The eternal lure and brutal eloquence of football

“Football is a celebration of a not innocent and not rational and not liberal human condition. That is its attraction.” — Michael Novak, “The Joy of Sports”

* * * * * * * *

There is a young man who grew up in an upscale suburb of Atlanta, located not far from me, and where his professional-class parents held out for him the aspirations of an excellent education and bright career prospects that are common for their peers in the community.

He did excel in high school, academically and athletically, good enough at both to earn a football scholarship from an elite university with an outstanding, BCS-level sports program.

Most recently, he starred in a major bowl game victory in his last college game and has a reasonable shot at being selected in the NFL draft this spring. The current mock drafts I’ve seen don’t have him going in the first round, but being taken in the second or third rounds is a distinct possibility.

If football doesn’t work out for him, he’ll hold a degree from an institution of higher learning that confers more advantages to its graduates than most.

In every way, this young man is the embodiment of an American ideal that has vexed cultural critics of the game he loves like never before.

What isn’t written about him that much is the ferocity of his competitive beast. He also played lacrosse, which like soccer has become popular for suburban boys as an alternative to the innate violence of football. Both of these sports are rough and physical too, and concerns over concussions and other injuries, while not on the same scale as football, do exist.

He became aggressive enough in lacrosse for the state high school sports association to assign extra referee monitors at some of his games.

For his senior season, he was persuaded to stick to football, where his savage instincts were at least placed on a longer leash.

* * * * * * * *

When President Obama remarked recently that he’d be reluctant to let a son of his play football, I instantly thought of this young man. Obama, a noted Chicago Bears fan, has no son, of course, but two daughters. It’s easy to make such a comment when it’s unlikely to affect you.

We all know that the president does enjoy the occasional pick-up basketball game that has been known to get hyper-competitive. His former aide, Reggie Love, played basketball and football at Duke. His brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, is the men’s basketball coach at Oregon State. These were not casual encounters around the backyard basket.

There’s even a photo taken during the 2008 presidential race of Obama, campaigning in North Carolina, hooping it up with the Tar Heels during a practice. The aspiring commander-in-chief was taking it to the rack against then-UNC All-American Tyler Hansbrough, nicknamed “Psycho T” for very good reason, and the photo reflected this.

Hansbrough, in temperament and upbringing, is not all that different from my hometown guy. Thankfully for Hansbrough, his sport of choice, while being a physical, contact sport, doesn’t come with the rash of hand-wringing that is currently suffocating our national discussion about football.

Obama’s remarks, made during the run-up to Sunday’s Super Bowl, reflect a consternation that isn’t new, in the sense that football has been the subject of rules changes, reforms and organizational imperatives since its rise to prominence in the late 1800s. Another emphatic football fan and commander-in-chief, Teddy Roosevelt, called the leaders of college football to the White House in 1905 to address deadly violence in the sport.

The result was the creation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and while concerns over violent play weren’t eliminated, college football eventually rivaled baseball in popularity for many decades after that.

That it took the NCAA more than a century to create a sports science center to study the effects of injuries on college athletes is one of many points brought up by those alarmed by football violence and the toll it takes on the human body. In his interview with The New Republic, Obama expressed greater concern for the fate of college football players. But like many statements issued by perceptive politicians, his broader comments reflect the cultural anxiety of his times:

And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.

* * * * * * * *

The National Football League is drawing all the heat over football violence, and the possible concussion-related suicides of celebrated former players, most recently Junior Seau. The NFL, where unionized, well-compensated players, as Obama mentioned, is under considerable scrutiny — and media outrage — for not doing enough.

Or in the case of the New Orleans Saints and the bounty-hunting incident, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is accused of doing too much of the wrong thing for the sake of public relations. And getting savaged for it, in true Big Easy style.

At his Friday state-of-the-league address, Goodell says he’s committed to player safety, which didn’t satisfy many among the media horde as being honest or original. The NFL is facing years, if not decades, of litigation from former players, or their families.

One columnist in New Orleans made sure to paraphrase, in the second paragraph, a Baltimore Ravens player suggesting that enacting further preventative measures “would leave fans discontented, their hunger for carnage and thirst for blood going unsatisfied.”

The same columnist, in his own words, asked a question that has been posed many times before, and will again:

So, can we really watch Sunday with a clear head? Sure, just as long as we also watch with open eyes.

