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August 16, 2012

The "War on Football"

Since no self respecting pundit seems to be able to resist hyperventilating hyperbole these days, the Editorial Staff have reluctantly decided that if we can't beat the transporting silliness, we might as well join it. There are, it seems, "wars" springing up all around us - wars on women, senior citizens, the middle class, drugs, and our fave: the deliciously silly war on porn (evidenced by DoD's completely unreasonable expectation that soldiers use their government-issued computers to do the work they are being paid for and refrain - as heartless as that may seem to the enlightened among us - from downloading porn during the work day).

Oh, the humanity!

The whole "war on" meme reeks of spoiled entitlement and victim mentality. How dare you disapprove of/criticize/not wish to subsidize, or - heaven forfend! - not appreciate the transcendent shiny-ness of [fill in sacred cow]! The latest in a long parade of professional victims (albeit not of their own free will) are the stalwart, manly men of the NFL:

One of the most quoted routines of the late George Carlin was his explication of the differences between football and baseball. “Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting, and unnecessary roughness. Baseball has the sacrifice.” I always think about that routine when each sport is beginning to stretch its legs to prepare for the start of a new season. Baseball’s spring training is all about the smell of freshly cut grass, about renewal, about being eternally young, about hope. Football’s training camp is about fighting for your right to exist, about weeding out the weak, about grueling two-a-days, about a boot camp where you’re expected to run until you puke and then get back up and run some more. It is about destroying yourself in order to live.

So much of the enjoyment of football is tied up in this notion of self-immolation: The sport doesn’t really work without it. The players, outside of the glamour positions on offense, are essentially anonymous and interchangeable. Player careers are so short—and NFL franchise rules make it so easy for them to be cut with no penalty—that most franchises don’t even have a signature star longer than a year or two. Fantasy football is so simple and easy to play that you can consider yourself a huge NFL fan but only know the names of about 8 percent of the players. Everyone covers their faces with masks, for crying out loud. The actual men who play the games are almost tangential to the experience: It is all about Team and Any Given Sunday and the National Football League. The NFL is about order, the organization over the individual. It is faux-military at its very essence.

We enjoy the NFL because we can forget what goes on behind the scenes, the brutal things these players do and put themselves through, the notion that they need to make themselves fatter and less healthy in order to better land on the quarterback with a crunch and put bounties on other teams’ stars. We enjoy the NFL because it looks so good on tele­vision that you can follow it linearly—just follow the ball—without having much idea of what’s actually going on. The NFL makes you believe you are an expert even though 99.999 percent of the millions who watch every Sunday couldn’t say the name of a single play.

The NFL wants you to think about what goes on behind the curtain as little as possible. I don’t blame them. There’s a lot to hide back there. I’m just not sure I can do it anymore.

Last May, Jets linebacker Bart Scott said something curious. “I don’t want my son to play football,” Scott said. “I play football so he won’t have to. With what is going on, I don’t know if it’s really worth it … I don’t want to have to deal with him getting a concussion and what it would be like later in life.” It is worth noting that Bart Scott is not some pearl-clutching punter sitting idly by as those big scary football players do brutal things to each other. He is one of the more powerful, violent linebackers in the NFL, famous for uttering WWE-esque screams during an ESPN inter­view after the Jets’ upset playoff win over the New England Patriots. (He would later appear in an actual WWE event.) He is no sensitive violet. And he’s talking about his job like an old coal miner with black lung who just doesn’t want his children to have the same horrible life he had.

It's hard to know what to make of this. Do we really need to turn every freely made choice into some twisted form of oppression, complete with victims who (apparently) have no other options than to play professional football?

The Spousal Unit played football while he was in school and from everything we could see, was quite good at it. But it's hard to imagine him having ever entertained the idea of playing professionally.

Football isn't about self-immolation. It's probably as close to simulated combat as a team sport can get. It's about pushing yourself physically and (yes) beating the other team. Years ago, we asked the Unit what it was that he liked so much about football. He thought a minute, then said, "Well, I enjoyed winning. I enjoyed hitting other players - the way it felt."

This, from a guy who wasn't the type to get into fights unless there wasn't a real alternative. But there's something in men that enjoys competing with other men - enjoys the sort of socially sanctioned and carefully channeled aggression that sports make possible. The Editorial Staff, being unrepentantly and unapologetically female, will probably never understand that feeling but that doesn't mean it has no place in our society.

As long as no one is being forced to play football, what is the moral argument for banning it? That freely consenting players, knowing the risks, might get hurt (and that third parties may find that risk "not worth" the benefits or the pay)?

