Discussion Threads:
Ritual Spitting

Date: Tue, 20 Aug 1996
From: Kevin Lewis
Subject: Ritual Spitting

The following message should make one salivate.

My interest, and maybe it's frivolous, in sport ritual spitting is increasing. I've decided to see whether any of you can shed some light on the phenomenon. I am looking for passages in any of the fiction, poetry, or drama you may be teaching or reading which may, as crafted literature, tell us something worth knowing about the habit athletes display of spitting--where spitting would seem not so much functional as gratuitous.

On the sidelines, on the team bench television gives us up-close images of a behavior that we frown upon in homes, most interior spaces generally, and (for the "polite") out-of-doors in public places as well. I've played organized football and hockey, I've been there, and I still don't really understand it.

Okay, some sports see it, others don't. Golfers, tennis players don't. Basketball players in big indoor arenas don't, or do they? Is social class a factor? Is the culture of a particular sport conducive or unconducive? If so, why? Spitting in different cultures across the world probably holds different general cultural meaning, but I am not an anthropologist, nor am I much acquainted with social sciences goals and methods, which would help. But I tend to believe anyway that imaginative representations may enlighten us just as much if not more that analysis conducted by social scientists. I just can't remember any passages in novels or stories that represent what I'm calling sport ritual spitting.

I watch athletes spitting and I wonder why don't they just drink what they need, swallow it all, and quit there. Does anyone else ever wonder about this? Dick Crepeau, have you ever written a column on the subject? If you were to, what would you say? Mike Oriard, have you ever described or analysed this?

Of course I ask myself much the same thing when I see young men and boys spitting on the street, too. But is there a literature of spitting in sport?

Kevin Lewis

Date: Tue, 20 Aug 1996
From: John Bale

Spitting, like running, jumping or kicking, is a bodily function which could become sportised. See, for a brilliant exposition on sportisation, the short 20 minute film titled 'The Great O'Grady' which describes the rise and fall of the great (fictional) spitting champion, O'Grady. I use it with my students to introduce the notion of sportisation and the chracteristics of modern sport.

I saw in on tv in Britain about 5 years ago. If anyone wants details (e.g. producver, director etc.) I'll re-view it and pass details on.

John Bale

Date: Wed, 21 Aug 1996
From: Tim Morris

[Editor's Note: I have collected the following email messages to the arete list into one group of expectorant-related discussions.]

To Kevin and other spit researchers: the locus classicus for spitting, that I know of, in baseball fiction is in David Carkeet's *Greatest Slump of All Time* (Penguin 1985): 76-77-- though technically it is not so much about the "ritual spit" as about one character's inability to manage it. Come to think of it, most spitting stories in baseball memoirs are about not being able to spit correctly. They generally involve tobacco, though, as does the Carkeet passage. I can't think of anything right now that is about the need to spit when there isn't anything particular that needs spitting.

Tim Morris

Date: Wed, 21 Aug 1996
From: John Bale

'The Great O'Grady'

This is a short (20 minute) movie made by Chanticleer Films in 1987(?). It was written and directed by Robbie Fox and produced by Jonathon Sanger and Jana Sue Mennel. That is alll the info. I have on it. I am not sure how it could be traced but I do not think that it was made initially as a video.

It is, on the face of it, an amusing and ironic view of achievement sport and hero worship. O'Grady (no first name) is a great high school spitting (for distance) champion. A guy called Jonathan (no second name) hero worships him and aspires to be a spitting champ too. By the end of the Jonathan has assumed the role of champion and O'Grady lies hospitalised, his spit having dried up as a result of an injury to his tongue (drinking hot tea).

Underneath the (arguably) corny story line lies a wealth of material which summarises the nature of modern sport, particularly in the context of the US education system. I use it in my teaching by first showing it to students and then reinforce some of the key characteristics of sport by taking examples from the film. These include quantification, technique, corruption, tv mediation, hero-worship, homo-eroticism, and a number of other themes, all of which the film cleverly touches on.

I'm sorry I can't provide any more 'filmographic' details but good luck anyway.


John Bale

Date: Wed, 21 Aug 1996
From: John Bale

Spitting is regarded as a 'dirty' thing to do - a kind of pollution and not very polite. But spit is only dirt when it in the wrong place. It does not constitue dirt if it is in, say a toilet or a Kleenex tissue - or in a bucket as in boxing. So the meaning of spitting is dependent on its location.

Quoting from Tim Cresswell's excellent _In Place/Out of Place_ (U. of Minnesota Press, 1996), 'Mary Douglas, in her book _Purity and Danger_ , examines the concept of dirt and pollution. She connects the dread of dirt (spit) to a fear of disorder. Removing dirt (spit) on the other hand, is part of the establishment of a well ordered environment. ... Dirt (spit), she says, is 'matter out of place', a definition that suggests simultaneously some form of order and a contravention of that order. Dirt, by its very definition, depends on the pre-existence of a system, a mode of classification'.