He’s suggesting that we’re not really doing much of the latter, I think. This is a common inference from our sports media establishment: We insist on being blind to this.

But are we really?

There are many valid concerns about the damage that football is doing to the best players in the game, and the lack of a forthright response from the NFL. Especially as the professional game is being played today, with bigger, stronger, faster and more athletic players than ever, and who are layered with more dangerous equipment than ever, the helmets and padding designed to protect them from violence.

As I wrote near the start of the season, existential explorations of the nature of the game have been prompted in part by these latest headlines. As Rich Cohen wrote — also in The New Republic, and I highlighted at the time:

Football is violent by design. It became a sensation because of television, yes, but also because it expressed certain truths about American life: the dangers of the mines and mills, dirt, struggle, blood, grime, the division of labor, the all-importance of the clock. But we’ve changed, which is why white middle- and upper-middle-class fans recoil at the cascade of injuries that can make ESPN resemble the surgery channel: not because football is different, nor because the injuries have gotten so much worse, but because we’ve become increasingly careful as our society has become increasingly safe; we’ve lost our tolerance for risk. Football is the perfect game for the country America used to be.

Former NFL agent and current New York University professor Robert Boland more recently picked up on the same theme:

This is the first time in 70 years, since the end of World War II, when the majority of the men who are consumers of the game of football, at the NFL, collegiate or high school levels, have never played in a competitive tackle game at any level. Changes in population, where new Americans come from and the availability of the game have changed it from a sport many have played to one merely watched by many.

Among President Obama’s Oval Office predecessors, Eisenhower, Ford, Reagan all played the game in college. There is even a photo of a frail, thin John F. Kennedy, whose youth was beset by physical ailments, in a JV uniform at Harvard. But our public life has fewer examples of that kind of commitment to the game as a source of vigor and learning and negative examples abound. This, so far, has not diminished fan avidity or the popularity of the NFL. But separating the former player, who has direct experience of the many great qualities of the game, from the fan who sees it merely as a mode of association is a threat.

* * * * * * * *

So where does this leave my hometown football hero, with his sights set on playing in the very same NFL that’s under siege from lawyers and whose demise is being projected by journalists — and not for the first time? He’s from a white, upper-middle class family, and has found football to be, in Boland’s words, “a source of vigor and learning.”

He grew up in the same community as I did. In it is a popular public park where most days youngsters are pedaling around on bicycles, helmets tightly fastened around their tiny heads. Some of the bikes have training wheels, and sometimes these kids are tooling around gently on tricycles. Because the flat bike path doubles as a walking/jogging trail, none of these kids are motoring very fast. But I’ve seen a parent occasionally labor to place protective headgear on a querulous child who just wants to ride, to be free at play without meddlesome intrusions, even if they’re for his, or her, own good.

Maybe this was the budding football star I’ve been referring to, some years ago.

So what do we tell this now grown-up young man to do? Should we tell him to loosen his football chin strap for good and put on a tailored suit and play it safe? Should he heed the warnings of Bob Costas, channeling fellow baseball geek George Will, that football may be impossible to reform?

What would that “reform” look like? And why are baseball pontificators most eager to spring forth with dystopian portrayals of football? Because their “pastime” — while still in a very healthy financial state and enjoying the majesty of a history that football does not share — doesn’t hold the same cultural cachet that the NFL does today?

I write this as someone who as a fan prefers baseball over football without hesitation.

You don’t have to subscribe to the old nostrums about football, or any sport, building character and camaraderie and teamwork and blah blah blah to realize that there’s a magnificent denial at work here.

In all the fulminating over violence, concussions, brain damage, suicides, lawsuits, bloodlust, carnage and bounty-hunting, what’s missing is an acknowledgement of an aspect of human nature that draws young men to the game, including my hometown standout, and always will.

It is, as the Michael Novak quote at the top of this post suggests, largely ungovernable and absolutely eternal. In his book “The Joy of Sports,” referenced here often, he gets to a point that has been completely ignored amid the tens of thousands of present-day words of commentary. The “ritualized, well-controlled” violence of football is deeply archaic, he argues, for player and spectator alike:

One of the game’s greatest satisfactions is that it violates the illusion of the enlightened, educated person that violence has been, or will be exorcised from human life.  .  .  .

While girls were being good, boys were beating the shit out of each other. Women lack direct access to part of their own natures. Their rage is no less real; many have been educated away from it.

