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Leaving Home: Playing and Taboo

Leaving Home: Playing and Taboo by Ness Mountain

Playing and Taboo The ball came flying toward me from between two sweaty players. My teammate had finally found himself in a position where his only option was to pass to me. The ball felt a little unfamiliar; I hadn't had it in my hands much this game. Quick as I could, I stumbled towards the basket and shot. The ball went through, but several voices called out "Traveling!" The sinking feeling which followed “was” familiar. As we ran back across the court, an opponent grinned unpleasantly at me. He knew that my teammates would never pass to me again. They, and everyone else who saw my error, would avoid playing on any team I was on. He knew this, and he obviously enjoyed it.

I might as well have left the game, but inertia kept me there until it ground to a close. I felt humiliated, saddened, and lonely, but I refused to be ashamed of myself. I was singled out as a "weak" man early in the game, and that negatively affected my game. Does that make me a bad person? A bad player? I tell myself it doesn't, that I don't play so poorly when I play with friendly people.

When I talk to people about this experience, I hear two points of view consistently repeated. Some are coolly sympathetic, and a little shocked by the callousness of the other players. They wonder why I would play, if I get treated that way. Other people, usually men, wonder why I am so upset. Sure, it's rude, but that's the game, you just get used to it.

Neither group wants to talk about it. In fact, it's a kind of taboo.

Earlier that same day, I tried to challenge the rule which says that the team that wins gets to play in the next game. The same four players had just played four games running, and there were now about a dozen people waiting on the bench, most of whom have not had a chance to play tonight. The winners were tired, but they were also tall, aggressive, and experienced.

"Why don't you guys take a break?" I asked the unofficial team leader between games. "You've played a bunch of games and there are plenty of people waiting."

"Team that wins stays on the court," he said, obviously wondering why I didn't understand this basic fact of the universe. "If we didn't, what motivation would there be to win?" I moved on and asked another player what he thought. "It's always been that way," he said, turning away from me. "That's just the rule."

Clearly everyone agreed to follow the rule inflexibly. What makes this significant to me is that virtually none of these men knew each other. They were strangers, from all walks of life, all ages and races, who simply happened to have met at the gym that evening—yet they agreed on three unspoken rules:

  1. Players who make mistakes or show weakness can be humiliated and excluded.
  2. Established ways of running the game take priority over everyone having a good time.
  3. No talking about the two rules above.

In other words, having fun and supporting each other are not priorities. Winning is everything. And of course, don't talk about it. Because this was a random selection of men, I conclude that this is a pattern. This is the culture of our country.

I suspect that the mild, silencing responses I receive when I try to talk about it are part of the pattern. Almost all of us have been hurt by rejection in games when we were small. Our harmful habits of playing together are an area of deep collective pain, and we all tend to participate in the process of denial, pretending that it's not an issue.

But playing games is not a meaningless pursuit. It's a vital source of fun and meaning in our lives as children, and that doesn't always end at puberty. Why shouldn't we have fun together all our lives? So what about it, people? Care to speak out in your local gym?

Ness Mountain is a counselor and urban shaman living in Portland. Your comments on Leaving Home are welcome: respond to Alternatives or to Ness at (503) 335-8761 or:

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