Why Do Athletes Slap Each Others’ Butts?

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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 “High fives are becoming outdated.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.”

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June 13, 2013 - 9:30am
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