The perfect paradox: Political ideology and sports

Nick Paumgarten has a terrific post at The New Yorker about the stylishness of golden age Soviet hockey in spite of the rigid Communist political system that spawned it. Anatoli Tarasov was appointed by Stalin after World War II to develop a powerhouse national program from scratch, and he tapped into some of the best features of Russian culture:

“He integrated elements from ballet, chess, and bandy, and put players through rigorous and unorthodox training rituals. The players lived together most of the year and played together in units of five for years on end. The result of all this, in the rink, anyway, was a free-flowing weave of improvisational keep-away, with the flamboyance, if not the laughs, of the Globetrotters on ice. Their greatest successes, and most aesthetically pleasing performances, came when they were coached by a dictatorial apparatchik and former player named Viktor Tikhonov, whom most of them came to hate. The irony was always there and is central to Polsky’s film: a rigid, oppressive system, at both national and team levels, created the freest, most expressive hockey there ever was.”

Now, Paumgarten points out, present-day Russians and other eastern Europeans in the NHL play a similar style as Swedes and North Americans, blended as they are on professional, multi-national rosters and serving up a homogenized product. The quality of play may be better here, he notes, than over there, back in mother Russia.

Paumgarten spoke to Viacheslav Fetisov, a Soviet great who fought for his right to leave and play in the NHL in the early 1980s. Appointed by Vladimir Putin to revive Russian hockey on the international scene, the Russian sports minister instead has become part of the establishment.

This is a paradox that isn’t unusual in the annals of Iron Curtain and Communist sports. In China, the training system for its once-powerful women’s national soccer program was just as spartan and demanding, but from it came the gifted forward Sun Wen. She shined at the 1999 Women’s World Cup, with a touch and comfort on the ball not uncommon in Brazil and Europe.

But overtraining in that system also led to a knee injury from which she never really recovered. A year later at the Sydney Olympics, she managed to bend in a beautiful dipping free kick for a goal against the U.S. despite being braced up heavily. When I interviewed her in 2001, as she struggled to regain fitness for the Atlanta Beat of the Women’s United Soccer Association, she had undergone surgery in Virginia, and maintained her “sunny” disposition although her career was essentially spent.

Hailing from the repressive East Germany, Katarina Witt embodied the power, grace and artfulness of her sport like no other woman.

The product of an equally repressive East German regime stylishly won Olympic gold in Sarajevo in 1984, with her dazzling, smoldering sexual prowess on display. It was hard for the media not to take notice.

But American feminist “sport media scholar” Mary Jo Kane, of the University of Minnesota, scolded the press for stating the obvious, and other Western critics trotted out the tiresome “male gaze” argument to denounce what they saw as too much frothing at the mouth of a siren athlete.

Which brings up another, truly dispiriting paradox. As I wrote in my 2012 book “Beyond Title IX:”

“I remained intrigued by the irony than an athlete from a totalitarian society regimented by the Stasi has a better grasp of the eternal allure of sex, sports and the body than a highly educated, privileged American woman like Kane. With all the freedom to think for herself, and with an intellectual base at an outstanding American university, she has chosen to let an arid feminist ideology do it for her.”

Some of the most enduring, powerful forms of art and human expression come out of the worst forms of political and cultural repression. In America, slaves and their descendants created the blues and jazz traditions that in my mind represent the essential art form of this nation, more popular today on other shores than here.

Stalin and his eastern European henchmen understood the subversive power of art well enough to suppress it through excessive means, politicizing the expression of literature, music, painting and sculpture and even dance.

Athletes were hailed as heroes and heroines for their mastery of Western rivals in competitive endeavors, and rebelled, with Fetisov as the catalyst, because of the opportunity to cash in on their talents. But perhaps the aesthetic achievements of the Red Army team and Witt also may have been rooted in part in the deeper, humanistic impulses described by Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz in “The Captive Mind,” his classic treatment of art and totalitarianism:

“The creative act is associated with a feeling of freedom that is, in its turn, born in the struggle against an apparently invincible resistance. Whoever truly creates is alone.”

Savoring the things that matter the most

After cranking out so many sports-and-culture posts on this blog and elsewhere in recent weeks, I’m going through some serious anxiety about whether to continue staking a claim in these debates.

Well then, anxiety is a strong word, and I hesitate to say I’ve reached the point of some kind of depression. But I’m as melancholy about these things as I’ve ever been.

Whether it’s Ray Rice and domestic violence, the culture of American football, and how just about everything in the world of sports seems to be getting more politicized by smug, self-appointed arbiters of Possessing the Correct Views, I’m simply worn out.

The constant social media outrages — typically based on race, gender and political perspective — have become the coin of the realm in a snark-infested online sports media environment whose many pleasures and innovations are getting harder to enjoy.

It’s what you have to wade through to get to the good stuff, and yet I can’t resist picking through the wreckage as I pass by.

I cop to being an online rubbernecker, no better than the trolls, social justice fanatics and cultural opportunists who know how to get suckers like me to take their bait.

