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Extremity, Too.

September 13, 2014

Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio

James Wright

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home,
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,

And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.

A few months ago, I wrote a piece on my late childhood, when extreme circumstances of a toxic family begat extreme reactions of everyone involved

Recent football news obsessions in national non-sports  media center around the extreme behavior of NFL players – punching a girlfriend, giving a switch to a child, any amount of Molly/booze/weed imbibing. The flurry of chiding piling on of outrage over obviously egregious acts – crossing the line into evil – seems to treat football as a trigger where the game is a binding catalyst for the Dark Side.

Just as in Wright’s poem above, for me, the extremity of the complete commitment of football was a perfect complement to the surreally dark extremities of my family. This is only seems reasonable if you have experienced the sport. As I noted in yet another post there is no way to understand why the devotional benefits of complete emotional investment are worth the extreme pain inevitably part of playing at every level. Suffice to say that a few players have glory associated with the pain, but 90% on those on the field revel only in the sense they are, together, greater than any less extreme combination of bodies and souls experienced in the rest of our days.

The willingness to go through the unending drudgery of training, the grinding repetition of practices, the pain experienced by most everybody on every live play, practice or game only makes sense in the crucible of devotion that results. Pain and effort weave these young men together as a knot of faith in a greater reality – transcending the sad limits of isolated lives and bodies.

So into this inherently extreme pressure cooking incubator of young male character come every human condition: arrogance, fear, love, sacrifice and, yes, the capacity for evil. The cancer of coaching abuse at Penn State by a devoutly evil man was not due to the extremity of football – it was due to the deeply evil realities within the perpetrator that used the trust football facilitates to engage heinous betrayal of that trust.

Young men who have traded their entire lives on using their bodies to gain dominance over the limitations we all live in – social, financial, emotional – now find themselves painted with the broadest brush of superficial judgment: football creates violent predators.

Easy answers tend to melt away when facts can be made part of the what we see around us: In my home town of Madison Connecticut, about 70 boys out of about 200 8th graders, become 50 playing freshman high school football become 20 graduating seniors become 5 college players. Out of about 10,000 college seniors who play football, perhaps 200 of them end up playing in the pros in each year – tinier and tinier selections of genetic gifts with mental focus finding the spotlight of the NFL and the status as “Role Model”.

Into this rarified air come another tiny minority – the thuggish cluster of jackasses, some of whom are no doubt juiced up with the chemicals they view as necessary to play at this level, and this tiniest of minorities becomes the launching pad to dismiss all the gifts the devotion of the 99.95% who experience football have grown up with, and saved me.

The sad truth is the extreme media focus the NFL begs for, uses and abuses cuts back on the league when the humanity of the players and coaches gets the lazar focus the league otherwise so heavily lusts for. The pomposity and hype of all professional athletics deserve all the reality checks they unwittingly create for themselves, but the absurd connection of any specific activity to the human capacity for evil is just too dumb to be accepted.

All humans have the capacity to wreck the lives of those around them. Those who live a life centered on necessary extremity: surgeons, litigators, police and others have more stress than most and thus less bandwidth to cope with the capacity for darkness that we all have within us. The greatest stress humans experience is in war: combat reveals that any athletic endeavor is a pale pantomime of high risk behavior. In that reality we begin to see domestic violence, suicide and social dissociation in our real-world warriors that costs lives in tragic consequence that corresponds to the overwhelming extremity of war’s insanity.

In simulating warriors, football players engage in a self-serving delusion that is an absurd reductionist connection to those who lay out their lives in risk for a greater good. In presuming that any sport, football or otherwise, feeds evil outcomes, the human condition is similarly dumbed down for easier understanding. It is easier to think less and judge more – and it throws reality under the bus of lazy assumption.

Extremity in focus and devotion results from circumstances present in every human life: my circumstances were extreme, but not unique:  finding an extreme devotion as a flywheel to a distorted home life’s fears and stress had extreme consequences: risk, pain, huge time spent in a short-term reality – but it helped me survive. Extremity is not evil: humans have that option independent of their devotional dedications.Bullies are cowards masquerading as warriors: but anyone’s capacity for evil acts are there without football. but pigeon-holing Ray Rice’s depravity to a dumb jock’s inherent thuggery gets all the rest of us, who are capable of equally brutal acts, off the hook.

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