“I always turn to the sports section first,” said Earl Warren, former chief justice of the Supreme Court. “The sports page records people’s accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man’s failures.”
All too often these days, the sports page has migrated to the front page. On Saturday, September 13, these three stories appeared beneath the banner of the New York Times:
—Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius is convicted of culpable homicide in South Africa.
— Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is charged with child abuse.
— The National Football League (NFL) agrees with findings that brain trauma will affect nearly one in three of its former players.
It was a bad week for the NFL, which was rightfully condemned for its laxity in dealing with the Ray Rice elevator assault and other off-the-field transgressions by its combatants. Such behaviors might make a fan think twice about following America’s most popular sport. Maybe not. TV ratings remain as robust as ever. If there was any hand-wringing about pro football during my visit to New York, it was because both the Giants and Jets lost that weekend.
As reprehensible as actions like Rice’s may be, they are not unique to football players. Domestic violence is a problem that permeates society; it gets more attention when celebrities are involved. What’s truly alarming about the NFL is the evidence that a significant percentage of its players will be afflicted by dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other neurological disorders. By extension, brain damage has become a concern at all levels of the sport.
Time magazine seized on the issue in this week’s cover story about a Missouri high school player who suffered a fatal head injury. Headline: “Is Football Worth It?” Steve Almond says it is not. Once an avid fan of the Oakland Raiders, this former newspaper reporter has become so thoroughly disillusioned by the unchecked violence of the game that he has penned a book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.
The timeliness of his treatise has kept Almond busy doing radio interviews and making book tours. After speaking to him, I am inclined to erase the word “reluctant” from the title. He readily admits that his book is “full of obnoxious opinions.” He is not surprised, he said, that “some people want me to be given over to ISIS to be beheaded.” But, he added, “Others are struggling to understand what’s going on. Football may be part of their history, their refuge from the complications of the real word. They’ve found a way to live with it, but they’re willing to listen. My purpose is to start a discussion.”
It should shock a fan, Almond said, to realize that “30 percent of my team is not going to remember the names of their kids. Will it be Tom Brady? Wes Welker?” He does not expect the NFL, which ignored the problem for years while raking in profits, to provide a solution. Neither does Commissioner Roger Goodell’s vague promise to “get it right” in dealing with sexual assaults amount to anything more than window dressing. “It’s not going to change,” Almond told me. “Whoever’s in charge will have one mission: to maximize profits.”
While the NFL is the chief object of his scorn, Almond also sounds alarms about high school and college football. Besides posing danger to young brains, he said the culture of the sport runs counter to the moral development that is supposed to be nurtured by higher education. “Football at its core is not about empathy,” he said. “You don’t think much about the damage you’re doing to your body and your opponents’ bodies.” Other sports have their physical rigors, he said, but football’s violence is extreme.
Last weekend, I stepped back in time from this controversy. It was the 50th reunion of my high school class of ’64. Those of us who played football for the St. Francis Golden Knights had no regrets, just fond memories of a CIF championship season. The sport channeled our rough-and-tumble adolescent energies. It gave us the discipline and confidence to tackle hard tasks. Any wrath we felt against our opponents dissipated after the games. Teammate and foe, we were all in it together. Our joints may be a little achier, but our health issues in general are not any more serious than those confronting other men approaching 70.
The game has changed. Players are certainly bigger than they were in our time. We had only two linemen weighing more than 200 pounds, the biggest at 216 (and he had noticeable baby fat). The 2014 Knights have 15 such specimens, topping out at 280 pounds, hardened by off-season training. Football seasons begin earlier and last longer. The game is more professionalized, the better prep players already advertised as “USC-bound” or “UCLA-bound.” We never could have imagined that high school games would be nationally televised or that there would be a gazillion college and pro games televised every day of the week. It’s become a big, big business.
It struck me that the first time we put on helmets and played organized tackle football was in the 9th grade. Nowadays, kids may have played five or six years of tackle football before reaching high school. It bothers me that if a youngster wants to be on a football team, he has to join a tackle league. John Madden, the Hall of Fame coach, recently proclaimed, “I’m a firm believer that there’s no way that a 6-year-old should have a helmet on and learn a tackling drill. There’s no way. Or a 7-year-old or an 8-year-old. They’re not ready for it. Take the helmets off kids. … They can play flag football.”
There is greater awareness of the dangers of concussions in sports, and that’s encouraging. Medical professionals are getting involved. It is less likely that a player with symptoms will be sent out onto the field. Still, any thinking football fan must be conflicted about what the game has become, if not turning against it like Steve Almond.
It is an amazing game, a uniquely American passion play. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to Notre Dame taking on Florida State, the Seahawks facing the Niners.