I remember, one Thanksgiving, sitting at my maternal grandparents house while my grandfather, uncles, and male cousins all gathered around the television to watch football. I went out on the patio and read my book - I forget what it was, but I do remember that it was science fiction - and relaxed. After a short time, one of my cousins came outside, saw me sitting there, and asked why I wasn't in watching football with the other men-folk. I replied, honestly, that I simply wasn't interested in football.
"What? Are you gay, or something?"
Ahh, yes, the predictable response. I will never understand why it is that some people assume that I'm gay because I don't watch men in tight pants jumping on top of each other.
The cousin then proceeded to mock me because I was reading a science fiction novel. I was used to it by this point in my life, and just ignored him and went back to my book. But I noticed something that day that I have found rather fascinating ever since, and I thought I might share my observation here: those traits that people make fun of in "nerds" (defined here as people into escapist recreation such as reading science fiction, playing role-playing games, etc.) are identical to traits observed in "jocks" (defined here as people who are really into sports)*, but because the subject matter, one is generally socially accepted while the other is generally mocked. I find this interesting.
Let's do a quick compare-and-contrast to show what I'm talking about...
It is common to note the tendency for the nerd to know all manner of things about their particular science-fiction or fantasy realm of choice. We often make fun of people who can tell you the fine details of the engine room of the Star ship Enterprise, or who know the full back story to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or who can name all of the actors to appear as the lead in Doctor Who. This devotion to a particular bit of pop-culture is seen as quirky at best, and shameful and juvenile at worst.
However, most of us don't think twice when we meet an adult (especially a man) who can give you the details of the 1989 line-up of the San Francisco Giants, or who knows the complete list of all players who have scored the winning points in all of the Superbowls. We tend to think of this as someone who is simply a sports fan/hobbyist. No big deal.
However, both people accumulate absolutely useless information. They do so because they enjoy it, and there's nothing wrong with that (I fall into the nerd camp, myself, and hold no grudge against those who do the equivalent with sports), but that doesn't change the fact that it is, in the end, useless information. It's even used in the same way - as social currency with other fans in both groups.
Okay, let's try another set of identical behaviors...
I have often seen my fellow nerds mocked for collecting memorabilia. For me, it's old gaming books (hey, I like to read, and books take up less space than other collectibles, and I collect used books, so I'm keeping things out of landfills), but for others it may be Star Trek props, or Star Wars toys, or DVDs, or...well, all manner of things.
Jocks often collect sports memorabilia. It may be home-run balls, it may be merchandised team clothing, it may be autographed photos of athletes, it may be...well, anything sports related. I have never seen anyone mocked for this, and yet the collecting and display behaviors are absolutely identical. In both cases, the person gathers items, and may even attribute significance to certain ones (really, how is "this was Mark MacGuire's record-setting home run ball" any different than "this is the phaser prop that William Shatner used in Star Trek II"? Either way you're attributing special significance to an inanimate object because of it's connection to a prominent individual), and in both cases the problems associated are the same (running oneself into debt for the collection, and - in the case of people who collect merchandise - adding to the glut of consumer goods that will some day occupy a landfill).
Let's take a look at another place where the difference is non-existent...
A common staple of the sit-com is a scene in which two science fiction fans argue about the relative merits of their own particular fascination: the Star Wars fan fighting with the Star Trek fan, for example. They always throw around obscure terms, and argue about minutiae that seem silly to the outsider because, well, it is pretty damn silly.
Ever hear the fans of two sports teams have at each other? Same damn thing. I was in one of my company's offices last week listening as a San Diego Chargers fan and a Vikings fan, and the absurdity of their conversation became increasingly apparent as time went on - calling out obscure points, and getting quite heated with each other over a game. It was also pretty damn silly.
One last behavior, that of the fantasy game...
It is common to see the nerds mocked for our enjoyment of role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. It's even a common scene on television to see** this used as a shorthand way of signaling that someone is a geek, and the games are always portrayed as especially silly. But, let's look at what the games actually are: players create characters, which are abstracted as (usually) number-heavy abstractions on a sheet of paper or a computer program, and conflict resolution is determined through player description of action coupled with mathematical formulae based on the character sheet.
Now, let's look at something that is becoming increasingly popular in the jock world: fantasy football. In fantasy football, one builds a team, which is a set of player descriptions comprised of number-heavy abstractions on a sheet of paper or a computer program. Conflicts (in this case, fictional football games) are resolved through mathematical formulae based on the team sheet.
So, ummmmm, fantasy football is really nothing but sports-themed Dungeons and Dragons.
I could keep going, but I think you probably get the point. The distinction between nerd fandom and jock fandom is truly a distinction without a difference. so why do we make this distinction?
Well, I suspect that it comes down to time. Sports have been with us for a very, very long time. Everyone is familiar with them, and therefore comfortable with them. By contrast, science fiction, in it's modern form, really began with the pulps of the 1930s, and was, for a long while, primarily the province of magazines and movies aimed at young audiences, adding to it's assessment as a "juvenile" form of entertainment. Add to that the fact that many of those interested in science fiction and fantasy were attracted to it because it offered a safe harbor from the sports that we were either not good at or simply uninterested in, and the distinction is set.
However, as time goes on, the distinction is beginning to melt away. As noted, Fantasy Football is nothing but Dungeons and Dragons with sports trappings. The popularity of computer games such as World of Warcraft and science fiction movies is making these things more socially acceptable. While the zealots are still going to be looked down on, we also see examples of sports zealots getting similar treatment (I have, in recent years, seen more pop culture examples of people who paint themselves in team colors being mocked, for example). And as the average age of the Role Playing Game player increases (at age 34, I was, until recently, the youngest member of my group), even these seem to be becoming more acceptable.
So, what's interesting to me is that it really does seem to be a matter of time for something to move away from the perceived realm of zealots and geeks, and into the mainstream. It seems that the marginalization of certain forms of entertainment (and those who indulge in them) has more to do with how familiar the rest of the population is with it than with the content of the entertainment itself.
And that, I think, is rather fascinating.
*And yes, I am aware that there are plenty of people who are very much into both nerd and jock things. I'm using this simplification because it's one that most people in the U.S. use, and so the phenomenon exists as a social construction, if nothing else.
**There is a commercial for Monday Night Football, one that I actually thought was quite funny, which contrasts a guy watching football with his friends playing Dungeons and Dragons, the implication being that the guy watching football was having a better time. While the commercial was funny, having known people who are into both activities, I found myself thinking that the gamers were probably having more fun than the football watcher.