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.

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