I knew there was something wrong when I went on a 12-hour writing bender, to coin a phrase, feverishly working up this post on Hope Solo last month for The Cauldron, the new sports vertical on the Medium platform.

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 12.10.55 PMFueled by raw emotion and the exquisite torment of working without a net while trying to reach a new audience, I skipped eating and took a break only when nature called. I wrote, revised, re-wrote and re-revised, at least a dozen times. In more than 30 years in the news business, this has happened only with major breaking stories, or while working the Olympics and other endurance assignments.

While reasonably satisfied with what I had written, how I went about doing it was abhorrent to me. Everything I’ve ever learned about writing is that you can’t wait for inspiration, or take an immediate flyer on a trending topic, and hope to sustain anything worth your byline. I acted like a college student with a term paper due in the morning, not a veteran journalist who’s made thousands of deadlines and developed solid work habits.

And yet, I might have been done a favor by falling into this trap. I was sufficiently alarmed to see how the distractions of the digital age were getting the best of me, and how I need to get back to what I do best, and how I do it.

It’s been 10 years since I moved from being an exclusively print reporter to a primarily online journalist and editor, and I’m glad I took that step. But the temptations are greater than the catnip of Tweeting and the compulsion of checking e-mails and having so many things flickering across screens at any given time.

I’ve let myself get dragged into the morass of the sports-and-culture space that is being scarfed up by the young hot Millennial set — male and female — I am struggling to understand. While the topics are worthy of attention, and the impudent, often juvenile screeching that comes from these corners deserves a proper response, I need to to be more selective in picking spots to do that.

Last week I caught up with women’s college basketball coaches I’ve known for years while getting ready for a new season, and it was more than stepping back with time. It was getting back to what’s been real and authentic for me, in carving out some space for a sport that is getting routed in the brave new online world, where clicks mean everything.

The writing coach Christina Katz put best in a recent post what I’ve got to tend to above all:

“Give yourself an attitude adjustment, develop your skills, and focus on the next most important step for you.

“That’s your job.

“The secret sauce of a joyful writing career is being the best you can be, spreading that good stuff to others, and ignoring all the things that are not your job.

“If you want to be happy in your writing career for just one day: put your cynicism down, turn off your mind, and just take the next step.

“Dive into your latest current project and give it everything you’ve got.”

This may seem quaint and old-fashioned amid the eternal cleverness of today’s ginned-up media environment. But these insights also resonate with the coaches I know who are charged with working daily with young people as they learn how to become adults. Sometimes I want to scoff at the motivational quotes coaches Tweet out — and they do this a lot — and then I find myself following suit as I pursue freelance work. The War of Art

In  “The War of Art,” Steven Pressfield (author of “The Legend of Bagger Vance”) doles out a heavy dose of tough-love for writers who have to push themselves, because no one else will. Near the end of 162 pages of clear-eyed exhortations, this is what jolted me the most:

“We know that if we embrace our ideals, we must prove worthy of them. And that scares the hell out of us.”

Indeed.

The older I get, the more I’m shedding my youthful sarcasm and hip posturing. After being downsized from two jobs in the last six years in the only profession I ever wanted to be in, I’m facing the prospect of having to leave it behind. I’m mad as hell about that and have wept about it on more than one occasion since being laid off in January. But I’ve also spent some time learning the basics of content strategy, social media marketing and strategic communication.

These are practical and humbling developments, and they have prompted a re-evaluation of what’s most meaningful to me. In my last job, I covered community news, and deeply appreciated connecting with my fellow citizens on the most basic, and seemingly mundane items: A left-turn signal demanded after a bad accident, parents organizing to combat cuts in education funding and a church volunteer thrilled that an announcement I posted yielded a three-figure crowd for a concert in a marvelous, acoustically-ideal sanctuary.

There are so many “marketable skills” journalists have that we use to sell ourselves for other kinds of work. While I don’t want to give up what I’ve always loved, I’m seeing that my battle to stay in the business has clarified what is important to me, and rekindled some fading passion.

In defense of the culture of football, con’t

Not much of a peep from my Tweeps yesterday when I put out the link to this fine and eloquent rebuttal to critics of American football from Jonathan Chait at New York Mag.

Now I don’t feel so alone for having written this a couple weeks back.

Perhaps it was the headline — “In Defense of Male Aggression: What Liberals Get Wrong About Football” — that resulted in the crickets as much as the arguments made by Chait, who used the space to reminisce about his boyhood on the gridiron. Those who took issue with him did so from the safety/concussions perspective, which they think the writer downplayed. I don’t think he did, nor was Chait remiss in blending in more recent issues over domestic violence involving NFL players.

The larger thrust of his piece was defending a place for boys and young men to work out their aggressions on the field, and how good coaching, discipline and developing an ethos for good work habits can have a positive, beneficial impact:

“Of course, we don’t even know that the culture of football, let alone the physics of brain trauma, triggers aggression — it seems considerably more straightforward to think that a sport as violent as football attracts the most aggressive among us. Yet the most plausible explanations no longer satisfy the critics; pay close attention to the terms now mustered in outrage against football, and you’ll begin to see a far broader attack on the institution than has ever gained a wide hearing before.”