In the sports-spit nexus, the non-spitting in, e.g. basketball/table tennis and the spitting in e.g. football/track could be explained via the above quotation from Douglas's work. Spitting is more of an outdoor rather than an an indoor activity. To spit indoors would be a form of transgression; it is (somewhat) more acceptable out of doors. However, spitting does not seem to take place in tennis - an outdoor sport. Here the location is social rather than geographical; spitting in tennis would transgress social (middle class/ working class) norms rather than spatial (indoor/outdorr).

This is nothing more than a fumbling start to an interesting subject but it seems clear to me that there is no shortage of theoretical material on it.

John Bale

Date: Wed, 21 Aug 1996
From: Walter Snyder

Part of spitting's popularity or paucity from sport to sport depends upon the decorum judged proper. Golf and tennis developed as more gentlemanly pursuits than baseball, which grew up using a large number of country boys, esp. from the south.

Mark Twain commented on regional differences in spitting due to tobacco use in *Life on the Mississippi*, noting that the farther south and west he went, the more tobacco chewing he noticed. Evidently, by the late 1800s, chewing had declined in the northern states. Baseball was probably largely responsible (not to mention Walt Garrison's "just a pinch" commercials) for chewing to spread back out to more of the country.

Another major factor has to do with the degree of exertion. If you're pushing yourself hard, especially if mouth breathing is used, the mouth tends to dry out and mucous and phlegm tend to build up. Spitting clears the mouth before you inhale and start choking.

Many basketball players spit a lot (Charles Barkley a bit more than others ), but much of this is done over the endlines in smaller gyms, or into towels or the like along the sidelines. Soccer and football players likewise are big on expectorating, but try to do it where they and others will not be falling into it. In football, you can sometimes wait until a possession change. The same holds true in tennis - you don't want to grease the court, so many wait until the breaks, when they can rinse their mouths with water at the same time.

If you have access to an archive of old copies of *Sports Illustrated*, look back to, I belive (I'm going from memory here, don't have *Reader's Guide...*), a July of 1976 article called "Chaws." It details the then-current status of chewing and/or spitting, especially in baseball.


From: Mike Clark
Subject: Re: Ritual Spitting

My expereince has been that basketball players may well spit on the court during practice and sort of "grind it in" the court. I can recall, however, only one or two instances of the same behavior in games.

Mike Clark

Date: Tue, 20 Aug 1996
From: Ron Roizen

Spitting is tied to chewing tobacco in our dear old American culture, and chaw use (according to historian of medicine, John C. Burnham) peaked in about 1890 (_Bad Habits_, NY Univ. Press, 1993, pp. 88-89--Burnham's richly referenced book offers a number of histories of American tobacco use, BTW). This cultural timing may partly explain the enduring association between chaw, baseball, and spitting--and maybe even help account for baseball's remarkable supply of ritual gestures and posturing of various sorts. Tobacco use seems to have traveled (symbolically speaking) across the genders, from masculine to feminine, over the course of U.S. history--from chaw to cigars to the "very feminine" (at first at least) cigarette. In that perspective, then, baseball may be counted as a kind of masculine holdout for tobacco--i.e., an island of culture that somehow managed to wall itself off from the feminization of tobacco going on in the mainstream. How much baseball--as our national pastime--provides a kind of general normative permission (one that goes beyond baseball to other sports anyhow) for spitting is an interesting question, albeit probably unanswerable. Certainly there is interesting history at work here however.

Ron Roizen

Date: Tue, 20 Aug 1996
From: Mike Clark

Another point about spitting and sport: spitting has actually become a sport. Here in Michigan we have cherry pit spitting contests. I have also noticed reports on watermelon seed spitting, and I vaguely recall reading about tobacco spitting events. (Do they judge on style, or do you simply have to look "perky" when finishing?) Certainly the cherry/watermelon contests are distance competitions.

Mike Clark

Date: Tue, 20 Aug 1996
From: Tim Morris

To Kevin and other spit researchers: the locus classicus for spitting, that I know of, in baseball fiction is in David Carkeet's *Greatest Slump of All Time* (Penguin 1985): 76-77-- though technically it is not so much about the "ritual spit" as about one character's inability to manage it. Come to think of it, most spitting stories in baseball memoirs are about not being able to spit correctly. They generally involve tobacco, though, as does the Carkeet passage. I can't think of anything right now that is about the need to spit when there isn't anything particular that needs spitting.

Tim Morris

Date: Wed, 21 Aug 1996
From: Richard C.Crepeau

I don't know who it was but somewhere in the world of comedy or literature there was a character known as the Great Expectorator. No doubt he or she, and it is habit that crosses gender, is spinning in their grave what with this fascinating discussion. I will add two small bits to the discussion, while admitting to Kevin Lewis that indeed I have not given this much thought before.

First, certain forms of exertion seem to bring on more spitting than others, in certain people. For myself I find that most any strenuous activity causes a clearing of the throat of all sorts of crud that has accumulated. I suspect it has to do, as someone suggested, with the breathing process, not to mention my own lifestyle.

