Despite never playing any kind of sport on screen, Biff Tannen from the Back to the Future films perfectly embodies the typical 1980s movie jock: A raging doofus who yells things like, “What are you looking at, butthead?” He’s an oversized, self-aggrandizing bully who picks on the nerdy protagonist for no reason other than it just seems to be the natural order of things: Biff’s a jock and George McFly is a nerd, hence he must wail upon him. As C. Colville over at Cracked puts it in this piece, “In 1980s teen movies, if a character is sporting a letter jacket, it might as well be the letter swastika, because he is going to be committing crimes against humanity.”
Now, as if it needed pointing out, we as a culture love us some sports. We don’t just love them, in fact: We tie our very identities to them. As per author and sports historian Jack Silverstein, “[Sports] become a de facto replacement for things you should have in your life, like you hear people say, ‘I wish the Tigers would win the World Series because things are so rough in Detroit.’ That’s because sports can fill in personal gaps for people.” Silverstein, who specializes in Chicago sports history, also points to things like the 1990s Bulls or the 1985 Bears and how the entire city of Chicago was able to unite behind their team, despite being a city that’s got plenty of internal strife otherwise.
So with sports being such a unifying force, why is the jock so universally loathed? Because it’s far from just Biff — the “jerk jock” is a common trope that comes up again and again, in 1980s pop culture in particular: William Zabka’s Johnny in The Karate Kid (a role he’s now reviving in Cobra Kai, as well as having played a similar character in Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School); Troy from The Goonies; Kurt and Ram from Heathers; and of course there are the Revenge of the Nerds films, whose raison d’etre is to provide cathartic, vicarious vengeance against antagonistic asshole jocks.
The device doesn’t confine itself to the 1980s either, cropping up in later media like Can’t Hardly Wait and Glee, as well as much earlier appearances: Peter Parker’s jock antagonist Flash Thompson dates all the way back to Spider-Man’s first appearance in 1962, and a proto-jerk jock can even be found F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby.
The most obvious answer to this cultural paradox may simply be in who’s writing these movies. As Mike “McBeardo” McPadden, author of the book Teen Movie Hell explains, “Nerds write scripts, thus nerds get revenge in movies.” While this might be something of a generalization, in broad terms it does make sense. Mike Bender, one of the screenwriters behind the parody Not Another Teen Movie, explains, “Writers know how to channel their insecurities, and of course, most of those come in those formative teen and high school years. Jocks tend to be the least insecure at that point given how, at least in school, sports tends to equal popularity.”
Another factor in jock unlikeability (from an audience standpoint) is that they’re rarely well-rounded characters — rather, they (along with many stock bad guys) fulfill some sort of already-understood archetype: Our hero is a nerd, so the villain’s got to be a jock. “It’s an easy character to hate, as we’ve all encountered that guy who thinks they’re the best,” says Bender. Just think about how much we know about Biff: We know he lives in a shitty house and he gets yelled at by his grandma, but where are his parents? The little we do know points to someone to sympathize with, yet because he’s the bad guy, the movie has no time to get into it. “Villains are often too simplistic,” says Bender. “I love a misguided villain who is doing evil things for reasons that kind of make sense or we can understand. Thanos is a good example.” This is why one of the most famous 1980s jocks — Emilio Estevez’ Andy Clark in The Breakfast Club — is so fascinating: He’s a deconstruction of the classic jock, a meathead who eventually opens up to reveal the exact same insecurities as the nerds he’s been terrorizing.
More commonly, though, the character arc of the jock on film is simply either to be outright defeated by the heroic nerd, or to lose in the form of karmic comeuppance (getting covered in manure, say, or eventually becoming the loser themselves). But since jocks on film are always destined to lose, how do we then distinguish them from the athletes we so desperately want to see win? Is it that the jock is the arrogant dickhead who peaked in high school, while the athlete was the super-focused guy who was too busy perfecting his jump shot to stuff a nerd into a locker?
It might seem like that’s the case in the movies, but it doesn’t seem to hold up in real life, if only because it’s just too broad of an idea to make generalizations about. As Silverstein says, “You have to be super-focused on a collegiate and professional level to be an incredible athlete, but you may not need to be super-focused at the high school level, so I wouldn’t be comfortable saying that these guys weren’t the ‘jocks’ in school.”
“I’d say most professional athletes started as jocks in school just because of their focus on sports,” says sports psychologist Patrick J. Cohn. “They tend to ‘eat, sleep and live’ making it to the pros. Serious athletes with high goals train a lot — they sacrifice and miss out on normal activities. That said, I don’t see a clear difference between the dumb jock and the jock that becomes professional. Many athletes don’t make it to the pros, while a very small percent do for many reasons, talent being one of them. I could see that a dumb jock or smart jock could make it.”
So as much as your average screenwriter would like to believe that their high school tormentor became a lowly car waxer or convicted felon later in life, they’re more likely just that douchey guy you know in your office — the one who does pretty well on his sales numbers and shows off his rock-hard abs on Tinder. In other words, the jocks you knew in high school that didn’t immediately turn into a wad of cookie dough the moment they graduated basically just became Brads and Chads, the egotistical man-boys whose insufferable bullying in childhood became insufferable douchiness in adulthood.
“Jocks almost always are popular, but not the likable kind of popularity. Instead, it’s the kind that’s defined by status, which psychologists have defined as high in prestige, visibility, dominance and influence,” says Mitch Prinstein, a psychologist and author of the book Popular, which looks at how our status in high school tends to permeate throughout much of the rest of our lives. While Prinstein does say, “High-status kids have poor outcomes as they grow up, possibly due to their desire to seek attention and act aggressively,” he adds, “it’s important to separate out our first impressions of high-status kids from jocks, because some really athletically gifted kids who love playing sports may not be high status at all, and may, in fact, be as likable as anyone else.” In short, athlete doesn’t always equal jock, and what we really resent about the jock isn’t their ability but their status (and their inevitable abuse of it).
This status backfires on real athletes too, of course. Sure, we want their autographs and collect their baseball cards, but as Silverstein notes, we also hold them to impossible standards, and when they fumble the ball, they’re made out to be a moron for it. Not to mention, when an athlete changes a team, even a well-liked one, they become a traitor to the cause and we hate them. Fans often resent how much money athletes make, too, despite the fact that they possess truly unique talents. “I see both sides,” says Silverstein. “On one hand, we love them for their ability, but on the other, we resent their success.”
This is really at the heart of how we can hate jocks so much but still love our teams: A team is an idea, but an athlete, even if we admire them, is a person, and as long as people continue to have the very human emotions of jealousy and envy, we’ll keep hating anyone who has it better than we do. Especially if they stuff us in a locker along the way.