Chait quotes Grantland writer Louisa Thomas, whom I wrote about last week, as well as Steve Almond (also here):

“ ‘Our allegiance to football,’ he argues, ‘legitimizes and even fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia.’ This sort of argument would still get you laughed out of any sports bar in Chicago, but it increasingly speaks for liberal ­bien-pensant opinion in America, since football is a manifestation of traditional masculinity that is increasingly out of step with liberal society. What we are seeing is a safety-reform movement mutating into a culture war, where one part of America rises in visceral, often-uncomprehending revulsion against the values and mores of another. The thing is, that latter group includes me.”

Chait isn’t defending the NFL’s handling of cases involving Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and others when he writes this:

“But the matter more immediately at hand is a broader indictment of a ritual of socialization for American boys that sits uneasily alongside modern tolerant mores. Before we prosecute that American obsession, we ought to try at least to understand it.”

As American cultural values have become more liberalized, he finds a curious intolerance from supposed progressives for a seemingly antiquated male socialization ritual that really can’t be quelled:

“Football is obviously not just for conservatives, but it does embody the conservative virtues. The backlash against it is a signpost of a new social system unwilling to consider that the worldview of one’s political adversaries might have any wisdom to offer at all and untroubled by the fear that, perhaps, football exists because it channels a genuine, deep-seated impulse.”

Bingo  – this formed the basis of my post here from February 2013, “The eternal lure and brutal eloquence of football,” that applies even to well-off, suburban boys like Chait and a local high school hero in my community. Contemporary sportswriters wringing their hands about things like the “disease of violence” spreading in the ranks of youth football are simply missing the point, as Chait observes, and they probably always will:

“Football’s enemies have an accurate sociological observation, but their conclusion is backward. Nothing else pumped so much adrenaline through me that I couldn’t feel my feet underneath me as I ran and could barely remember my name, or made me weep or scream uncontrollably. It is the adventure of your life, a chance to prove yourself as a man before other boy-men who, even if you never see them again, you will always regard as brothers-in-arms.”

This dovetails a bit into a theory peddled recently by another New York Mag writer, Will Leitch, that political ideology is seeping into the sports world, as well as the sports media, in very substantial doses. A compelling notion that deserves a more serious look in another post, but one that’s worth thinking about with the continued squeamishness about football.

The nature of the game hasn’t changed, but some cultural values have.

Why sports isn’t about ‘respecting’ you

Last week I wrote for The Cauldron, a new sports vertical on the Medium platform, about Hope Solo, gender and domestic violence and the excuse-making that has surrounded the discussion of a female athlete being charged with physical aggression. Here’s what I wrote about the counterreaction that is as disappointing as it was predictable:

“The real burr under the saddle for those who indulge in tales of endless male perfidy against women is that the media’s NFL-bashing has been disrupted, at least temporarily. The Solo case, and any consideration of it, dashes the media’s shame game against the male sports culture. So the narrative has to be reset, with all the requisite buzzwords and phrases.”

At the time I didn’t expand much on that link. It comes from Grantland writer Louisa Thomas, who was lauded far and wide in the sports media for that piece, “Together We Make Football.”

While she reminds readers of the ugly recent history of alleged domestic violence involving NFL figures, Thomas goes down the tragic rabbit hole of assessing that “what’s really wrong with football” isn’t Roger Goodell and the rash of charges against players involving women and children.

No, it’s that dastardly “culture” of football, with its inherent violence and “pseudo-military tactics” exemplified by — wait for it — “the biggest and strongest exponent of American masculinity” on display every Sunday on the professional gridiron. Here we go again.

Thomas, an otherwise intelligent and talented writer, goes so sadly astray in ways that are gaining dubious traction in the sports media. She places herself in the love-hate, push-pull conflict of so many football fans:

“I have come to love a good road-grading offensive line. I see it and I respond to football instinctively. I feel it. It taps into some dark and thrilling part of me, the sight of those magnificent athletes trying to make contact or elude it. I wish I could say that feeling is harmless, that it allows for a release of my most dangerous instincts without putting me in contact with actual danger, that it allows me to desire dominance without turning me into some kind of would-be dictator. Watching football connects me to friends and to strangers. It helps me lose myself in something bigger, something almost transcendent. It reminds me of my father, and of afternoons spent outside in the backyard learning to throw a spiral. The acrobatics of the best make me catch my breath in awe. It is just so much fun to watch.

“I wish I could say that it is a substitute for violence, that it releases and diffuses that domineering, competitive instinct latent in human nature, and leaves us with some measure of self-respect — some awareness of courage and strength. But I think I’m lying to myself. Because when I’m honest, I can see that within the culture of football, as a woman, I’m not respected. The women I see are cheerleaders, sideline reporters, WAGs. I hear men talk, and I know that when they use the word ‘girl,’ it’s shorthand for something weak.”

