Football and Freedom

The high secular holiday of Super Bowl Sunday is approaching, and in accordance with our contentious times it has already been preceded by the perennial Super Bowl controversy. These obligatory annual brouhahas usually involve the exhibitionist tendencies of the half-time performers or some slightly politically incorrect aspect of one of the commercials or the pre-game felonies of one of the players, but this year all the scolds are in a huff about the very existence of the sport of football.
Any sensitive and well-read football fans have surely noticed that their favorite sport has lately been blitzed with criticism. The courts have sided with a class action of brain-damaged ex-players in a lawsuit against the National Football League, the president has declared he would not allow his hypothetical son to play the game, such elite corners of the press as The New York Times are wondering if it is “Immoral to Watch the Super Bowl,” while everywhere the anti-football folks are getting their kicks in. There’s even talk of banning the game altogether, and anyone who thinks that football’s longstanding place of honor in American culture and its multi-billion dollar standing in the business community makes this idea far-fetched should try exercising such once-sacred rights as lighting up a cigarette in a barroom or installing an incandescent light bulb in a living room lamp. Despite the massive ratings that Sunday’s contest will surely generate, the combined power of the liability lawyers, the prudish pundits, and the easy gullibility of public opinion will be hard for even the most barrel-chested linemen to resist.
This time around the anti-football faction is citing some admittedly believable and alarming statistics about concussions, but we suspect they have other reasons for their opposition. Football is ruthlessly meritocratic, a last redoubt of exclusive and unapologetic masculinity, draws its best players from that remote region of flyover country which persists in voting for Republican candidates, provides an analogy to both warfare and capitalism, uses racially insensitive team names, and is in almost every other regard an affront to progressive sensibilities. At all levels of competition the sport is impeccably proletarian and multi-racial, with an abundance of tattoos and dance moves and other fashionable accoutrements, but even these culturally-sanctioned saving graces cannot rescue football from the damnation of a modern liberal. The modern liberal envisions a world where cooperation replaces competition, where multi-cultural commingling replaces physical contact, girls rule, and a mean old game like football has no place.
Football is a mean old game, and there’s no use denying it. The sport has slowly evolved from the “mob games” played in vacant lots of slum neighborhoods by New England ruffians, which were of course decried by the sophisticated inhabitants of that region, by the 1904 college season it racked up an impressive 18 fatalities, which of course provoked an intervention by the progressive Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, and its toll of seriously injured players has steadily increased ever since. The undeniably macho Roosevelt’s sensible reforms spread out the offensive to end the Greek phalanx “Flying V” offensive formation that once trampled over defenders, effectively ending the fatal era of football, and all the endless rules changes that have followed have also been intended to make the game safer, but nothing the rules committees have devised eliminated the risk inherent in the nature of the game. Like the regulatory agencies struggling to keep up with an ever-innovating economy, the game has always lagged behind the rapid pace of improvement in the speed and size and injurious strength of the players.
That squeamish editorialist at The New York Times who wonders about the immortality of watching the Super Bowls describes the queasy feeling he gets watching the bone-crunching hits that occur in every game, and we have to admit that we can empathize. Our own football-playing was limited to neighborhood bouts in the backyard and a nearby cow pasture, but it provided enough hard hits that we can extrapolate that skinny wide receiver must be feeling after 270 pounds of pure linebacking muscle puts a sudden stop to his seven-yard gain. Nor can we fault the president for advising his hypothetical son against playing organized football, even if his hypothetical son looked just like a young thug who was seen slamming creepy-ass cracker’s head against the pavement of a Florida suburb, as we reached the same decision even without his wise fatherly counsel. For all we know of corporate liability law the courts might even have reason to order the NFL to pay some compensation to the leather-helmet era players who had their bells rung once too often, and as far as we’re concerned anyone who will forgo the Super Bowl on moral grounds is wished a nice afternoon at the art museum or drum circle.
For those who prefer to watch the two best in teams in football fight it out for sporting immortality, we wish you a well-played contest. For those gladiators who take that frost-bitten arena in New Jersey, we wish you good health and the God-given right to test your God-given talents in a championship game. Should the effort to ride the world of football be successful the effort to rid it of roughness, risk, and Republicanism would be furthered, and that would be a shame.

— Bud Norman