We can't help feeling that what the growing chorus of anti-footballers really want to eradicate is thumos - the natural tendency of men to be aggressive, to take risks, to fight, even:

We are currently engaged in a titantic struggle with radical Islamism, which is, if has, if you stop and think about it, all the characteristics of unbridled thumos - they certainly have no problem standing up for their kin, their religion, their country, their principles. The problem with Islamism is that it is untempered by the feminine influence. There is no partnership: they have totally subjugated women, shut them away, as the Left would say, silenced their Voices, marginalized them and treated them as the Other.

America, on the other hand, seems to be going too far in the other direction. We are marginalizing the masculine and becoming femininized in an attempt to right past imbalances, and that is just as great a mistake as what radical Islam is doing. In fact, it may be an even greater error, for it leaves us defenseless.

In the 6 years (good Lord!) since we wrote that post, we've changed our opinion about what is causing young men to drift, to be less than they could be. Certainly it is partly that society is training masculinity out of young men, and we still believe that's harmful and wrong. But at the same time, we're not setting limits or boundaries. We're not expecting enough of young men (or young women, for that matter).

We can't escape the feeling that men, by their very nature, need something to push against. They need obstacles to overcome in order to realize their potential. And most of all, they need risk to feel fully alive. What happens to the character of a nation whose overarching goal is to remove the very things from daily life that men need to be happy?

And what happens to a nation that sees victims hiding around every voluntary decision, and tries to protect others from making "the wrong choices"? Traditional morality does this, by the way, so it's a more interesting question than it might seem on the surface.

Discuss amongst your ownselves, knuckle draggers.

Posted by Cassandra at August 16, 2012 08:10 AM

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I will say I think football has gotten more dangerous over the years. Players are a lot bigger than they used to be (and they aren't like Refrigerator Perry anymore, they are big and lean powerful men, not just big, powerful men). Being bigger, they probably hit with more force than players of bygone years. Have we reached a point where the protective gear the players wear is no longer enough to compensate for the force of the hits they take and still be able to actualy play the game?

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at August 16, 2012 10:58 AM

I suspect that the protective gear is part of the problem, actually.

This all gets back to the distorting effects of risk mitigation on human behavior. The more we artificially try to mitigate risk, the less careful we are to take natural precautions.

I think there's an argument to be made for changes to the rules, but humans are lousy at assessing risk. What is the actual incidence of the problems this author cites? I don't see how any intelligent author can write an entire article about football injuries without citing a single statistic that would allow us to tell how common such injuries actually are.

Instead of facts, we get heart wrenching anecdotes about a Dad playing football so his sons don't have to (ummm.... OK). We don't have enough information to come to any sensible conclusions.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 16, 2012 11:14 AM

I wonder if he knows he is paraphrasing John Adams?

"I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine."

Of course, we now know that those children at the end of that line end up with massive student loan debt they can't pay back...

Posted by: Grim at August 16, 2012 11:32 PM

The other day at football practice, my 15 year old son made a tackle with a little more enthusiasm than he should have. In doing so, he got his fourth concussion in two years. Two were pretty mild, one was really bad (he lost memory of what happened that day) and the one on Monday made him lose feelings in his extremeties for a few minutes.

He's done with football now. Forever. He will never play again. He is heartbroken over it, because he loved to play. When we went to the doctor on Tuesday (after a long night at the hospital getting x-rays and an MRI), the verdict was pretty final.

I liked football, but it is hard for me to watch it anymore. I got an intense dose of two high school games a week last year (freshman and varsity) plus watching college and pros. And watching it close up, knowing the kids that are playing, makes it hard not to worry about them getting hurt (and they do get hurt).

The pros are lucky freaks, to have avoided getting a career killing injury, although many of them have at times been badly injured, but have recovered.

My son who loved football, is now going to go cold turkey on it. He can't bear to be around the team and his best friends, still playing. He just won't be going to the games. I'll miss watching him play (he's been playing since the 4th grade), but I don't miss all the other nonsense (like boosters, parents and all that crap).

But I really have lost my taste for football. It is a violent sport and really hurts a lot of kids. They should be free to play, and choose on their own, but I really don't care for it much anymore. When you see enough of the violent and injury plagued underside, and stood in an emergency room with your son on a stretcher board and a neck brace and wonder if he is going to be crippled, you realize that this game is pretty small potatos in the world.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at August 17, 2012 12:01 AM

I suspect that the protective gear is part of the problem, actually.