What’s really weak here is Thomas succumbing to the soppy egalitarianism of far too much contemporary American media on social and cultural issues, including the way they relate to sports:

“I can see that within the culture of football, as a woman, I’m not respected.”

Oh, please. This isn’t about you, Louisa, or about respecting you. But this rhetorical attempt to presume that all women ought to feel this way because they’re women is deeply offensive. The problems with the NFL and domestic violence are behavorial among a handful of individuals, rather than cultural, as is the case in every segment of society.

Yet Thomas, while acknowledging this truth in passing, goes right back to culture-blaming by dredging up the Javon Belcher case and lambasting the league and its supposed hostility to women and children. “If it’s a family,” she concludes, “then it’s a fucked-up family.”

I realized a long time ago there were things about the world of football I would never understand because, as a woman, I never played the sport. But I’ve never felt “disrespected” by the “culture of football,” even as I was covering the sport as a journalist and knew I was stepping into somewhat unwelcome terrain.

Frankly, it’s not something I worry about, because the “culture of football” doesn’t directly affect my life, and those who clumsily try to personalize the current crisis come across as just a little more than self-absorbed.

Some hold up Thomas’ work, and that of others on the current NFL crisis, as examples of why we’re in the “Golden Age of Sportswriting.” But Thomas doesn’t do any original reporting, and her thesis is hardly new. The feminist grievance against football is as old as feminism itself, and was renewed with scurrilous effect 20 years ago in the name of elevating women’s sports. At the very least, Thomas ought to be flagged for piling on.

While I believe there is some sensational work being done across the sports media, the current diatribes against football have more to do with cultural pontificating and a general queasiness about the sport. If I wanted to borrow the reasoning of these individuals, I could blame the “culture” of the generally liberal media for this proliferation of nonsense, just like conservative polemicists do.

But that’s no more accurate than chalking up the problems of the NFL to its supposed “culture’s projection of masculinity.” Dissecting this media propensity is worth another post for another place.

A sports site for ‘nerdy jocks and jockish nerds’

Glad to see The Allrounder, a new site devoted to examining deeper issues in sports, finally go live last week.

The creator is Bruce Berglund, the host of the excellent New Books in Sports podcast and a history professor at Calvin College in Michigan.

The contributors are mostly academics, journalists and authors from the United States and around the world, who examine “how sport impacts communities, shapes culture, and taps bodies and emotions.”

Allrounder LogoThe initial posts this week include the rise of French basketball, the revival of roller derby, the intersection of sports and religion and a panel discussion on top-notch sports interviews.

As a Twitter promo from contributor Peter Alegi declares, the site is aimed at “nerdy jocks and jockish nerds.”

That’s right up my alley and if you have listened to the NBS podcast and liked that, this is for you as well.

Other planned features on The Allrounder include book reviews (the first is about a new biography of Arthur Ashe), conversations with authors and scholars and recommended readings about sports eleswhere in the media.

What I like about what I’ve seen and on the newly launched Sport in American History blog, is the work of academics that is easily accessible for general readers.

Given the relentless immediacy of the 24/7 sports media, The Allrounder is a welcome vehicle to step back from the “hot takes” and take a deeper, more thoughtful look at the sports world.

Sports Gods and antiheroes we think we know

“Try as we will to weigh him down with meaning, the athlete remains one step ahead of us.”

– Stephen Amidon, “Something Like the Gods”

* * * * * * * *

Has the contemporary sports star finally been caught in the grasp of social media mobs who scrutinize, judge and presume guilty with the ridiculous ease and light-speed that digital technology and electronic gadgets provide?

The continuing saga stemming from the Ray Rice case has engulfed the top rung of NFL leadership, the ownership of the Baltimore Ravens and a lucrative, powerful sport seemingly operating with oblivion in a moral vacuum that is turning off many who call themselves fans.

Whether enough people will ever turn away for good is doubtful, but the lasting impact of the league’s inaction over Rice’s brutal, videotaped episode of beating his now-wife Janay Rice has been devastating, and not just as far as the former Ravens running back is concerned.

Something Like the GodsAmidon, a novelist, published his book, subtitled “A Cultural History of the Athlete from Achilles to LeBron,” two years ago, just as the sordid Lance Armstrong story was unfolding.

That seems like child’s play compared to what’s been transpiring in recent weeks, and it goes far beyond a few gruesome seconds caught on tape in an Atlantic City hotel elevator, or harrowing accounts of alleged child abuse by Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.

Commentators predictably piled on to the meme of football’s inherent violence, its “pseudo-military tactics” and thus its apparently anti-female ethos for answers, before also squeezing in the observation that violence against women and children touches every corner of society.

That many more of those piling on are female voices has only furthered the righteous indignation against a sport that embodies what many view as a virulent strain of masculinity, complete with rampaging homophobia and misogyny.

The certitude of the commentariat — that we think we know all we need to know about Rice, based on one incident — is most troubling. Presumptions from anti-domestic violence advocates that Rice had beaten Janay before were based on nothing more than that, presumption. So were suggestions that she suffers from battered-wife syndrome for standing by her man, and for lashing out against the media after the video was released, and his contract was terminated.

