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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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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