By and large, I was raised a jock. So were all boys in my day who could make the cuts to be on youth sports teams. Those whose names didn’t appear on the lists posted outside the coaches’ office became adoring fans of those who did.
Who could even imagine this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be? Clearly, organized sports were a training ground for military service and the unchallenged notion that one would gladly thrust one’s life onto a battlefield to sacrifice for mom and apple pie.
I played the game well enough, even winding up with an athletic scholarship to college. I can’t help but continue to be a fan of competitive sports, having played so much of them myself.
But every once in a while, I’ll sit down and turn on the TV and I find myself startled by the sheer brutish violence of football.
Baseball is more a “national pastime” than a sport, a true American art form in its slow-developing drama and often ballet-like plays. It is the most democratic sport, as naturally-born physical attributes need not limit success. Baseball was the sport I qualified for my scholarship with. Also playing basketball, my mom discouraged me from going out for football, and insofar as it ate into my beach time, I concurred.
Basketball is arguably the most perfect sport, combining grace, athleticism and teamwork in a direct competition.
No doubt, violence and injury happen in any competitive sport where the players are not separated by a net and have no direct physical contact.
But football is qualitatively different. No one need apply who is not, first and foremost, willing to subordinate all skills to smashing into other human bodies with as much force and abandon as possible. The only exceptions are place kicker dandies.
Yet America can’t get enough of it. Surfing hundreds of TV channels now available on Saturday afternoons, scene after scene display giant football stadiums crammed with fans, a national landscape of college gridiron obsession. On the fields, young heroes give their all to play a silly and dangerous game, enjoying adulation but nothing more, not a dime, while coaches, universities, television networks and their advertisers pocket millions off their efforts.
The same thing happens on Sundays, where a tiny fraction of those who used to play on Saturdays, qualified to earn money doing it, bash each other around.
Now pro football is in trouble with recent off-field incidents of violence, murder and suicide of active players accenting the growing realization of the devastating impact of the sport on the health, including mental health, of players.
The issue drew some uncustomarily sage remarks from George Will on ABC’s “This Week” last Sunday. He noted, “In 1980, there were three NFL players who weighed more than 300 pounds. In 2011, there were 352 over 300 pounds.”
He added, “Football is played basically within 10 yards of each side of the line of scrimmage. In that 20 yards, these big men are quick as cats. The kinetic energy is such that you – the body is simply not made for it…These men are paying a terrible price.”
Commentator Matthew Dowd added, “This is a huge problem,” adding that the NFL commissioner has not done enough.
“Basically, all he’s done is window dressing,” Dowd said, adding, “On the flight down here, I sat right next to Earl Campbell, the Tyler Rose, who was a dominant force. He had come to the plane on a wheelchair. … He could barely get up to even walk to the bathroom. His knees were shot. His hands were shot.”
Dowd went on, “I don’t think the NFL has done their players right and done the country right by dealing with this. They have not dealt with the brain injuries that have happened…They know there’s a fundamental problem here that they have not dealt with.”
Maybe no sport should be sanctioned that can’t be played competitively by both sexes. The only sport that would eliminate would be football.
Folks handle lock-outs in other sports by finding alternative ways to be entertained. So they could do if football just went away.