On Football

The Boise State football team has a lot to celebrate. A small school from a small conference, they capped off a no-loss regular season with a win against a much bigger program in the Fiesta Bowl. So now, they have the turnaround factor (they weren’t very good last year), the underdog factor (no one was expecting them to win), and, when the quarterback got down on one knee after the final game and proposed to his cheerleader girlfriend and she accepted, they had the fairy tale factor, too. Awesome story; I’m sure we’ll see it as a made-for-TV movie someday, or, perhaps better yet, as a big-star comeback vehicle on the silver screen that will then go on to sweep up a truckload of Golden Globes and Oscars.

I’m not taking anything away from the story. Any time good things happen one after another for people who deserve them, it’s wonderful. I’ll be the first to get misty-eyed and call for champagne.

But it got me thinking about football.

First of all, I went to a Division III college with a great football program. But in my four years there, I went to exactly one game. I didn’t understand it: Why was it “first and ten” if they had just run 15 yards? Or why was it “fourth and four” at the 37-yard line? According to my understanding of basic math, there is no “four” anywhere in the number 37!

Also, why was it called a “down”? Wasn’t the whole point to keep the ball “up,” off the ground, in the air, and most definitely out of the hands of the other team?

Not only that, but what you throw in this game isn’t even technically a ball. It’s a kind of smooshed oblong thing that they have to hold shut with laces. You have to learn special skills to throw it in spirals, otherwise it doesn’t go anywhere. And you need two people to make a touchdown if the ball isn’t thrown while someone is running toward the goal. One guy holds the ball and the other one kicks it. This is great if you miss because there’s more people to share the blame.

And don’t get me started on the names for the positions. “Tight end”? OK, end of what? “Nose tackle”? Seems like it’d be a better idea to tackle with some other body part, but maybe they name them this because the nose is the part most frequently bloody or broken. “Wide receiver”? Better by far than a narrow one, I’m sure! “nickelback”? Yeah, right!

A friend just straightened me out on the “down system” after church this past Sunday. So, having that knowledge, I went and watched a football game on TV (well, I listened on the radio, but who cares, and don’t ask who was playing because I can’t remember and didn’t care who won, anyway!). It helped a lot. He’s promised to explain one more aspect of football every week. So when the Super Bowl gets here, I’ll be able to know exactly what’s going on without giving a damn about the outcome. Sounds good to me!

But there’s a more serious side to my thinking, not about downs and great stories, but about what the sport of football says about American culture in general.

First, I know Americans are becoming fatter, but here’s a game where the 250- to 350-pound man is desirable. So we encourage them to get bigger, but then don’t give much thought to the health consequences that come with that body, especially after the usually short playing career is over. Not only that, but consider that these men can’t just go into a regular store and buy clothes or shoes; they are constantly forced to make modifications to accommodate their body size. The fact that they often have plenty of money to do this isn’t the point; I just think we need to be more mindful about what we are actually paying people to do, subject their bodies to a lifetime of carrying around extra pounds after a few years of punishing physical brutality, even with safety equipment.

Now, wrap your mind around this: We take young men, fresh out of college, who often got into college on athletic scholarships and may or may not have had the academics to go along with their sports skills. Throw these guys into a league where the competition is on a much higher order of magnitude than any bowl game they ever played in college. Then add the never-ending public scrutiny, from fans to media. Top this off with big salaries and a long off-season. Am I the only one who sees red flags here?

If we don’t cultivate the skills of players to manage their financial affairs responsibly, don’t prepare them socially and psychologically to deal with the pressure of always being in the public eye, how can we expect them to succeed as complete human beings with lives away from the field?

We glorify violence and wealth in this country, so it makes sense to idolize men that spend their professional careers smashing into each other as hard as they can in front of thousands of cheering people while getting paid millions of dollars to do it.

But this shouldn’t give us the excuse of letting them get away with stuff we don’t accept from average folks. If they get in fights, drive recklessly, skip paying taxes, abuse drugs or alcohol, treat family members disrespectfully, destroy property, or illegally carry weapons, we too often let them off with a wink and a chuckle, like “Oh, boys will be boys, and besides, wasn’t it great how they played in that big game Monday night?”

It’s much too ingrained in our culture for my lone opinion to change anything. But whether I understand all the rules of “first down and ten” or not, I do know that I don’t care if you’re rich or poor, black or white, 100 pounds or 300 pounds. We all have a responsibility for our own actions, and, if we choose to, we can try to teach right actions to others, especially our children.

After all, who knows if the baby boy you hold in diapers today might not one day be that quarterback on national television, proposing to a beautiful woman who happens to be a cheerleader?

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2 Comments on “On Football”

  1. ombudsben Says:

    Hey, halfnotes,

    I’m a recovering football addict. I grew up with the game in the 1960s and 1970s, but the violence of the game and the injuries, both the spectacular immediate ones but also the long-term damage, turned me off to the game.

    Even as a fan, it got tedious in that you not only had to hope your side exceled physicaly but that they were fortunate enough to stay healthy. The human body really isn’t designed to absorb that much abuse–which is why the average life expectancy of an NFL player is about 52. (Seriously. Think about it. In our prosperous society, this set of college graduates, with both fame and fortune, live on averge to the age of 52.)

    I still have fond memories of those old teams however, and the heroes of my childhood. And it was hard to wean myself, in the 80s. No longer in college, working M-f, home on the weekend relaxing with the Sunday paper, it was easy to rationalize and think I’ll just have the game on in the background while I read.

    Six hours later, I’d have read three or four more sections and I’d still be sprawled ont he couch.

    Getting past my NFL addiction was tough–the only thing comparable was foregoing coffee for a couple months. But I went cold turkey for a whole season, not sitting odwn to watch a single game,a nd that broke the hold. I no longer knew the players as well, and I don’t miss it — you see, I still have baseball.

    I posted a question to you at my site — did you happen to see it?

  2. halfnotes Says:

    Ombudsben,

    Oh, don’t start me on baseball; I got addicted to that last year. Why do you think the subtitle of my blog is “On Music, Metaphysics and More?” So I have an excuse for writing about baseball, dogs, and any other thing that interests me, and there are quite a few!

    Looking forward to the 2007 season …


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