While the Olympic Village in Rio has been represented as a veritable fuck-fest complete with bountiful condom options and problematic straight-male Grindr usage, two nights ago, viewers of HBO’s Hard Knocks were witness to the bizarrely puritanical policies of many of the teams in the National Football League: No sex during training camp.
Los Angeles Rams coach Jeff Fisher — who has all the football acumen and charisma of a sheet of plywood — cut wide receiver Deon Long for having a lady friend visit his dorm during the team’s preseason training camp (and, presumably, trying to get his fuck on).
It didn’t matter that the woman visited before curfew, or that she and Long didn’t have sex (according to Long, at least), or even that Long is a consenting adult who’s fully capable of balancing both his personal and professional lives. Long broke a team rule, and that alone was a fireable offense. “What part of the rules, what part of ‘no female guests in the room,’ did you not understand?” Fisher asked Long moments before axing him.
On one hand, rules are rules, and Long knowingly broke one of them. Training camp is designed to ready players for the season that lies ahead, and team rules are designed to keep them singularly focused on football during that period. Fisher could argue that Long’s insubordination indicated he lacked the discipline needed to succeed.
On the other hand, not only do football teams have no business regulating their players’ sex lives, but the rule itself is rooted in the largely bunk notion that sex (or any sexual activity) hinders a male athlete’s performance.
The myth dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, where the prevailing wisdom was that sex robbed a man of his strength and aggression. The origin is ironic, considering the sexualized nature of sports at the time — wrestlers grappled one other completely naked — but it speaks to the Greeks’ preoccupation with semen as a source of vitality. “The idea that sperm itself could generate life — or, at least, manliness — was the philosophy behind pederasty in ancient Greece,” writes David M. Friedman in his book A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis.
The “no sex before competition” mandate has been particularly popular in boxing. When it became a formalized sport in China during the Ming dynasty, boxing officials tried to ban fighters from having sex before bouts, according to Sport in Ancient Times by Nigel B. Crowther. Muhammad Ali was known to abstain from sex for weeks before a fight. And legendary boxing trainer Freddie Roach (who currently trains Manny Pacquiao) tells his fighters to not do the sex 10 days before a fight: “It does lower your testosterone level for a 24 to 48 hour period. It’s been proven,” he says.
Members of NoFap — a Reddit-based online community of men who have sworn off porn and masturbation — tout similar effects. Not jerking off increases their testosterone and performance in workouts, they claim. They can lift more and recover faster. Conversely, if they succumb to temptation, they’ll feel weak and lethargic afterward.
So is there any scientific validity to all these testimonials, or is it all pseudoscientific, psychosomatic bullshit?
This June, group of European researchers published a meta-analysis — a study of pre-existing studies, essentially — on the relationship between sex and athleticism, and found “insufficient evidence” that having sex the night before a competition has a detrimental effect on athletic performance.
“The idea of a possible benefit of abstinence before sports competition is ancient, based on anecdotal evidence, and not sufficiently supported by the recent scientific literature,” reads the study, which was published in Frontiers in Physiology. In fact, many studies find it helpful for athletes to maintain normal sex lives.
As for the NoFappers, well, there’s some validity there. Men who abstained from ejaculation for seven days saw their testosterone levels reach 145.7 percent of their baseline levels, according to a 2003 study conducted by Chinese researchers. But testosterone levels plateaued after that. Any perceived increase in testosterone after seven days of abstinence is imagined.
Science aside, the adage that sex hurts athletic performance, and the infantilizing rules NFL teams enact in service of this bogus notion, is insanely sexist. The rules implies that women (or relationships in general) are a needless distraction, an obstacle to success on the field. As Roach says, abstinence is foremost about honing concentration.
But who’s to say a player’s performance couldn’t be improved by the soothing presence of his partner — whether casual or committed? And why is sex more potentially damaging than an NFL player staying up all night watching porn and masturbating?
Have a conjugal visit with a woman, you get cut. But physically beat a woman and the Dallas Cowboys pay you $13.1 million to play defensive end.