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.
The 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.
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.
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.