Am I Ready for Some Football?

I used to love football as much as I love hockey. It was another “dad” thing, watching the New York Giants with him in the late ‘60s and 1970s, when the Giants weren’t very good. I’d always need a back up team to root for when the playoffs started.  At different times, it was the Chiefs, the Vikings, even the Cowboys, I reluctantly admit. I mean, they WERE “America’s Team” for a reason, after all. They were a largely likeable lot, with Coach Tom Landry in his fedora and classy ex-Navy QB Roger Staubach and the smooth Tony Dorsett – even Bob Hayes, at one time the fastest man on earth. It was tough not to root for those guys even though they were the Giants’ direct rivals. They only became obnoxious when Jerry Jones became the owner and Jimmy Johnson, with his lacquered helmet of hair, became the coach, and don’t get me started on Tony Romo, one of the few professional athletes whose misfortunes (of which there are many, often self-inflicted) I relish.

In college I graduated from keeping stats for the JV football team – a role which I lobbied for with my freshman advisor, Trinity College’s beloved swimming and JV football coach, Chet McPhee – to working with the “big club”, although the largely clueless head coach Don Miller never quite understood what I was doing hanging around. On the other hand, lovable curmudgeon and unanimously feared equipment manager (and my dear mentor) Frank Marchese fully understood that the only reason I was there was because I wanted to be part of the team. He respected my motives and took me under his wing, which led to my being his proxy equipment caretaker for all the away games. I thoroughly enjoyed two-a-days in August, just me and the players on campus, tooling around in the golf cart, positioning the tackling dummies, filling up and delivering the water bucket and then gathering the discarded paper cups that inevitably missed the trash can, focusing my attention on a different group – the DBs and their tip drills, the linemen pounding the sleds – every day. During the season, down in the trenches, I thrived on getting filthy, spat and bled on, although I knew enough to get out of the way when a large tangle of bodies would come my way. I also kept statistics and was the guardian of the kicking tees (which I had to run on the field to retrieve) and the footballs – both game balls and practice balls, the latter of which were far more vulnerable. The guys always thought they could get one over on me and walk off with a souvenir, but I was as aggressive about reclaiming those footballs as I’ve been about anything in my life, before or since. They were Frank’s footballs, and they had to be protected!

In the years after college, though, there was something about football that changed for me, lessened my enjoyment of it, that didn’t have a parallel with hockey. For a while, I blamed my ex-husband’s violent scissor-throwing fanaticism for turning me off to a game I had previously loved so passionately. But there were clearly other factors at play.

Even before the stomach-turning video of Ray Rice punching and dragging his wife (for which there is NO excuse) and Adrian Peterson’s child abuse charges (for which there may have been an excuse, but the episode was still a harsh reminder of the violence that always underlies the game, even for a charming and seemingly stand-up guy like Adrian Peterson), I think the incident that made me re-think what football is doing to the young men who play it for a living was the 2012 murder-suicide of Jovan Belcher. It was not lost on me that the shooting took place in the parking lot of the team facility, in the figurative shadows of the goalposts. There’s seemingly only the wrong kind of support for football players from their teams and the league, from the time they’re in the pee wee leagues until they’re multi-millionaires, with ready women and drugs and, worst of all, guns. Plaxico Burress, a local hero after winning the Super Bowl with the Giants, shot himself in the leg with a gun in a nightclub. What a completely idiotic move, the death knell of what promised to be an amazing career. But who was there to tell this man that bringing a gun into a club is NEVER a smart move, let alone to carry it in such a way that you could risk shooting your own damn self by accident?

The other thing I have come to hate about football are the injuries. It seems like every play ends with a player limping or being helped off the field. The Giants in particular have lost an insane number of man-games to injury over the past few years and, probably not coincidentally, they haven’t made the playoffs, either. But those visible injuries – even those involving the dreaded cart coming on to the field – pale in comparison to the ongoing tragedy of chronic traumatic encepholapathy (CTE).