“Something Like the Gods” recounts the thousands of years of history of the enduring iconography of the athlete, from the days in which he was treated as a proud shaman in ancient Greece and Rome, to his seeming decline as the age of Puritanism beckoned with the rise of Luther and Calvin.

The athlete regained his pagan power as boxing entered the public consciousness as a spectator event in the 1800s, followed by organized competition in team sports during the Industrial Revolution. Once again, the athlete adapted as Victorian society demanded a gentlemanly, amateur participant, in service to empire above all and in particular to its capitalistic puppeteers, who truly acted with impunity.

From the banished Black Sox to the raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the athlete’s story in the 20th century ranged from powerlessness to political revolution. In his final chapter, “Up Close and Personal,” Amidon fingers what drives the public’s obsession with today’s athlete: the level of intimacy we believe we have with him (and a few hers) through media exposure and product endorsements. Many fans, Amidon writes:

“. . . come to feel as if they have a right to participate in his private life. They are invested in his struggles and redemptions off the field as well as on it.”

Even better put on Twitter:

Here’s more from Amidon:

“It’s not just about gossip.  There is a moral dimension to this presumed intimacy. Athletes are now supposed to inspire us with more than just their play. While the competitor’s performance has been used as a source of uplift since the dying wrestler Arrichion refused to give up the fight, his entire life is now expected to be exemplary.” JeterNewYorker

Those we find exemplary we tend to know even less about. While Rice, Peterson, Greg Hardy, Ray McDonald and Jameis Winston are caught in the glare of football’s sprawling existential crisis, America has been bidding a fond farewell to Derek Jeter, who is playing his final games at Yankee Stadium this week.

Of course there are blowhard detractors, but much of the praise about Jeter for more than two decades has gone beyond his stellar play that surely will land him in Cooperstown. He’s a model of gracefulness and admirably good behavior off the field, a stark contradiction to so many in uniform in so many sports.

But how much do we really know about Jeter? Peyton Manning? Other seemingly stand-up guys?

Do we like the athletes we like because we really don’t know much about them away from the game, because they’ve worked to keep their private lives just that — private? And that they’ve never gotten their names in the press for all the wrong reasons?

Whatever shortcomings they may possess are assiduously kept away from public consumption, and that is to their credit. Here’s Amidon again:

“As spectators come to know the ‘humanized’ athlete better and discover that they do not really like him, there is a growing tendency to dehumanize him in order to maintain his purity.”

. . . . . . . . . . .

“For us to identify with the athlete, to thrill in his performances, he still needs to be like us. We still need a vital connection to him.”

Like characters in a book, play or movie, we want athletes to be likable, even empathetic. It’s human nature to want this, of course, and it’s understandable. But we assign a status in society to athletes that we don’t seem to demand of other public figures.

Is this because sports matter more to many of us than empty celebrity culture? Are the games more redeemable than the throwaway music, films and television programs that denigrate and debase women more than any NFL player and the “football culture” ever could?

I’d like to think so, in spite of all the awful news of the last few weeks.

As I’ve written before, I’m watching less football these days for other reasons, and I understand those who may be boycotting the NFL even though I think the game itself is getting an unfair rap. Many Americans are just uncomfortable with football the way some have become about boxing.

But ditch the sanctimony about football’s failure to deal with persistent social and criminal problems.

Roger Goodell’s leadership leaves an awful lot to be desired, but he shouldn’t be expected to compensate for what police, prosecutors and judges address very unevenly in thousands of local law enforcement jurisdictions across the country.

It’s been far too easy to bash Goodell, the “culture” of the NFL, and “toxic masculinity,” but they’re not the culprits.

Some want the NFL to “send a message” about violence against women, and to lead efforts for a cultural rethinking, when the tangible, lasting change will come about in the broader society.

If the news from the gridiron has you down

The Ray Rice story and the continuing angst by many Americans about the National Football League and the game of football is snowballing into a truly disturbing heap, and this probably will not stop anytime soon.

It’s too soon to know if these events reflect some kind of tipping point in our reverence for football — especially Roger Goodell’s handling of the sordid Rice saga. I do know more and more people who are terribly conflicted about that story, as well as concussions and the physical violence of the gridiron, that they’re not watching the game any longer, or they’re seriously considering turning away.

I understand all that. “Football is wonderful. The NFL is awful.” There is absolutely no dispute with that in this corner. None at all. My fandom was severely tested several years ago during the nauseating Michael Vick story that still bothers me.

On the college scene, the Penn State scandal is still hard to shake, although anger at the NCAA’s restoration of the program’s bowl eligibility this week has been strangely muted.

And then last night, I opened up the current issue of The New Yorker — with Derek Jeter on the cover — and read “Phi Beta Football,” a splendid little story by John McPhee, recalling the glorious Princeton single-wing teams of his youth, and what became of the men of his generation who played there. It was written in typically graceful, elegant McPhee fashion, and I quickly thought about a post I wrote a couple weeks ago about the challenges of writing stylishly about football.

