February 2, 2016
I give up. I was ready to give up on American football before Concussion, the recent Will Smith movie that focuses on the NFL hiding the issue of the staggering number of serious head injuries among players. I was ready to give up before the endless stories of boys in high school who have died while playing football. I was ready to give up before the continuous stream of stories about college and professional football players beating the women in their lives. I was even ready to give up before Justin Timberlake ripped Janet Jackson’s bra off at Superbowl 38 and the controversy was more about almost seeing her nipple than it was about the implied sexual aggression against women. You can have it, but I’m giving up.
I was ready in 1978, the day I sat on the bus after a B-team football game with the rest of the members of my team at Redan High School. We had lost the game and I took it in stride. But I questioned another player who was in tears. He said, “If you don’t care about this team to cry when we lose then you don’t belong on the team.” And then he beat me up. I quit the next day and joined the punk rocker team.
It might surprise some folks that I was a huge football fan as a kid. I was obsessed with the Miami Dolphins in the early 1970’s and can still name the starting offensive team (including kicker Garo Yepremiam). In 4th grade I wrote a letter to coach Don Shula asking him why the Dolphins never played my hometown Atlanta Falcons. After that the O.J. Simpson poster was on the wall right next to Farrah. There was nothing more blissful than a Sunday watching the NFL highlight reel and all the great tackles shown in slow motion.
In my podunk Georgia county (Dekalb in the 1970s), there were no middle schools. So 8th grade was the first year of high school. You want to feel small? And I skipped 5th grade so I was essentially a 7th grade kid in high school. The only way for a 12-year-old boy (or any boy) to stake his claim for Southern masculinity was to join the football team. No cuts. You show up to practice in the sweltering Georgia sun and you are on the team. You might be tenth string but you get to wear the jacket and be in the team picture and sit in the front at pep rallies. Oh, and you get cheerleaders cheering for you. And the only people that get to beat you up are your teammates.
So I rode the bench as an outside linebacker (#53) for three years. I was skinny but fast so when I did get to play I channeled those NFL films and did recover a fumble in one big game against Cross Keys High School. At most of the games me and the other sideline jockeys would smack our helmets against the bleachers to make it look like we got in some good hits. When I left in 10th grade I was happy to let the jocks have their game and get out without a serious injury. (The first year I broke my tailbone. The second year I broke my thumb. The third year I ripped a muscle in my back and got to sit in the hottub during afternoon practices.)
But it’s hard not to be a casual football fan with all the billions spent on hyping college and pro football. Even last year I wondered if feminism and Super Bowls could exist side-by-side. Football is the only major sport where there is not some reasonable equivalent for females. (And don’t you dare say, “Lingerie Bowl.”) At least Major League Baseball has women’s softball to narrow the gap. If my daughter wants to become a part of the NFL, her best option is to become the wife of a player and risk abuse that comes from a guy who is being exploited and has been hit in the head too many times. Or she can be a cheerleader, cheering on the guys and getting paid minimum wage. But who cheers for the cheerleader? Even management in the NFL is an old boys club. What’s a female football lover to do?
The abuse of women by players (and fans) is an old sad story. The new wrinkle to that story is the growing understanding of the cumulative effect of countless head blows that players get as part of their job description. And this starts when they are unpaid players in school. Yet people are still making millions off these young men killing themselves for our entertainment. A few will make it to retirement with a nest egg but more are just chewed up by the machine. There is even a Wikipedia page for NFL players who died while still playing and you have to stop wondering when you see all the suicides. But go team!
There is, of course, a racial and class element to this as poor boys from inner cities and rural communities are told their one way to the American Dream is through professional sports, especially the hyper-masculine world of football. They can have everything they see dangled in front of them on ESPN, including super-model wives. All they have to do is sell their soul (or brains, ACLs, and spines) to the game and hope they are one of the few that has a post-career life worth living.
This issue is finally getting some attention. The NFL reports that this season there were 317 reported concussions of NFL players. (Who knows how many are unreported?) And that number may be down because of better helmets for teams that can afford the latest, most expensive protective gear. I doubt the inner city high school team is in line for the new top-of-the-line Xenith helmets any time soon. And there is a new effort to decouple the violence on the grid iron from the violence in the home front that is encouraging. You just wonder if the neurology of football can counter a few well-meaning PSAs. But I have to say I have a big ol’ man-crush on former LA Ram Terry Crews and his efforts to bring these issues to the audience that needs to hear it the most. There are feminist football players, y’all.
In a society that claims to preach, “Violence is not the answer,” why do we still obsess over the macho violence of football? In football, violence IS the answer, and the harder the better. I’m not immune to this. As a kid in Georgia I would go to stock car races and PRAY to see a big crash. The game itself can be fascinating and artful and (in those slow-motion NFL films) can look more like ballet, than war. But there is a growing body count that is part of the cost. And that includes battered women who are beaten by brain-damaged players and former players.
I’m just not sure it’s worth all the hype. Sure it’s fun to meet friends to watch a big college bowl together. Maybe you even went to that school 100 years ago. And I know some people want to watch the Super Bowl “for the commercials,” but your are going to see every single one of those commercials a thousand times over the next three months (including whatever sexist crap GoDaddy and Carl’s Jr will throw at us). There certainly is a thrill to watching a live sporting event as it happens, and not TIVO’d (or like with the last Olympics, on a 3-day tape delay). To share in a global experience can be unifying and exhilarating. (Just witness my freak out for the World Cup every four years.) It crosses political, racial, class and even gender lines. I bet even Bernie Sanders has a pick for the big game. (I can hear him say, “I’m quite impressed the the Carolina Panthers ability to reduce the inequity between the salaries for its support staff and its management.”)
I won’t hold it against you if you are all in for the sport and Sunday’s Super Bowl. I’m out. I’ve devoted enough time watching reruns of players getting folded, spindled and mutilated and just thinking, “That’s awesome!” This year, out of respect for the dozen boys who died playing high school football in 2015, like 17-year-olds Luke Schemm and Andre Smith, I’m going to spend Sunday hanging out with my daughter. Maybe we’ll go to the duckpond or go shopping. And I’m trying to teach her to play catch so she can play softball someday.
Edit: I’m supposed to watch this Frontline story: League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.