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Loathing Football

October 20, 2013

Its football’s “high season” – at every level of play training camp is a dim memory and the season’s end seems beyond sight – but for those who have never experienced that space time continuum it has become fashionable to hate football.

If you have never played the sport, it’s easy to see why. No, it’s not the reasons chanted by of my fellow NPR-listening, single-malt scotch sipping friends: it’s a coarse blood sport punctuated by tragic injury that victimizes those who can’t know how truly heinous it is (poor ignorant saps).

I believe many loathe football because it is presented with the same depth and sensitivity as families are represented by the Kardashians. Bright colors, screaming and/or whining petulance, bling, bombast are common to both nationally broadcast Kim and big time football.

In truth almost all those who loath football share a common characteristic with the vast majority of those who love football – neither group has played. Those repulsed by the dehumanizing garish deafening violence are just the flipside of those who love a real-life video-game of garish deafening violence.

George Will glibly declares “Football combines two of the worst things in American life. It is violence punctuated by committee meetings.”  Frank DeFord regularly rages against football to the choir at NPR. Barack Obama notes he might not let his son play the game. PBS’s Frontline now chimes in with “League of Denial” focusing  on grown men debilitated by traumatic head injuries, and how the NFL has exploited them.

The loathing has had a trigger: NFL players suffering from dementia, several to the point of suicide. Just as heinous mass murders focus those who want to control guns, these tragic deaths have become catalysts of a pre-existing distaste for what they see as a truly base and crude endeavor.

But there are many base and crude endeavors whose consequences are far graver than those caused by football. 2,500 people die in motorcycle accidents every year, and many, many more are injured – less than 20 annual deaths occur in football. Will, DeFord and our president have yet to utter disgust over the 2-wheeled carnage on the road.

Why?

No one wants anyone to be hurt. Everyone wants everyone to be as safe as possible. When I found myself playing football in high school we popped salt pills, were taught to tackle by dropping the crown of our helmets and ripping up under the facemasks of our opponents and were never offered a sip of water in practice.

Every one of those idiotic means and methods mirrored my driving without a seat belt, my parents smoking and my never wearing a helmet when I pedaled a bike until I was 38. Humans reduce risk over time.

We still ride bikes, drive cars, and smoking is still allowed for those who want to risk shorter life spans for bad breath and standing outside in bad weather. But there are those who truly loath football, and want it ended, and those who do not, fans, are not great advocates of why football is, in fact, worth the risk it creates for those who perpetrate it’s obvious dangerous activity.

Unfortunately the vast majority of those who like football see it as the reality TV show/video game of its mass promotion. Deeper fans think of pro football as a random showcase for stars who have stats – more like baseball – and those stats create a reality that has nothing to do with how the game is played, but allows anyone to think they are playing on some level: Fantasy Football.

90% of those who are fans of football only see the  pro or high-level college versions seen on TV. That game bears little resemblance to what I played and coached and what my son now plays – a slower game where coaching and player devotion mean far more, as the  elite athletes are few and far between. I know the high school and low level college game where 95% play, I do not know, nor am a big fan of, TV shows that feature a football event.

I also think golf is a walking migraine, and baseball is a 4 hour Phys Ed test and runners are masochists  – all those absurd prejudices are because I have zero experience in their realities – so I do not judge their consequences or implications.

The best answer to the loathing of football is to be found in its best affinity group: its alumni. But it’s a small group because it hurts to play. A lot. So very few of us actually engage in it, and an entire gender has opted out.

Football is not a video game, it’s not reality TV, it’s a special reality set where the violence has immediate consequences – deep bruising, minor and major injuries, and yes concussions. Those are the warning labels for football’s unavoidable price, not glossy PBS exposes.

You do not join the military thinking you will be given a controller and a big screen TV. You do not go through one practice and think football is a consequence-free decision.

Why subject yourself to this risk? Unlike any other sport I can think of, that pain is the binder of 11 men in a concerted choreographed action that prizes sacrifice – let me repeat that – sacrifice – over all the other virtues of glory.

Sacrifice is an available gift for every level of skill. A small, slow, uncoordinated high school football player can be essential to a team’s success. Other sports are less tolerant of physical limitations because in football bodies launched against other bodies has devotion as its prime defining skill set.

However, unglamorous sacrifice is not very exciting for the primetime TV show that serves as the platform for most people’s appreciation of football.

Scoring, crushing tackles, interceptions, miraculous kick returns are the equivalent of the screaming Kardashian melt-down viewers tune in to see. But the Kardashians are mugging for dollars, a full on faux opera of demeaning pander and stagecraft.

Unlike the cash cow of bogus emotions present on every reality TV show, every great catch, every huge hit, every triumphant tackle that every football player realizes at every level was bought with a price.

No, the price is not the physical debilitation of its players: every one of the them knew after that first practice that win or lose injury was just part of the act of playing. The currency of the Great Play (and every play) is sacrifice. Every completed pass or run meant 5 or 6 or 9 others got in the way of 5 or 6 or 8 others desperately trying to end the play before it started.

Those 10-18 players all sacrificed to let 1 or 2 be the screaming Kardashian.

As organized religion fades from our social marketplace of commitment, other emotional outlets fill it’s absence – for some it’s the shrillest of political extremes, for others it’s the desire to stop a great evil: corn syrup, vaccinations, fossil fuels – but the human desire to be righteous is part of our hardwiring.

Big Gulps may end up being purchased piecemeal, electric cars are lauded by all and bought by less than one percent of car buyers, texting in cars is rampant despite high dungeons of outrage, our government is shut down for a purpose that is unobtainable – and football is cited as heinous.

Whether coarse blood sport or devotional act of sacrifice, playing football is, for some, at the center of how they express themselves and evolve as a human beings. Until bacon and motorcyling (or even guns and tobacco) are outlawed , it’s hard to see how its loathing by the “correct” consigns football to the dust bin of rejected cultural demons.

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