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Football Season and Its Discontents

The Wichita Wingnuts baseball team has concluded its season as champions of the American Association, our New York Yankees are unlikely to earn even one of those socialistic one-game playoff spots that we hate, and being normal red-blooded American males we now turn our sporting attention to football. There’s an appropriate chill in the air, evoking nostalgia for the heroic gridiron exploits we witnessed in our innocent youth and stoking our hunger for some more hard-hitting football, but so far all the stories seem to be about domestic battery and child abuse.
Such stories are by now a routine feature of football season. Nobody’s died, so far, which makes this a relatively placid season, but the bad news stories have been more than enough to take the fun out of spectating. One highly-regarded running back has become a YouTube sensation by cold-cocking his then-fiancee in an elevator, and although the same sordid video shows her throwing the first punches and some spits for good measure it still leaves one with an unfavorable impression of the fellow’s character. An even more highly-regarded running back has since been charged with beating his son, and although we’ll happily leave it to the criminal justice system to decide if he was acting within his legal rights as a parent to discipline a child or crossed over into criminal conduct we are disinclined to root for him in the meantime. The rest of the league seems populated largely by players eager to convey an equally thuggish public image, and there’s something suspicious about the ones who don’t, and we can’t help wondering what Walter Camp would have to say about it.
Only the most history-minded fans now know about Walter Camp, but without him there probably wouldn’t be any football fans at all. He was a star player for Yale University way back when that meant something, and later coached his alma mater to Ivy League championships when that still meant something, but his greatest contribution to the game was as a writer and journalist. Football had evolved from the “mob gangs” that ruffians played in the streets of the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada, and in the early days it suffered an unsavory reputation despite its association with the elite Ivy League, but Camp’s prose persuaded a nation that the game inculcated all the the masculine qualities of teamwork, discipline, and the clean living needed for the physical rigors of such a brutal game. Camp invented the All-American team, and named it with the idea that its players represented the best of America both on and off the field. This was utter nonsense even then, of course, but it was so widely agreed upon that football survived the numerous fatalities and countless other scandals of its early days to become a prominent feature of American culture.
Along the way football often has served the country well, at times even approaching that exemplary American manliness that Walter Camp described. America has been well suited to a rough world because it has played a rough game, and if the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton it is just as true that the battle on Omaha Beach was won by banged-up boys who had learned how to break through a line on some godforsaken rural football field. The game once produced mythically manly characters, and in our confused ’60s boyhood the stoic and fedora-topped Tom Landry and his Naval Academy quarterback just returned from Vietnam and the rest of “America’s Team” seemed to reassure that the best of American manhood could still find a place in an increasingly emasculated society to flex its muscles and excel at something rough and impolite and somehow beautiful. Even without such mythos there’s something to be said for that unknown fellow in the green helmet making such a gusty play and taking that vicious hit just to keep a drive alive.
Those disreputable mob game origins were there all along, though, and football’s history is mainly a tale of the mob getting bigger, stronger, faster, more injurious. The University of Oklahoma Sooners team that we’ve been weaned to root for now has an offensive front line averaging 321 pounds, according to the graphic that the television network imposed on Saturday after a big gain against a relatively puny University of Tennessee Volunteers’ line that averaged only 271 pounds, and anyone who wanders into the melee ensuing after a snap in an even heftier professional game must have a certain predilection for both inflicting and enduring pain. We are no longer surprised that many of the game’s most talented players are prone to violate the rules against violence that prevail in society after the game is played. Our favorite football movie, of many worthy choices, is the original version of “The Longest Yard,” a testosterone-drenched drive-in flick in washed-out color about a team of imprisoned criminals who prevail over their guards because their anti-social tendencies give them a natural advantage in football. it makes the occasional good guy seem all the more heroic, and makes us long for the days when hometown hero Barry Sanders would simply toss the ball to the referee after a touchdown rather than stage a minstrel show, but we have no delusions about that guy who just laid that vicious hit on the wide receiver.
The latest scandals have provided plenty of fodder for the commentators who still hope to eradicate the mob game, which is another drearily routine feature of football season. The meritocracy and manliness and Walter Camp Americana of the game are all offensive to a certain modern sensibility, and when you throw in allegations of domestic battery and child abuse and God only knows what goes on at those after-game parties the game is going to have a public relations problem when all those class-action concussion suits go to jury. Football represents all that is wrong with our violent and thuggish society, we will be told, and it won’t be hard to find twelve people willing in any jurisdiction to along with that.
We’ll be sad to see it go, though. Those soccer games where “everybody plays” and nobody keeps score aren’t likely to win any military victories, which will still be required in what remains a rough world, no matter how ardently those soccer moms might wish otherwise, and as phony-baloney as it always was that Walter Camp ideal of football was always something worth aspiring to and on certain Saturday and Sunday afternoon and even on Friday nights in those godforsaken rural football it was sometimes almost attained. That kind of football entails a code of chivalry and manliness and Americanism that football’s critics have long sought to extinguish along with the game, and their demise is not the fault of football.

— Bud Norman

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