Second, in discussing this with a former ballplayer he said that it is caused by nervous tension in athletic performance which produces the saliva. Thus the need for spitting. It is enhanced by crewing rituals with tobacco or gum or sunflower seeds. He was unable to speculate on the ratio between the biological and psychological in the whole process.

Somehow, it seems to me, it may all be connected in some subconscious way to cup adjustment.

It also intrigues me as to what those who compete in spitting sports do rather than spit.

Dick Crepeau

Date: Thu, 22 Aug 1996
From: Kevin Lewis

The subject of this second notice, like the first, is "Spit." Not the weaker "spitting" and not the sissy latinate "expectoration."

I begin teaching the fall semester tomorrow, so forgive this last fling at pure research for its own sake before hitting the classroom, the student conference, and the ordeal by committee meeting.

Just to point the query once more: strenuous participation in a strenuous sport requires the body to replenish lost fluids. I appreciate the comments on spitting contests, and the reminders of the close connection (in some sports, like baseball) with spitting tobacco juice. This relevant but I'm primarily focussed on ritual spitting of that last mouthful of water. Not in clearing the throat, but in that last mouthful (from the dipper in the old days, now from the paper cup) of water. Why spit it out? Tribute to the gods (to try symbolic language)? To make a statement?

>From Dick Crepeau I take this suggestion, though I take any blame for elaborating on it. Spitting may something to do with "cup adjustment?" Does anyone know a sport in which women athletes spit the way men do? I can't seem to think of any. So the behavior is perhaps male-specific. Of course. Are grabbing one's crotch (and I don't mean Michael Jackson) and gratuitous spitting linked as fellow gestures of male display? Is spitting both a strategem of male-group-bonding and, at a deeper level, calculated to attract women? Is it a behavior supported by promptings buried or half- buried in a primal consciousness to which the playing of boys' games permits men to regress?

As a religionist I aim not to reduce the element of mystery in subjects which are truly mysterious. Maybe sport ritual spitting holds a similar ontological status. But we can still reflect on it usefully--I appreciate the comments of those who have contributed to the discussion, and I would like to hear more.

Univ of South Carolina

Date: Thu, 22 Aug 1996
From: Richard C. Crepeau
Subject: The Last Spit

[Editor's Note: Suggestions have been made that the spit discussion on the h-arete list have reached due proportion. I suggest that this be the last one on this topic unless there are strenuous objections.]

A couple of more dribbles on spit from the sweat capital of the United States----

The spitting of the last swallow of water from the dipper is an easy one. It leaves a fresher taste in the mouth than swallowing.

As for women, do they spit? Most emphatically yes, at least among the softball players and those female little leaguers.

Now enough of this. Play ball.

Dick Crepeau

Date: Thu, 22 Aug 1996
From: Donald R. Johnson

On Spitting

I think the last mouthful spit that K. Lewis is interested in grew out of a misconception on the part of coaches that drinking water during strenuous exercise was bad for you. I was always urged by football coaches, for example, just to wash out my mouth and not to swallow water as it would "make you sick." If follows then, that the less water you drink, the better you would feel, so that spitting out the water became a sign of well-being and the ability to "take it."

Kevin might be interested in this poem by Conrad Hilberry in which a young girl becomes a player by learning how to spit:


The coach has taught her how to swing,
run bases, slide, how to throw
to second, flip off her mask for fouls.

Now, on her own, she studies
how to knock the dirt out of her cleats,
hitch up her pants, miss her shoulder
with a stream of spit, bump
her fist into her catcher's mitt,
and stare increduously at the ump.

(from Hummers, Knucklers and Slow Curves) -- dj

Date: Thu, 22 Aug 1996
From: Jill Geer

> Does anyone know a sport in which women athletes spit the way men do?

Speaking from personal experience, I know that women runners are avid spitters, though I don't think I would put it in the "ritual" category. A former teammate of mine, spitting in the middle of a race, discovered (to both her horror and glee) that her spit had moved downwind and struck a competitor in the face. Yes, the grosser of us would sometimes have spitting contests while on runs--though it didn't happen very often and usually resulted in the non-spitters running in the opposite direction while making icky-poo noises.

One suggestion: might spitting be a way of an athlete marking his territory? A lineman spits on a football field, probably at the line of scrimmage and in front of an opponent. Is he not saying, this is my turf? Is it not also an expression of disrespect to one's opponent: "I spit on your general direction, you wimpy pig-dog."

Obviously, it would be rude for a male to mark his territory in a more tradition way while in a public arena. I have no documentation to back this up, just my own sociological observations in years of competing against men as well as watching them play sports.

Helpfully yours,

Date: Wed, 11 Sep 1996
From: Robert Hamblin

Those interested in spitting in sport would enjoy reading Robert Underwood's poem, "looks," printed in Aethlon, X:1 (Fall 1992), page 60.

Bob Hamblin

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