Not surprisingly, CTE was originally detected in boxers. There was a short time in my life when I enjoyed boxing, probably climaxing with the 1984 Olympics, when the U.S. boxing team won gold in nine weight classes (plus a silver and a bronze), but extending to the early careers of people like Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar de la Hoya, who somehow retained their gorgeous faces despite the barbarity of their profession. But I can’t bring myself to watch boxing now, or even the more edgy MMA (despite the impressive pulchritude of Ronda Rousey), because I find myself cringing with every landed punch.

A few years ago, a writer named Jeanne Marie Laskas wrote a powerful piece in GQ [“Game Brain” GQ (Sept. 14, 2009), http://www.gq.com/story/nfl-players-brain-dementia-study-memory-concussions%5D describing the work of a Pittsburgh doctor named Bennet Omalu to solve the mystery of why ex-footballers like popular Steeler Mike Webster and others (and later many more, including household names Dave Duerson and Junior Seau) literally lost their minds, often ending their lives in some form of suicide (whether it was officially called that or not). What he found in all of their brains was CTE, a degenerative brain disease caused by multiple concussions. (CTE has likewise been discovered in the brains of hockey players who had also died horribly young, whether at their own hands or otherwise, like Bob Probert and Derek Boogard, who also happened to be fighters who had a tendency to get frequently punched in the head.) So fascinating is Dr. Omalu’s story – as well as the utter rejection and denial he and his findings have suffered at the hands of the NFL – that it has been made into a movie called “Concussion”, due out in December, starring Will Smith. (The trailer looks fantastic.)

As far as I’m concerned, the only conclusion to be drawn is this: The constant head battering of football players – both in spite of and because of their state-of-the-art protective gear (and perhaps, it has been surmised, in combination with performance-enhancing steroids) – from the time they’re ten years old till the sport has taken its final toll on their still-young but preternaturally aged bodies, is giving them all irreparable brain damage.

Author Steve Almond has eloquently captured the reasons for my failing love affair with football in his recent interview with Ramon Ramirez [“Why You Should Quit Watching Football,” THE KERNEL (Aug. 30, 2015), http://kernelmag.dailydot.com/issue-sections/features-issue-sections/14165/case-against-football-steve-almond%5D: “It is insanely beautiful. It is balladic. It is the miracle of the body at play. It is Barry Sanders absolutely making a shatteringly beautiful move and breaking free in the open. It is your team rising up and wining against great odds. It’s the strategic density of the game. It’s the primal oomph of seeing a really good hit laid on the other team’s quarterback. . . . But if you’re gonna have that, then you also have to realize it is this other thing, too – this insanely greedy, cynical industry. It is absolutely sanitizing and normalizing violence and misogyny. It’s making you see the world through a really distorted racial lens. And it’s valuing people under very limited conditions and causing you to suppress your empathy all the time.” Almond has also written a book called Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto [Melville House, 2014]. Full disclosure – I have not read it yet but I definitely plan to, because it promises to address a lot of my concerns.

Almond actually gave up watching his beloved Oakland Raiders cold turkey. I don’t know that I am ready to completely stop watching football (although I may be after reading his book). Whereas just a few years ago, I would immerse myself in football every Sunday, from ESPN’s Chris Berman-led panel show Sunday NFL Countdown, to the early game on CBS and the late game (usually involving the Giants) on FOX, then of course (especially if the Giants won) the 11 p.m. local news highlights, followed by the Sports Extra – it was pigskin, pigskin, pigskin, all day long – now I can barely sit and watch an entire Giant game, kickoff to 0:00, especially if the running game is going nowhere and then Eli throws a bunch of needless interceptions. I’m almost tempted to scream at the TV, “BORING!!”

Much like with my mixed feelings for hockey (see my blog post “Hockey: An Obsession”, April 21, 2015), there are still things I enjoy about football, although I certainly have no interest in the fantasy aspect, which I believe has become a bigger driver in football viewership these days than any pure love of the game. But I may be able to content myself with having it on in the background on autumn Sunday afternoons and just watching the four or five big plays from each game on a continuous replay loop and be satisfied with that.

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