“Stripper hits NFL player with champagne bottle” is a much more enticing headline than “Waitress yells at NFL player.” And though it looks like last weekend’s party bus altercation between Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones and King of Diamonds bottle service hostess Sweet Pea was probably a lot less sensational than the headlines, the purported incident was believable in great part because of the track record of the party’s host, birthday boy and fellow Raven Bryant McKinnie. McKinnie is currently being sued for failing to pay a six-figure strip club tab and figured in the 2005 Minnesota Vikings “sex boat” scandal.
Because they collectively have the maturity of eighth graders, stories about pro athletes getting in trouble involving strippers or porn performers or any other sex workers are always popular. But the stuff that makes headlines — fights, shootings, sex in the champagne room — only happens because there are a thousand strip club visits during which an athlete and his friends go to a club, spend some money, pay their tab, and depart without incident. There is a strong affinity between athletes and strippers, and it’s not just a matter of athletes liking hot women and strippers liking guys who spend money. The two groups have a lot in common because of the nature of their jobs.
While I’ve never played sports competitively, I’ve worked as a stripper for my entire adult life, and the way people talk about athletes sounds very familiar. For the layperson, examining the similarities between the world of an athlete and that of a stripper offers insight into work that is often denigrated even as it is eagerly consumed.
They are professions that enable class mobility. There are a handful of jobs, sales and the military being two, and stripping and sports being variations on those, where, regardless of an entrant’s background, a meritocracy can be in effect. Sheer skill and work can propel someone far past their starting tax bracket, especially if they have access to decent mentoring. And that help is also easier to find in these jobs. A young athlete has alumni or experienced teammates available to him. The young stripper has a house mom and more experienced dancers to give her advice.
Romantic life can be difficult. The travel an athlete undertakes is one major obstacle to stable relationships. His status is another, as he’ll never lack for female attention. Similarly, strippers are constantly hit on, although for women it’s a lot less of a novelty. Finding someone who can handle the knowledge that their partner is a public object of attraction, let alone empathize, can be hard.
Displaying intelligence or non-sterotypical interests makes one an object of curiosity. Hey, Weird Twitter, how much do you love Brandon McCarthy? He’s pretty smart for a baseball player, right? If anyone can relate to the way a stripper feels when a customer comments on her vocabulary, it’s an athlete who’s been referred to as “articulate.” And not even in the racist way, just in the “Oh, how cute, the person who uses their body for work knows some big words” way. Shane Battier, Grant Hill, Chris Kluwe, Steve Nash; any athlete who displays a proclivity for book reading, progressive politics or charming hobbies can expect that to lead in every story about him.
Regardless of how long you do it, this job will always be a primary identity. Diablo Cody has now been a screenwriter for much longer than she was a stripper, but “former stripper” will always be attached to her name. Jim Bunning held elected office for more than twice as long as he played baseball, but “former pitcher” precedes “former Senator from Kentucky” in any description of him. It will forever be the most interesting thing about anyone who’s done the work.
The risk of suffering a catastrophic, career-ending injury is real. Last year, popular Miami stripper Tip Drill suffered serious injuries in a fall from the pole, leading to her retirement from stripping. One of my former coworkers tore her ACL during an oil wrestling bout. I personally see a physical therapist as part of treatment for my own repetitive motion strains and pains, and my massage therapist once told me I had the same physical issues as elite athletes. There are so many ways to destroy your body on the stage, just like on the field. Not only that, but surgery can be required to keep your livelihood. Breast implants, ass shots and Juvederm aren’t exactly the same as rotator cuff surgery, but they serve the same purpose — to further one’s career. And, come to think of it, I’ve known strippers who have had to have rotator cuff surgery, too.
Somebody gets a big percentage of your money. If you’re an athlete it’s your agent/manager; if you’re a stripper, it’s the club taking a house fee, a cut of dances, a cut of champagne rooms, and staff tipouts. It’s like having a posse you didn’t choose and don’t necessarily need, but who are there with their hands out regardless. In addition to this, everyone you meet casually at work has an opinion about how you should handle your money, often vastly overestimating what you make. Total strangers will say “Save your money!” It’s pretty impressive! Think about telling someone else to save their money. Seems pretty rude, right? No one feels that way when talking about what happens to an athlete’s money or a stripper’s.
The locker room is supposed to be a safe place. The occasional outsider might enter, like a manager or a reporter, but in general it’s a place for players only, along with occasional support staff. If the night or the game is going badly, maybe a pep talk or bitch session will help turn things around. There’s probably snacks and a place to take your shoes off for a minute. You can have the kind of easy rapport coworkers get from spending time around each other naked.
Those who have never done the work are quick to diminish its difficulty. I have a dollar for every time a man has said “If I were a woman, I’d do this in a second! Get paid to get naked and party, you girls have it so easy.” “They get paid to play a game” is the athlete’s variation on this — as if it were play and not skilled, very physical work with a clear goal in mind. They get paid to be good at a “game” that is only “play” for children. At a professional level, it is a competition.
There are so many other commonalities: the length of careers, the early retirement that means you’ll have another career afterward, the way that classes mix in the spaces where you work, the casual racism, the casual sexism, bosses who condescend, being infantilized by supervisors and consumers, having people assume you’re either under- or over-educated, bulls*** fines for hand gestures/being late to stage. It makes a lot of sense for athletes to feel at home among strippers and vice versa, for reasons that end up having a lot more to do with class and professional affinity than the goodness or badness of things that happen after midnight.