There's a lot of truth to that. Before the ballistic helmets came to football, actual incidences of head injuries were much lower, even though the men playing only wore leather helmets. The reason? There was no head to head contact. Why not? There were no rules against such, after all. The answer is, it hurt too damned much. You try slamming your skull into that of another person with only a padding of leather between. You will not repeat that error.

But with the advent of the ballistic helmets, the head became a weapon. You could painlessly turn it into a battering ram with which you could pummel your opponent. I'm not really advocating getting rid of helmets, I don't know that you COULD in today's litigious society. But I am saying, that unintended consequences are an assured part of the equation.

Posted by: MikeD at August 17, 2012 08:38 AM

Don, oddly enough though my husband played football all the way through school, he discouraged (but didn't forbid) both our sons from playing.

He didn't like the way youth football is coached - he said he'd seen them doing too many things that weren't appropriate for play at that age.

I was in gymnastics all the way through high school. This was about the time the emphasis switched from performing difficult movements to flying through the air doing triple flips. My main event was the balance beam, and during my senior year a girl on our team pretty much pulverized her lower leg bones after a bad landing.

The conversation with the Unit was over the value of sports and how much our sons should be encouraged to participate in them. I enjoyed sports to a point, but they were never a big part of my life.

My husband told me that when he was playing, boys were not allowed to play football until puberty. Now they start so young. There's a lack of common sense about youth sports that seemed to be gathering speed about the time our boys were in HS. My youngest played soccer from age 5 on, and loved the sport with a passion. He was quite good at it - he made all the Select teams even though we didn't send him to expensive camps every summer like the other boys who played at that level.

One year we did send him, and he hated it. Said it took all the joy out of the sport. Of course this was about the time we overheard a coach from an opposing team telling his players to deliberately try to injure our players. That mentality is just criminal, but it does exist and it turned me off. I'm sure we saw more of it during the years The Unit was coaching.

It all seems so strange to me. I grew up playing neighborhood tackle football with the boys and have wonderful memories about the game. No gear, but (as Mike notes) no injuries either. I watched my youngest go from loving soccer to not wanting to play because of coaches who got their big egos confused with the reason for the sport - the kids.

I'm ambivalent about team sports, which is why we had the conversation we had back then. But I also see so many men who have fond memories of playing team sports.

I'm sorry your son has to give up something he loves, but at the same time football really isn't a sport you can play all your life. The Unit loved team sports, but chose to give them up as a 1st Lt. He decided that he had a wife and children to support, and after watching several other guys get injured, he didn't think it was worth risking an injury that would make him non-deployable.

Ironically, a year or so later he suffered nerve and muscle damage to his shoulder as a result of mandatory flu shots and ended up almost being med boarded out :p It took several years of concerted effort to rebuild the other muscles in his back and shoulders to compensate. There was a bright side in all of this - he is committed to staying in shape and hasn't let himself go now that he's a civilian.

The toughest part of being a kid is that today seems like everything and the future is so hard to imagine.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 17, 2012 09:35 AM

I wonder if he knows he is paraphrasing John Adams?

Or a parable repeated by Thomas Paine in his American Crisis No 1, though he's nearly quoting Adams: A Tory, standing at his door with his child at hand held forth on the state of things, and he finished with this statement, "Well! Give me peace in my day." Yet a proper parent, a generous father, would have said, "If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace."

It seems the concept was, once, widespread.

I was in gymnastics all the way through high school. and ...boys were not allowed to play football until puberty. Now they start so young.

That's the problem I have with women's professional gymnastics (vis., Olympics). The girls start competing at very young ages, when their bones still are green, and they suffer (or strongly risk suffering) damage to their still-green bones, and bone caps, and to their joints. Just watch Mary Lou Retton walk around today. She's not as bad as Joe Namath, but bad enough.

Curious that I haven't seen similar problems with men's professional gymnastics. Maybe their problems just aren't as widely reported.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at August 17, 2012 10:12 AM

I guess this makes me a big wimp, but I can remember thinking, "I like gymnastics, but it's not the focus of my life and I'm not willing to risk breaking my neck for what amounts to an extracurricular activity".

So I chose things that were hard to do because they required strength or balance rather than trying to do triple flips through the air. I may have been more aware of the consequences of breaking bones because my younger brother was hit by a car and ended up in a body cast with a broken leg.

The doctors were worried that he'd end up with two legs that were different lengths because of the break.

re: the John Adams thing. That quote makes sense (to an extent - every generation has to do what needs to be done to ensure peace: I'm not sure that's something that can be paid up in advance). But pro football? How does playing pro football make it so your kids don't have to *choose* (that being the operative word, here) the same career path?

