Why Do Athletes Slap Each Others’ Butts?

Tom Pennington / Getty
Tom Pennington / Getty

On Monday, NFL wide receiver Chad Johnson was sentenced to 30 days in jail for violating his probation. The judge rejected his plea bargain, which would have kept Johnson out of jail, after she took offense to Johnson playfully tapping his lawyer on the butt. 

"I don't know that you're taking this whole thing seriously. I just saw you slap your attorney on the backside. Is there something funny about this?" the Associated Press reports the judge, Kathleen McHugh, saying. "The whole courtroom was laughing. I'm not going to accept these plea negotiations. This isn't a joke."

Light taps to the rear-end are pretty common on the football field, but maybe Johnson shouldn’t have tried it out in court. Why do athletes do that?

Unfortunately, the first athlete to playfully slap a teammate on the butt didn’t record his reasoning for history, but it’s become common practice among professionals and amateurs alike, and many have their own take on it. In 2007, Johns Hopkins News-Letter editor Mary Doman asked some of the school’s athletes about it and got a variety of responses about the “extra-low five.”

A freshman tennis player told her that the meaning of the butt slap is pretty open-ended depending on the context and relationship between slapper and slappee. “Well, a nice smack on the butt could mean anything,” he said. “It can just mean, ‘Nice job,’ or ‘You’ll get them next time,’ but it can also mean simply, ‘Hi, how you doin’?', or ‘How’s that essay coming along?’, or, ‘Wow, your butt is pretty muscly today. You been working out?’”

A freshman lacrosse player explained that the butt slap was just a variation of the congratulatory shoulder or back slap, moved lower as a reflection of the intimacy between two players. “Two teammates who aren’t best buddies tend to slap each other on the shoulder or upper back,” he said. “Teammates who are pretty tight go for the mid to lower back. Teammates who see each other as brothers go for the real deal and slap each other’s asses.”

A freshman football player also thought that the gesture was congratulatory, and theorized that it suited the needs of players on the field. “High fives are becoming outdated. Handshakes work, but eye contact is made and it takes too much time,” the player told Doman. “A smack on the ass can be used any time.” 

A freshman fencer mused that the butt slap was a little more complex, an expression of every man’s desire “to be a cowboy.”

Cowboys give their horses a slap on the behind to get them moving, so, the fencer thought, “likewise with sports, men need to commune and help motivate one another as a team. It’s standard practice and common courtesy to slap another man’s ass if you feel he is slacking.”

Whatever any one player’s reason for slapping someone else’s butt, the sporting world learned a valuable lesson this week about keeping it on the field and out of more formal settings. In some parts of the world, though, even a slap during a game is too risque. In 2011, two Iranian soccer players were suspended and received pay cuts for a butt slap during a match. The national football federation’s disciplinary committee called the gesture an “immoral offense.”

5 Fast Facts About Muhammad Ali

Kent Gavin/Getty Images
Kent Gavin/Getty Images

Muhammad Ali is one of the most important athletes and cultural figures in American history. Though he passed away in 2016, the heavyweight boxing champ was larger than life in and outside of the ring. The man who coined the phrase "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” won 37 knockout victories—and more about his inspiring life can be seen in the new documentary What’s My Name Muhammad Ali, premiering May 14 on HBO. Here are five more fast facts about Ali, a.k.a. The Greatest.

1. Cassius Clay was named for a white abolitionist.

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. and named after his father, who had in turn been named for a white abolitionist. The original Cassius Clay was a wealthy 19th-century planter and politician who not only published an anti-slavery newspaper, but also emancipated every slave he inherited from his father. Cassius Clay also served as a minister to Russia under President Abraham Lincoln.

2. Muhammad Ali's draft evasion case went to the Supreme Court.

In the early 1960s, Clay converted to Islam, joined the Nation of Islam, and took the name Muhammad Ali. According to his religious beliefs, Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam War when he was drafted in April 1967. He was arrested and stripped of his boxing license and heavyweight title. On June 20, 1967, he was convicted of draft evasion and banned from fighting while he remained free on appeal. His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously overturned his conviction in 1971.

3. He received a replacement gold medal.

At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Ali won the gold medal for boxing in the light heavyweight division. But, as he wrote in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story (edited by Toni Morrison!), he supposedly threw his medal into the Ohio River in frustration over the racism he still experienced in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Some historians dispute this story and suggest that Ali just lost the medal. Either way, he was given a replacement when he lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

4. Muhammad Ali was an actual superhero.

In 1978, DC Comics published Superman vs. Muhammad Ali—an oversize comic in which Muhammad Ali defeats Superman and saves the world. In real life, Ali did save a man from suicide. In 1981, a man threatened to jump from the ninth story of a building in L.A.’s Miracle Mile neighborhood. Ali’s friend Howard Bingham witnessed the unfolding drama and called the boxer, who lived nearby. Ali rushed into the building and successfully talked the man down from the ledge.

5. Muhammad Ali starred in a Broadway show.

In Oscar Brown, Jr.'s 1969 musical adaptation of Joseph Dolan Tuotti's play Big Time Buck White, Ali played a militant black intellectual who speaks at a political meeting. The play ran for only five nights at the George Abbot Theatre in New York. His Playbill bio reported that Ali "is now appealing his five-year prison conviction and $10,000 fine for refusing to enter the armed services on religious grounds. The Big Time Buck White role that he has accepted is much like the life he lives off stage in reality.”

What's the Difference Between Pool and Billiards?

iStock.com/Steevy84
iStock.com/Steevy84

Walk into a bar or private rec room and you're likely to encounter a pool table, with patrons and guests leaning over a green felt surface and striking a white cue ball with a cue stick in an effort to sink the rest of the balls into six pockets. If you're invited to join, most people will ask about a game of pool, not a game of billiards. Yet both terms seemingly refer to the same activity. What's the difference?

According to the Billiard Congress of America, billiards was developed out of a lawn game similar to croquet in the 15th century. When play moved indoors, green tables were used to simulate grass. Originally, the balls in billiards were driven by a mace with a large tip instead of a stick and through something similar to a croquet wick. The game evolved and expanded over time to include pocketed tables and shot-calling for points, enjoying wide popularity in America in the 1920s. The term billiards comes from the French words billart ("wooden stick") and bille ("ball").

As the popularity of billiards grew, billiards tables became common sights in gambling parlors where horse racing wagers or other bets were being placed. Because a collection of wagers is known as a pool, pocket billiards began to be associated with the term. Some professional pool players still use the term billiards to describe what's more commonly known as pool. Typically, billiards can refer to any kind of tabletop game played with a cue stick and cue ball, while pool largely means a game with pockets.

In the UK, however, billiards can refer to English Billiards, a variation in which only three balls are used, with the player striking his cue ball and a red striker ball to move his opponent's cue ball. There are no pockets used in the game.

You may wonder where this leaves snooker, an even more obscure game. Since it's played with a cue and a cue ball, it's technically billiards, but snooker has a specific rule set involving 22 balls that need to be sunk with consideration given to each color's point value. At 10 to 12 feet in length, a snooker table is also larger than a conventional pool surface (from 7 to 9 feet) and its pockets are an inch smaller in diameter.

The bottom line? If you're in a social setting and get challenged to a game of billiards, it's probably going to be pool. If you're in the UK, it could mean the pocket-less version. And if you get challenged to a game of snooker, be prepared for a very lengthy explanation of the rules.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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