“Phi Beta Kappa” more than fits the bill for what I hope will be a future collection of football stories.

Why Football MattersThere’s also this excerpt in the Los Angeles Review of Books from “Why Football Matters,” which I blogged about recently. I think I was a bit unfair to author Mark Edmundson, whose love-hate relationship with the game more finely balanced than I first thought. Mostly, he writes of how compelling the game has always been for him, in spite of its dangers and dehumanizing effects, and he rightly suspects he is far from alone on this:

“I’m fascinated by the way that the game combines violence and beauty. Pater said that he loved it when art merged beauty and strangeness. But violence and beauty — there’s something about that, too. It’s been said ballplayers look like Homeric warriors, and they do, but football players may more closely resemble knights, jousting in a tournament, with rules and standards and dignity and respect for the opponent, though it is dangerous, too.”

At some point I’d like to think there will be an honest, open public discussion about football along the lines of Edmundson’s argument. For the moment, the mainstream media and social media channels are convulsed with football — and many other sports — primarily in the context of social issues (domestic violence, gay athletes, race and gender, etc.), and that won’t be subsiding anytime soon.

The question is whether there might be some room for something beyond the white-hot outrage machine, with its idiotic and pretentious trolling, snarky, clickbaity gumsmacking and a mob mentality that greets any attempt at a nuanced perspective with a sledgehammer of shame and cultural arrogance.

I still believe that while the game of American football is inherently brutal, it is an honorable code that is played, coached and operated by mostly honorable people who do not commit crimes, who do not brutalize women and who do not try to evade or sweep away ugly matters.

There is a traditional culture of the sport that is worth defending, even in these grim times.

It’s hard to call it labor when it doesn’t feel like work

Labor Day in the United States is being observed today, and I thought I’d use the occasion to select some blog posts that I truly enjoyed putting together.

What I discovered wasn’t surprising: The posts that were the most fun to write and ponder were those that best exemplified the intersection of sports and creativity that I try to explore here.

So not included in this collection are posts about the contentious issues of gender and sports, steroids and social issues (with a few exceptions). They tend to be about sports books I found truly pleasurable, sports history and artistic expressions of sports.

Pafko at the WallWhat connects all of these posts, in spite of the vast array of topics, is that they never felt like “work” when I was researching and writing them. The discovery of the ideas, the sources and the links were so easily immersive at times I got lost in what I was doing.

I will say that some of the topics I’m most impassioned about that I write here — especially about women in sports — have resulted in some of my strongest work. But I can’t say I always enjoyed it, although I realized how important it was for me to write this. When the posts were finished, I was relieved more than anything. I had engaged in verbal sparring, even combat, and felt satisfied with what I accomplished.

Those who help individuals along the path of professional full-time blogging are careful to point out that it’s easy to start a blog, but very hard to sustain one. I’ve certainly found that out here, although this isn’t a for-profit endeavor. What I attempt every time I sit down is to delve into the joy of examining sports topics that have become this blog’s stock-in-trade. At times it seems uneven and inconsistent, but I don’t regret having a broad approach. It’s something of a glorious mess that has brought me quite a bit of joy.

The result has been a collection of pleasant surprises that I include here for your (I hope) joyful consideration:

“A month of rereadings: ‘Pafko at the Wall,’ “ Aug. 19, 2010 — In remembrance of Bobby Thomson and the shot ‘heard round the world that formed the scintillating opening for Don DeLillo’s fantastic novel, “Underworld.”

“Bud Greenspan, equal opportunity Olympic documentarian,” Dec. 26, 2010 — Upon the passing of the man who humanized and celebrated the most obscure athletes as much as the famous ones.

“Free at last: Letting women’s sports grow up,” July 20, 2011 — The Women’s World Cup proved that female athletes don’t have to be symbols for anything but pure, joyous entertainment.

“A sportswriting giant: ‘The last of his kind,’ “ Dec. 8, 2011 — A tribute to the larger-than-life George Kimball.

“The Southern swagger of Kim Mulkey,” April 2, 2012 — The Baylor women’s basketball coach exudes personality, shrewdness and a demanding style, and she isn’t always easy to deal with. But that’s not such a bad thing.

“RIP Steve Sabol, the football poet,” Sept. 19, 2012 — The creative force behind “NFL Films” is remembered.

“A few riffs on the culture of Southern football,” Nov. 1, 2012 — My part of the country is better at something than anywhere else, and its development is necessarily caught up in the history of the region. On Boxing JCO

“A rare kick of wartime soccer splendor,” Nov. 13, 2012 — Even in the dying days of the Third Reich, a little bit of joy on the pitch was staged as the Allies began advancing from Western Europe.

“Baseball’s dwinding Romantics,” Jan. 10, 2013 — Those wishing away steroids are noble in their sentiments, but it’s a foolhardy notion to embrace given the game’s history with all kinds of stimulants.

