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Why Do Athletes Spit?

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Spitting is deemed a taboo in Western society, yet it’s quite common to see someone leave a dollop of saliva behind them as they walk down the street.

Recently, I saw a young man hawk up a giant loogie and eject it onto the pavement of a parking lot with an audible splat. He hacked up every last morsel of mucus from the back of his throat before letting it fly. Fortunately, I was not within spitting distance of him, so I was not hit by any of the abundant overspray.

I got to thinking, “Why did he do that?” Did he have some medical condition that required the frequent expulsion of spittle? Was some obscure religious ritual involved? Had a bug flown into his mouth, and he was trying to evict the unwanted tenant? Was he marking his territory like a dog peeing on a lamppost or a hippopotamus leaving a pile of dung? Or, was he just a repulsive jerk? The court of public opinion will, I believe, settle on the final speculation as the most likely.

Sporting Spitters

Spitting appears to be an important part of baseball just as frequent adjusting of the nether regions seems to be. One ponders on why this should be. Does it contribute to a team’s won/lost record? Maybe the quality of spitting factors into some of the arcane statistics that seem central to the game—On-base Percentage, Wins Above Replacement. Do rookies go to some secret expectoration training camps to perfect their techniques?

It turns out there’s a bit of history involved. In the early days of baseball, players had to deal with very dry and dusty ballparks, so they took to chewing tobacco to work up some moisture that they then spat on their gloves to soften them.

In 2011, players agreed to stop chewing tobacco, although the deaths of baseball greats Babe Ruth and Tony Gwynn from chewing tobacco-related cancer should have been warning enough.

Today, many players have switched to sunflower seeds or gum to stimulate sputum production, so the hurling out of gobs of spittle continues. Wouldn't want to cut back on the raw material supply for a really good spraying onto the dugout floor.

Soccer players are no less productive in hawking up loogies. The argument is made that vigorous exercise causes high phlegm production that must be got rid of. So, “pitooee,” out it goes. Apparently, swallowing it is considered disgusting.

Even more gross is the pinching of thumb and forefinger on the bridge of the nose and the subsequent ejection of the content of both nostrils.

Not for the Faint of Heart

Golfers don’t spit. Okay, most golfers don’t spit. In 2011, Tiger Woods was fined an undisclosed amount for spitting on a green in Dubai; an act that prompted Sky TV’s Ewen Murray to comment, “It doesn’t get much lower than that.” Yes, it does; just ask Mr. Woods’s ex-wife.

Hockey players only spit to get rid of teeth knocked out when they take a puck to the face.

Tennis players don’t spit. Basketball players don’t either; probably aware they might later come to grief on their own slippery blob and miss a game-winning three-pointer.

Social commentators blame professional athletes for the rise in public spitting as young, male fans try to emulate their idols.

Huckleberry Finn knew that spitting brought good luck

Huckleberry Finn knew that spitting brought good luck

My Life of Spitting

It is known as “gobbing” in the part of the world from which I originate. Elsewhere, equally unattractive words such as “flobbing,” “gleeking,” or “glarfing” are used.

I can only recall one occasion on which I found it necessary to spit. I was in a cross-country race at school. Huffing and puffing along a muddy track, mouth wide open to capture as much oxygen as I could, I ran into a cloud of midges.

In fairness, this was less spit and more spit-up. This was an involuntary attempt to get rid of a bunch of tiny critters. Most, however, contributed to that day’s protein intake.

Of course, I spit in the dentist’s chair, but that’s under the instruction of a qualified professional.

Changing Attitudes

Pliny, the author of Ancient Rome, advised in the first century CE that spitting was a good way of warding off witchcraft. The Emperor Vespasian, a contemporary of Pliny, claimed to have restored the sight of a blind man by spitting in his eye. The apostles Mark and John tell that Jesus possessed the same power. (Let's hope ophthalmologists don't take this up).

During the Middle Ages spitting in the street was as common as chucking the contents of a chamber pot out of a bedroom window.

At least with the latter activity in Britain, some warning might be given with a shout of “Gardyloo” (a corruption of the French “Gardez l’eau”—“Watch out for the water”) to give folks a heads-up that sewage was about to descend on them if they weren’t quick on their feet. Although heads-up was probably not a wise strategy.

Anyway, back to the business at hand.

By the 18th century, spitting was beginning to fall out of favour and the Victorians viewed the habit as vulgar (of course, they viewed a lot of things as vulgar especially if engaged in by the lower orders).

Seinfeld's Magic Loogie

The Spittoon

Enter the cuspidor in the middle of the 19th century.

Spittoons were especially popular for the use of gentlemen who chewed tobacco. Not wanting to swallow the copious quantities of noxious liquid that tobacco chewing produced, the men needed a suitable receptacle for the phlegm.

Spittoons turned up in hotels, saloons, anywhere that men were inclined to gather. They were placed all over the U.S. Senate; actually, they are still there—tradition and all that. Each Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court is still provided with their own personal spittoon, although nowadays they are used as wastebaskets.

Let us spare a thought for the poor saps whose job it was to empty and clean out these gozzo catchers whose contents would gag a maggot.

A spittoon is shown on the floor in a Chicago courthouse in 1910

A spittoon is shown on the floor in a Chicago courthouse in 1910

Hawking in Rhyme

There was a young man from Darjeeling,
Who got on a bus bound for Ealing.
It said at the door:
“Don’t spit on the floor.”
So he carefully spat on the ceiling.

Bonus Factoids

  • What evil toad decided that “phlegm” was a good spelling?
  • There are several “sports” in which spitting is the main event, such as cherry-pit spitting, but there can be none stranger than bokdrol spoeg; that’s Afrikaans for kudu dung spitting. Hard pellets of antelope poo are propelled from the mouth across the veldt, with the longest distance determining the winner. There's even an annual world championship.
  • Public expectoration is a bit of an issue in China. Prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, officials hired the appropriately named American swimmer Mark Spitz to front a campaign to end the practice.


“When Men Spit in Public.” Thom Nickels, Huffington Post, July 30, 2013.

“Curious Customs.” Tad Tuleja, Stonesong Press, 1987.

“Good Question: Why Do Baseball Players Still Spit So Much?” Heather Brown, CBS Minnesota, September 21, 2014.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor