Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Perspective

This is why I love and hate football

We are living in the end times of football.

Oh, the game's not going to disappear any time real soon. The NFL will carry on raking in profits while trying to divert attention from brain injuries — the regular season hasn't even started and players have already suffered 60 concussions. Universities will continue to tout "tradition" and "pride" as the marching band blasts out the fight song and cheerleaders high-kick on the sidelines. Millions of grown people will still locate an alarming amount of their emotional well-being in a bunch of 19- and 20 year-olds beating the tar out of each other on a green field. I am one of them. A lifer. I've been going to FSU games since I was 9 years old. I knew I was a Seminole before I knew I was female or white or even a Presbyterian.

Football can be beautiful, joyous: those long, elegant pass plays, those balletic hits, those juking, defy-the-laws-of-physics runs. Yet it's getting harder to forget — or excuse — the malignancies of the game: the obscene money, the sexual assaults, the broken bodies, the broken minds.

From Pop Warner to Pro Bowl, it's an ugly list: Richie Incognito bullied Dolphin teammate Jonathan Martin so viciously — even threatening to rape his sister — that Martin considered killing himself. Penn State's Joe Paterno, once regarded as the saint of the sideline, should have called the cops on his child-molesting former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, but didn't.

At Notre Dame, an institution dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, a university administrator said a woman who accused players of gang rape had "a mattress tied to her back." That was in 1974.

It's 40 years later, and I can't see that attitudes have changed much. The Fighting Irish have been involved in at least seven subsequent rape scandals, notably in 2010, when Lizzy Seeberg, a St. Mary's College freshman, claimed she was assaulted by a football player. Notre Dame failed to investigate until after Seeberg had committed suicide.

It's not just Notre Dame, of course. Football players at Nebraska, Navy, BYU, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, Michigan, Virginia Tech, Vanderbilt, Miami, UF and FSU (this is by no means an exhaustive list) have been accused of rape with nauseating regularity over the past 15 years.

A 2014 report commissioned by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri found that universities have two modes of investigating sexual assault on campus: 1. Slowly and sloppily; 2. Not at all. Fans tend to defend the players and vilify their accusers. The young woman who claimed Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston raped her got death threats.

As for the NFL, it's the college game on steroids, a parade of consequence-free misogyny. When Baltimore's Ray Rice punched his fiancee in the face, the NFL suspended him for a measly two games. Arizona Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington broke his ex-girlfriend's collarbone. He got kicked off the team for a year — for smoking weed. Not for domestic violence.

The good news is that outrage over the game's cavalier attitude toward beating up women may have had some effect. On Thursday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell fell off his donkey on the road to Damascus, took responsibility for the Ray Rice nonpunishment fiasco, and declared: "We have to do better. And we will."

Maybe they will. But I bet the players don't stop beating up each other: concussion after concussion after concussion. The league still shrugs it off as "having your bell rung," as if there's something comical, something cartoonish, about it. Repeated whacks to the head are related to early dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, perhaps even to depression and suicide.

Football can't go on like this. It should not go on like this.

Steve Almond, bestselling writer and recovering Oakland Raiders fan, offers some sensible, workable ideas for reforming the game in his new book, Against Football. Like, how about we take away the NFL's tax-exempt status (yes, the NFL claims it's a nonprofit!); ban tackle football for kids under 16; require a 3.0 GPA to play college football; and include the graduation rate in a team's national ranking. I really like the last one — Florida's traditional football powers would be forced to actually care how that future All-American fares in Composition 101.

A veritable field invasion of football books are getting published now, in time for kickoff, rocking the gridiron zeitgeist. Michael Weinreb's Season of Saturdays is a poetically written history of the college game with special attention to his alma mater, Penn State. Why Football Matters, Mark Edmundson's memoir, attempts to argue that football teaches the important lesson that when you get knocked down, you must get back up. Deep, eh? Against Football is clearly the pick of the litter: funny, pained, profane and sharp as a November Saturday in Ann Arbor. (To read a review from the Tampa Bay Times, go to tbtim.es/76n.)

And Against Football is not, despite the title, against football. Not really. It's a cry in the wilderness, a demand to make the game less of a hideous profit machine which chews up and spits out players like so much Red Man Plug. Almond calls the book a "reluctant manifesto," in that he believes "that football, in its exalted moments, is not just a sport, but a lovely and intricate form of art." At the same time, he says, "Our allegiance to football legitimizes and even fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia."

If you consider football a mindless gladiatorial contest played by knuckle-dragging thugs, you won't see the beauty and joy in the game. If, in your expert fannish opinion, there's not a thing wrong with football and all these wussified, politically correct, Obama-loving Marxists should just shut up, you'll deny there's a problem. So a guy gets hit repeatedly in the head? It's football. What are you, a girl?

A lot of Almond's critics think he's a girl. When the New York Times Magazine ran his essay in January pondering the morality of watching the Super Bowl, hordes sent hate mail, accusing him not only of having a vagina, but a large vagina:

"On one level my correspondents simply wish to convey the exaggerated nature of my femininity (i.e. larger vagina = more feminine). Still, it's hard to ignore that a large vagina suggests an unconscious fear of male inadequacy. Is it possible that merely asking these guys to examine their motives for watching football made them feel small?"

Daniel J. Flynn, author of 2013's War on Football: Saving America's Game, insists football turns boys into men, and only evil-smelling hippies and watchers of PBS don't get that. But what if the men those boys turn into aren't particularly healthy — for themselves or others? (See rape, above.) Almond dances through the minefield that is contemporary American masculinity, booby-trapped with explosive ambivalence and complexity, making us pause and contemplate the ways in which pro football and its farm league (you know it as college football) are exploitative and cruel.

Terry Bradshaw, Brett Favre and Tony Dorsett struggle with depression and crippling memory loss. Twelve-time Pro-Bowler Junior Seau and All-Pro Dave Duerson, both of whom shot themselves to death, suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. So what if they got paid lots of money? What good is rolling in money if you don't know where you live and can't remember your children's names?

Football is already changing, perhaps for the better. On Aug. 8, a federal judge demolished the cherished fantasy of the "student-athlete," ruling that the NCAA cannot refuse to allow players a share of their profits. Almond is not trying to take our game away; he just wants us to think a little harder about it. Use that head for something other than hitting. For which I say thanks be to God and Bear Bryant.

Diane Roberts, author of "Dream State," a memoir of Florida, teaches at Florida State University. Her book on college football will be out in time for kickoff 2015. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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