“The eternal lure and brutal eloquence of football,” Feb. 2, 2013 — It’s easy to bemoan the violent nature of the gridiron but harder to supress the desires of those who seek to participate.

“The genuflection of the baseball poets,” March 5, 2013 — Verse about the diamond should be avoided at all costs.

“Saving a museum for a forgotten team,” May 4, 2013 — Efforts to preserve the memories of a baseball club that had few good ones to offer and now competes in a different part of the country.

“A life in sports letters,” Aug. 16, 2013 — A fitting award for Frank Deford.

“Baseball cards at the Met,” Aug 23, 2013 — They come with more than just bubblegum — they’re a valuable slice of Americana.

“Women writers on boxing, gender and culture,” June 28, 2014 — Joyce Carol Oates is unsurpassed, but she has plenty of esteemed company in this category.

In defense of the culture of football

It’s getting harder, if not impossible, to defend the culture of football, and the raw expression of masculinity that comes with it.

Concussions, brain trauma and other crippling injuries suffered on the gridiron are blamed for the suicides of players, some famous, some not.

The names of football players, some famous, some not, are attached to too many cases and allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault.

The first openly gay player in NFL history attempts to make an opening day roster amid claims that if he’s not on a sideline somewhere this fall, homophobia will be the culprit.

Why Football MattersThe pumped-up game day atmosphere at football stadiums, with big-ass American flags unfurled and F-14 fighter jets flying over during the Star-Spangled Banner, represents to some an overheated, militaristic, capitalistic, embarrassing and shameful enterprise.

How can anybody defend any of this?

The most popular spectator sport in America is assessed with a litany of anxieties by activists, social critics, academics and journalists, as if they are the officially approved travel agents for a sports-and-culture guilt trip.

That most football fans are oblivious to these ruminations causes even more distress for those who insist we must change the culture of the sport for it to be fair and humane to all.

To that I say balderdash. There are some reflexively strident defenders of football and all it represents, but they tend to be as hackneyed as this former sportswriter:

“We used to be a culture that celebrated the rugged individualism of a man willing to take chances with his God-given talent, but then we also used to keep score at our kids’ Little League games, and businesses weren’t ‘too big to fail.’ As a people we are becoming soft — both around the waist and in the head.”

So much of what I’ve been writing about this week has addressed valid concerns about player safety, brutish behavior toward women, a lack of acceptance of full gay equality and war-like exuberation that seems to overshadow what happens on the field. Football has never been my favorite sport — give me basketball and soccer above all else — but that isn’t the point.

Related posts:

  • The increasingly guilty pleasures of the football fan
  • The challenging art of stylish football writing
  • The saga of Saturdays in the fall
  • The original sins of college football
  • But the hand-wringers miss the point. The “culture” of football is not the problem. Individual behavior is.

    In fact, I think that American popular culture, with its obsession with celebrities, rap and hip-hop and films and television programs such as “Breaking Bad,” is more corrosive, misogynistic, homophobic, greedy, amoral and gratuitously violent than football has ever been. But that’s just me.

    University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson tries to explain some of these contradictions in “Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game,” to be published in September. He was a former high school football player with admittedly conflicted feelings about the game. In a piece published this week in the Los Angeles Times, he followed a familiar narrative — football is American, as we are now, because of our war-like society:

    “Football is about destruction. Sure, you win by getting more points than the other team, but to get more points, you generally have to slam the life out of your opponents. You try to do away with their skill players — by violence. Knock out the first-string quarterback and chances are you will win.

    “It is beautiful, to be sure. The wide receiver competes with the ballet dancer in grace and style. The runner recalls the flashing leopard, the tiger on the move. It’s lovely to watch. War can be beautiful too, one understands. The bombs create a memorable light; the crack of rifles is its own music.”

    This is a trite and wrong-headed metaphor that Marv Levy perceptively shot down, having experienced both war and football. For most fans, football isn’t a reflection of anything but a game they enjoy watching, and once upon a time some of them played.

    Football is a game that has its problems, and as I was first drafting this post yesterday, some of those issues came back to the forefront when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell revised the league’s personal conduct policy to include stronger measures to combat domestic violence and sexual assault. Against Football

    He was applauded in all the correct media circles, which isn’t a surprise. But it’s troubling that other journalists have chosen to skim over that the new policy apparently doesn’t require an NFL employee — player or otherwise — to be convicted of or plead guilty to a crime. Two “incidents” — is an arrest all that’s needed? — and there’s a lifetime ban.

    This was clearly a face-saving ploy by Goodell, who has ceded himself more unilateral power following intense criticism over a two-game suspension for Ray Rice. Goodell talked to those who work with domestic violence victims, which was wise. What about those who defend the wrongly accused?

    It doesn’t seem as though he did, and I doubt there will be a soul in the mainstream media who will wonder why. They’re busy cheerleading what’s essentially a public relations response, pointing out the need for the league to send a message and work to gain the trust of female fans.

