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Original Issue

Keeping It Real

You think you're a real man? The question is open to everyone, as you needn't be real (see James Bond) or even a man (Margaret Thatcher) to be considered a Real Man. Of the former British prime minister, it was famously said, "She's the only real man in the Cabinet."

Among Real Men who are both real and men, the slugger and fighter pilot Ted Williams is often cited as the archetype. When Williams died, his fellow Baseball Hall of Famer Joe Morgan said, "Ted was like John Wayne. He was a man's man."

And while Wayne played football at USC and Williams was the greatest hitter who ever lived, playing sports at a high level does not, in isolation, make one a Real Man. "Hitting a woman is not something a real man does," President Obama said last month of indefinitely suspended Ravens running back Ray Rice. The President was stating the obvious but also raising the question, What does a Real Man do?

Real Men are usually defined by what they don't do: Real men don't eat quiche, real men don't ask for directions, Real Men Don't Apologize. The last is the title of a book by actor Jim Belushi, who—perhaps not accidentally—has been married three times. It can be confusing, the contradictory demands placed on Real Men. A Real Man is a father to his children, of course, but the Real Man in popular culture—the boob of the beer commercial—watches football for nine hours on Sunday.

"Hockey is a real man's sport," Justin Bieber has claimed, though that was on Twitter, which is a problem, as Country Life magazine insists that Real Men never tweet—or use hair product.

Being a Real Man isn't always advisable. Mike Tyson once invited a heckler to come forward at a press conference so the heavyweight could knock him out. When the man declined, Tyson said, "[You're] scared of the real man." More recently Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti was asked how his team president and GM were handling the Rice fallout. "They're handling it like men," he said, which might have been part of the problem in the first place.

Usually, living like a Real Man isn't even possible. In the mid-canon Bond film The Living Daylights, a woman in a bikini lounging on a yacht complains to a friend on the phone, "It's all so boring here, Margo—nothing but playboys and tennis pros. If only I could find a real man." At which time Bond lands poolside in a burning parachute and asks to borrow her phone.

Two problems: A study in The British Medical Journal said if Bond were a real, live man (and not just a Real Man) he would have been dead by 56, drinking—based on their study of the Bond oeuvre—a bracing 46 martinis per week. (Brain trauma, the cost of manning up in the NFL, has a similar reduction in life expectancy.) The other problem: Real Men aren't tennis pros? Please tell Roger Federer, who travels the world like Bond but also has a wife, four children, 17 Grand Slam tennis titles and a beating heart.

Among those who consider themselves Real Men, there is an element of protesting too much, what with all those man cards and man flus and bro hugs out there. It isn't easy living a life that consists exclusively of football and beer and grilled meats, the holy trinity of Real Men. And yet the Real Man soldiers on, refusing to cross his legs when sitting, never letting his wife drive him, clinging tight to his supremacy and his remote control. You shall know him by his knuckle-crushing handshake. The Real Man and the caveman have become happily synonymous—giving birth to that 21st-century necessity, the man cave—with one difference. The caveman evolved.

There is an alternative definition of Real Men, proposed by no less an authority than Vince Lombardi, who spoke of great men and little men, the difference lying chiefly "in sacrifice, in self-denial, in love and in loyalty, in fearlessness and in humility, in the pursuit of excellence and the perfectly disciplined will"—the individual components, Lombardi said, that constitute "character."

But why go to all that trouble when you can hammer some truck nuts on the back of a pickup and call it a day.

"Hockey is a real man's sport," Justin Bieber has claimed on Twitter—a problem, because others insist that real men never tweet.

Who's the realest real man you know?

Join the discussion on Twitter by using #SIPointAfter and following @SteveRushin