I am not exaggerating when I say that I might be the most football-ignorant person in America. If I’m not number one, then I’m definitely in the Top Five. Cue: one half of my family shuddering at the thought, shaking their heads with a disgust that is at least partially sincere. I have never been insecure about this, despite the fact that the majority of society reveres the sport, bowing down to the holy object that has been made of the “pigskin” ball. The world’s overblown gusto for sport in general has always confounded me a bit, as it often reaches levels that seem to negate our other supposed values of morality, health, and general sanity. In the context of these religi-sized games, behavioral mores tend to loosen, leaving plenty of room for a dangerous combination of oversight and corruption. Whether it’s a tale of fan on fan abuse, player mistreatment, or the constant cycle of severe injuries, a day rarely goes by without a new story to add to the flawed canon of football.
Before you start lashing me with your favorite jersey, let me just say that I know that athletics can also bring significant rewards. One of the more prominent regrets from my youth (i.e. a few days ago) is that I wasn’t more involved in sports, or committed to a team. I certainly dabbled, but my complete boredom with it all, combined with a skillset that left me warming the bench more often than not, didn’t help formulate any serious devotion to my brief athletic careers. Later I would discover the amazing effects of endorphin-release via running (my drug of choice), but that doesn’t really count, as it’s a pretty solitary exercise. I realize now that team-fostered camaraderie is really beneficial for children, and that sports can help build character by way of challenging you and forcing you to push yourself (which, to an extent, is an important quality). But when Little League is over, the athletic atmosphere is definitely less rosy, with professional sports taking the cake for the sphere that is most potentially corrosive.
Two stories, one from football’s archive and one from its present, catalyzed my interest in this conflict, one that I normally skim over because I figured that having to Wikipedia “football” to understand its basic elements sort of made my opinion moot. I realize now that’s not necessarily the case. Though I will not be providing a play-by-play commentary of a game anytime soon, I can definitely make sense of the human stories enmeshed within these games, picking out the nuances of destruction and depression (by way of devotion) that seem to lie dormant in the lives of many professional athletes today.
The first is that of George Sauer, who in 1969, at age twenty-five, became a Super Bowl hero, only to retire, much to the public’s surprise, two years later. Twenty-seven is not old by football standards, so the public had to wonder: why the early exit from this beloved career? He swiftly provided answers, but not necessarily the ones that people expected or wanted to hear. “The structure of pro football generally works to deny human values,” he claimed, referring to its authority as “chauvinistic.” These are thoughts I have had before, albeit less eloquently, but I never expected to find that a football player had expressed them as well, especially one speaking at a time when controversial opinions were even less popular than they continue to be today. Color me naïve. In case his message wasn’t clear enough, he summed up his time playing pro football as akin to “being in jail.” Of course this gave a football-ambivalent girl like me pause, so I dug further into its sordid history with zeal so foreign to me that I quickly erased my search history in hopes of denying it ever happened.
Turns out he wasn’t alone, as I’m sure many of you avid football watchers already know. A few years later, in 1973, ex-Dallas Cowboy Peter Gent waxed un-poetic about the sport, too, decrying it in a well-received novel titled North Dallas Forty:
When an athlete, no matter what color jersey he wears, finally realizes that opponents and teammates alike are his adversaries, and he must deal and dispense with them all, he is on his way to understanding the spirit that underlies the business of competitive sport. There is no team, no loyalty, no camaraderie; there is only him, alone.
Recently, we’ve encountered another dose of football disdain from one of the sports very own, the retired Denver Bronco John Moffitt. “Just the physical toll it takes on your body. I see stars. I legitimately see…blurs in my vision because of head contact,” he told reporters, “And then, on top of that, I was just so bored of it, so tired of it. I had done it for 20 years. I started when I was eight years old. Just really done with the game.” More shocking than that, though, is that his disgust runs so deep, he apparently refuses to even watch the games. When asked what he does instead, he un-sarcastically responded that he often cries, plays with his dog, or drinks heavily—not exactly an advertisement for the residual benefits of professional sport. When asked by the same reporter if he thinks other players harbor the same feelings towards football, he responds, “I think collectively everyone just wants to get as much money as they can and get out.”
I’m sure there are plenty of other anecdotes that would help contribute to this picture, but even from just those three, it’s looking pretty sad. Clearly society has been adept at turning a blind eye to this social cavity for a long time, and I have to wonder what exactly it will take to have a serious discussion about it. We may write articles about these players, and research the effects of head trauma on football players (settling related lawsuits along the way), but it seems as if our no-holds-barred fanaticism for the game has allowed these important issues to pass us by without any significant actions made to change them. At the end of the day, this blog post has as much effect as the article which first introduced me to the subject in The New York Times, because, as Moffitt himself pointed out, “How much do [we] really value intelligence, when as a society [we] continue to do unintelligent things?”
(And don’t even get me started on the bowels of human nature that seem to be unleashed by fans in every stadium across the world…)