    On Monday I wrote about journalist and author Steve Almond’s screed, “Against Football,” and was mildly put off by his assertions that those who enjoy the sport are culpable for terrible things by buying into a “nihilistic engine of greed,” including that dastardly “patriarchal domination.”

    Then I came across a longer excerpt of his book in the Village Voice, which includes some truly sanctimonious wailing about the “Football Industrial Complex:”

    “It is my own view, as a fan, that football weds the essential American virtues (courage, strength, perseverance, sacrifice) to our darker national impulses (conformity, militarism, competitiveness, regenerative violence). It is a brilliantly engineered athletic drama that offers us narrative complexity and primal aggression.”

    It’s doubtful that fury will stop anybody from watching football who already likes it. Almond also bristled with know-it-all arrogance in an open letter to NFL wide receiver Wes Welker, who has suffered multiple concussions, suggesting that he get the hell retired, already:

    “Your decision to leave the game would send a powerful message to other players: that sometimes heroism resides in turning away from danger rather than letting it smash you into the turf on national TV. And it would also send a message to your many fans, those who love watching you dart and weave, but who have no idea what it’s like to suffer actual serial brain traumas.”

    So add football to the listing of shaming topics — smoking, obesity, etc. — that figure to get more treatment from self-appointed scolds like Almond. He may be ultimately disappointed that for all his screeching, it’s no counter to what will always draw young men to the sport.

    Here’s a comparison of the two books highlighted today. The troubles in football deserve more serious critical scrutiny that’s thoughtful, intelligent and empathetic, along the lines of Joyce Carol Oates’ classic, “On Boxing.” Perhaps it might take a woman, someone who’s never played the sport, to get at the heart of what ails it.

    Edmundson and Almond don’t really come close.

    Sports History Files: The original sins of college football

    The violence, crippling injuries, academic short cuts and other dysfunctional components of the present-day world of college football are hardly new.

    Nor do they date back only a half-century or so, when the NCAA finally modernized in the early 1950s, cracked down on rule-breakers and reigned in athletic departments that wanted to cut their own television and business deals.

    That’s partly because the problems referred to by reformers, academics, media types and others these days — usually with little to no effect — have been with college football from its origins.

    the opening kickoffSports historians have been writing about these matters over the years — notably Ronald Smith and Michael Oriard. But with college football’s primacy on the rise again — the new SEC Network, a new playoff format, among other lucrative changes — a journalist employed by one of the major players in the college athletics industry has taken a fresh, unflinching look at the game as it has always been contested.

    Big Ten Network host Dave Revsine’s “The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultous Birth of a Football Nation,” has received plenty of well-deserved attention for making it very clear that the nefarious activity we fret about today has never been separated from the compelling entertainment product first popularized more than a century ago.

    Revsine, whose book examines college football between 1890 and 1915, writes in his introduction:

    “What if I told you the current problems in college football might actually be viewed as an improvement — that, in some regards, the college game was once far worse than it is today?”

    His first chapter, excerpted here in Sports Illustrated, details the 1893 Thanksgiving Day game between Princeton and Yale in New York City that contained all the elements familiar to today’s fans: Excessive media hype, a full-house crowd of more than 50,000 at Manhattan Field (on the site of the future Polo Grounds) and heavy wagering.

    Only four years later, the death of Von Albade Gammon, a 17-year-old University of Georgia football player injured in a game against Virginia, prompted calls that football be banned (GQ excerpt here).

    These cries would continue into the new century, from within the academy as well as the media responsible for so much of the hype. Notably, Oriard contended the newspapers were lashing out to boost circulation more than reflect concern over player safety.

    But in 1905, after 18 players died from on-the-field injuries, President Theodore Roosevelt finally called college football leaders to the White House. Rules changes, such as the forward pass, were enacted, though player deaths continued. The organization that eventually was created out of this movement was the National Collegiate Athletic Assocation.

    Revsine, a former ESPN host and son of a late Northwestern University professor, also weaves into his narrative the story of Pat O’Dea, an Australian who played for Wisconsin in the late 1890s. He was one of the sport’s first big-time stars, boasting supreme kicking skills in an age when brute force dominated.

    And as Hiawatha Bray noted in a review in The Boston Globe, Johnny Manziel had nothing on O’Dea when it came to off-the-field notoriety, especially with the ladies.

    David Jones of The Patriot-News has more on how Revsine came to write, and research, the book; Revsine sat down with John Feinstein and Bill Littlefield for radio interviews that are worth the listen.

    On his own network, Revsine also was the host of a panel discussion about the problems of college football, seen through the historical lens he has provided, and including Ronald Smith as a guest. And here’s Revsine in a Q and A with Big Ten Network colleague Tom Dienhart earlier this week:

    “That is what I worry about the most with the game, the injuries and concussions. It’s an area where we certainly could learn (from the past). Part of what they did was they changed the rules dramatically. People say you can’t change the rules, the game is good as it is; you change the fundamental nature of the game (if you change the rules). And that’s exactly what they did then. They changed the fundamental nature of the game. You know what? Some would argue they got a better game out of it. I do think that’s an area we can learn from history.”