Since Novak wrote that more than three decades ago, America has become a society in which current generations of young males are being strongly “educated away” from such expressions, while girls, through the changes brought about by Title IX, are being steered explicitly toward them.

We applaud these developments as necessary for females to have access to the full range of options in our society. Female athletes are now being fed a litany of character-building nonsense, taught that sports are a gateway not only to an education and good health, but also to exciting professions and the corridors of high power. If you believe too much of this, you might be inclined to think that girls who don’t play sports are just losers.

Meanwhile, the primitive urges of young men remain unreconciled and very strongly discouraged.

They are as unreconciled as they were nearly four decades ago, when in “Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl,” Hunter S. Thompson revealed what he had in common with Richard M. Nixon.

Coming out of the 1960s, when some former NFL players turned not only on the culture of football but also on the nature of the game, Thompson’s undoubtedly mescaline-laced confessional love of the game punctured the heart of everything the Lombardi-loathing, anti-authoritarian critics were saying.

Nixon met his political demise and the NFL roared into full splendor in the early 1970s, but without seriously addressing the unspoken essence of the attraction of the game.

Thompson blew his brains out in early 2005, three months after George W. Bush was re-elected and three weeks after the New England Patriots won another Super Bowl. At the top of his suicide note, Thompson scrawled “Football Season is Over.”

Gonzo-obsessives still argue about what he might have meant in the final piece of writing of his life.

And we still can’t turn away from the game while we profess to be horrified by what it has wrought.

* * * * * * * *

As I prepared to write this I had a browser tab on my iPad opened to The New York Times obituary for John Mackey, the Hall of Fame tight end for the Baltimore Colts who later helped usher in free agency as the head of the NFL Players Association.

Mackey was 69 when he died in July 2011, and the story mentions high up that his wife thinks his dementia was caused by concussions from playing football.

He was a physical marvel of his time, a big and powerful, but rangy and speedy tight end who could catch a deep pass and do something with it. As Richard Goldstein writes:

His most memorable play came in the 1971 Super Bowl, when a pass by Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas went off the fingertips of a Baltimore receiver and a Dallas Cowboy defender into his hands. Mackey ran to the end zone, completing a 75-yard play. The Colts defeated the Cowboys, 16-13, on a field goal in the final seconds.

At the top of the story is a big photo from another game, of Mackey grasping a pass, with two Buffalo Bills defenders several steps behind. In the distance is the fuzzy figure of Unitas, already having gone through his throwing motion, watching downfield.

This was a thing of beauty, a classic split-second of splendor that I think is the real draw of football to its fans and players more than the violence. At least I know this is what really makes me watch, even the Super Bowl, which has become a cloyingly corporate hot mess of pop culture, military homage and inane chatter about television advertisements and how much they cost.

Just give me the game, any game, well-played, aesthetically rewarding and dramatic. Not all games can be this way, of course, so we keep watching. We can’t get enough, and it really isn’t just about the violence.

It is hard to reconcile the many football pleasures created by Mackey with the lifetime of pain and illness that he suffered afterward, and that many NFL veterans have endured. Some have found their lives so unbearable that they ended them.

But in our zeal to make football a kinder, gentler sport — including quite a bit of attention paid to the subject of homophobia in the game — we refuse to acknowledge another reality Novak understood long ago, and that remains unreformable. It’s one that my local football star probably understands without having to read something like this, and what will continue to magnetize so many young males like him:

So long as rationalists dominate the public symbols of society, football will have the added delicious taste of necessary counterbalance: the taste of forbidden fruit.

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2 Comments

  1. Bern
    Posted February 3, 2013 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I always appreciate your writing. As you note many commenting on football today have never suited up. If you recall Obama never played football at all and consequently has no personal frame of reference, nor do you. In spite of PR efforts the facts relating to his basketball prowess are that he was a benchwarmer. His high school coach and teammates remember him primarily for trying to talk his coaches into more playing time. As opposed to, you know, getting better and deserving to play.

    In any case, any expectation that folks that haven’t played football will appreciate the game is a bit naive.

    Mackey was the foundation upon which the tight end position was originally built. Good for him. He died at age 69 having lived a good life by most objective measures.

    Football as a game has no burden to promote or support homosexuality as much as many would like to make that case. Football players line up and play. The fact that many not get that fact is on them, not the guys that strap on the pads.

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