasts and the “athletically uninterested” would produce a similar “Jock” model. The descriptions used would be different, but oddly synonymous.

For instance, our guinea pig Jock would most likely be boisterous (quite obnoxious), well-built (a hulking mass), athletically gifted (pointlessly fast), and so on. Notice, however, how intelligence is excluded from the list. For some reason, the jock in the 21st century is considered a blockheaded ignoramus. Somewhere in the past few decades, and for whatever reason, the jock became dumb. We see him everywhere: the comedic, bumbling male jock. And while NFL, NBA, and MLB players are laughing all the way to the bank, for us jocks who fell short of the big leagues, the outlook is a little more bleak.

For me, the Dumb Jock label became a reality after my first viewing of Robert Zemeckis’ adaption of Winston Groom’s novel, Forrest Gump. The novel and movie both follow the narration of the titular character as he influences major political, cultural, and economic events throughout the 1960s and 70s. He is a jock. An All American football star in college, Forrest graduates only to become a celebrated war veteran and a self-made millionaire. He achieves all of this despite his borderline mental retardation. Obviously, I was feeling good for Forrest as the movie’s end credits rolled. Thinking that this was just another story about how anyone can attain the American Dream, my brother shared his own, unique interpretation, “This just goes to show…there’s still hope out there for guys like you”.

Being able to laugh at myself, I thought the joke was pretty funny. But why is it a popular belief that being athletically gifted makes one academically challenged?

I think the stereotype is a product of our culture. The Dumb Jock is a creation of our media, our literature, our cinema, our television. He is a very captivating character, after all. His illiteracy is hilarious, his ignorance, also hilarious, his stereotypical male mannerisms (burps, farts, grunts, etc.) are in some odd way endearing…and also hilarious. He is needed in entertainment. His appeal crosses gender lines. To us males, his over the top masculinity makes us wanna thump our chest and drink too much beer with the guys. To female audiences the jock is an absurd, comical character who laughs at the very nature of such overt masculinity. He is, however, in his purest form, a product. He is a product created by and for the culture that loves him.

In H.G Bissinger’s non-fiction account of high school football in small town Texas, the Dumb Jock is presented more as a tragic case than as a comedic element. In Friday Night Lights, the athletes in the small town of Odessa, Texas seemingly fizzle out after their last high school football season—their athletic achievements not enough to lift them out of their one horse town. In this story, the Jock is not so much endeared as he is pitied. To make matters worse, it is a true retelling of the Permian Panthers 1988 football season. It is not the typical Dumb Jock gig, which finds  him in a mocking parody or light hearted story. Friday Night Lights is tragic, sad, unfortunate. It was also a bestseller, and like Forrest Gump, adapted for the widescreen.

Seemingly every rendition of the Dumb Jock, fictional or not, is a commercial success. The public cannot get enough of the illiterate athlete. Our culture created a beast, so to speak, that now plagues every high school and college athlete like a stigma.

For us jocks who fancy ourselves somewhat intelligent, it is a burden we must carry. Surely, not every football, basketball, and baseball player is an idiot. Although I do know plenty of them, not all of the less intelligent people I’m familiar with strap on the pads and helmets. Instead, there’s a whole variety of boneheads that I know. After all, playing football isn’t the only thing that kills brain cells in college. It is arguable that of all of the separate demographics represented by our culture’s idiots, the Dumb Jock was the most captivating—and that is why he caught on.

I don’t think the Dumb Jock will disappear with time. His appeal has evolved from the pages of our books and the performances on our screens, and he has saturated our reality—making the Dumb Jock an actual label in our schools and society. He really has become a social phenomenon, and one that sells, sells, sells! For any jock, dumb or not, that stereotype is an unwelcomed weight. And until someone writes a book about the Smart Jock we’ll just have to grit our teeth and bear capitalism’s greed.

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