That strikes me as something people tell themselves because it's comforting, as opposed to being true.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 17, 2012 10:21 AM

Of course, we now know that those children at the end of that line end up with massive student loan debt they can't pay back...

I realize this was a joke, but let's not forget that the average amount of student loan debt (which is financed over a far longer period) is the same as the typical car loan.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 17, 2012 10:29 AM

Well, the point of the joke wasn't really that the loans are so vast -- it was that you can't pay them back with a degree in fine arts. The lesson of the market is that, however much Adams may aspire for his grandchildren to do these things, their fellows will not value those things enough to support many people doing them.

Architecture is the one standout from that list: that's proven to be marketable. The front and middle lists strike me as the best career advice, though: "Politicks and War... Mathematicks and Philosophy... [then] Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture."

"Philosophy," at the time Adams was writing, still included most of what we consider the natural sciences. These are not considered separate fields, but generally good ones to get involved in.

I took the footballer to be saying not that he didn't want his kids to play pro ball, but that he didn't want them to play football at all. If they go to school, then, they'd be going to school to learn -- his earnings would mean that they wouldn't have to maintain a football scholarship on the side. They could focus on their education, without sustaining the head injuries that would make such an education less useful.

Posted by: Grim at August 17, 2012 11:07 AM

Sorry, "These are now considered separate fields..."

Philosophy as we think of it today, though a very high art, is the sort of thing that has joined the third list. It's wonderful to aspire to it, but you'll probably need a trade from the first two lists to get by. Mine has been "War," but pretty much any of those will do.

"Law" is notably absent; I wonder if he'd include that in "Politicks" or "Philosophy"?

Posted by: Grim at August 17, 2012 11:11 AM

D'oh! Thanks for the explanation - my brain is pretty fried of late and I just missed the point :)

I can see that a father might see his career choice that way, but I guess I'm not convinced that football is the only career choice that would make it possible to send your kids to college.

re: head injuries. When our boys were playing soccer, heading the ball was a big thing to the boys. I really got all over my sons about that - every time they did it, I said, "You DO realize you're losing IQ points every time you do that don't you?" :p

Posted by: Cassandra at August 17, 2012 11:17 AM

He probably felt that he could make mountains more money at pro football than at anything else he was qualified for, which made it easy to pile up the college funds. Other careers were a risky possibility, but pro football was in the bag.

Posted by: Texan99 at August 19, 2012 10:11 AM

He probably felt that he could make mountains more money at pro football....

Joe Namath set signing and earnings records as his pro career was taking off, but I wonder if that money (albeit chump change by today's standards) covered the costs of his knees post-career.

Still, I entirely sympathize with him. I've played football and basketball with concussions, blown ankles, broken fingers, loose teeth, and so on (though nothing as serious as blown knees, or a broken neck)--the competition--and especially the winning--were all worth the pain. Knowing then what I know now, I'd do it all over again.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at August 19, 2012 01:53 PM

WRT to equipment and the false sense of securtiy it provides, this may be the penultimate experiment yet.

Posted by: DL Sly at August 19, 2012 03:57 PM

Rush Limbaugh has already covered this war on football and the players that are causing it. If these players are let alone and not stopped the football you see now will come to a stoppage. and then they will move on to another sport like basketball, baseball, golf, bowling, horse racing, and all the other sports they do not like.

Posted by: Heltau at August 19, 2012 11:27 PM

Around the turn of the 20th Century, the big crises in sports was....college football players getting killed because of head injuries. The big concern was whether or not to wear helmets, the leather kind. Players were literally dying from head injuries, because apparently no one knew better.

Theodore Roosevelt weighed in around 1906 to favor the players wearing helmets. The leather kind.

I think that up top, Miss Ladybug had it about right. The players have gotten so big and fast, and there is a false sense of security based on the quality of helmets, especially. The helmets are really good, well designed, very well padded. But a full force tackle with the head leading can cause all kinds of damage.

I was reminded over the weekend that a childhood classmate of my wife, John Grimsley, who once played pro football, killed himself while he was "cleaning his gun". No one dared to say that he committed suicide. Suspicion that he was depressed because of repeated head trauma? Who really know? I don't.

There is such a thing as repetitive concusion syndrome, meaning after you have one or two, the next ones can come on faster, easier and damage to your head can be more severe and long lasting.

Nobody wants to "ban" football in any reasonable way, but even now, doctors are just finding out more pathology about what happens to repeated blows to the head in any contact sport.

Any connection between the pathetic appearance of Mohammed Ali and his "parkinson disease" type symptoms and repeated blows to the head he took as a professional boxer?

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at August 20, 2012 03:39 PM