Civilized countries should not play football

Yesterday’s Washington Post had a dispiriting article about a draftee football player, Kyle Long, all six feet and 313 pounds of him. Kyle’s father is hall of famer Howie Long. Football runs in the Long family apparently, as Kyle is a third generation football player in his family. Kyle will be a new offensive lineman for the Chicago Bears this fall. He’s about to get paid big bucks to bash into other very big, very heavy and muscular men. And like his father Howie, the more he succeeds the more likely he is to be seriously maimed from football. His father has undergone thirteen surgeries due to his football career.

The NFL is concerned about all these injuries, many of them concussions, but of course not concerned enough to go out of business. No, it is trying to walk a fine line: protect players from injury, figure out better ways to treat injured players while doing its best to pretend that all those past injuries were not its fault and it has no particular liability beyond whatever severance contracts are in place with the unions. Few successful football players can avoid a concussion or two, so it’s likely that Kyle will deal with a few of them in his career. He is likely to be also encounter plenty of sprains, torn ligaments and broken bones. If he is like most “successful” football players he will spend his long and extended retirement somewhat crippled, in a lot of pain and consulting with a lot of doctors.

You don’t even have to be a football fan to have heard about the Washington Redskins star quarterback Robert Griffin III. He tweeted yesterday that he was cleared to start practice, this despite severe injuries last year, multiple surgeries and extensive physical therapy that is still underway. They were made worse when he was allowed to stay on the field by team doctors when he should have gone to the hospital. Across the NFL there are a lot of hurt players, a lot of players that are queued up to get badly hurt and of course thousands of former players that are still hurting years or decades after their careers ended. Why? Because we want them to get hurt. Okay, maybe we don’t wish to actually have them injured, but these facts don’t deter them from the excitement, money and glamor of playing professional football. We fans of course are very excited about the whole game of football and the violent crash of players. The NFL puts helmets and padding on them in the hopes they will not get injured, of course, but experience shows that it happens. It’s unusual to get through a game of professional football without a single injury.

My modest proposal: make them play flag football. We both know how well my suggestion would go over. At best it would get a derisive laugh. If fans pondered it for any length of time though they would understand that much of what draws them to football is its violence. No, it’s not exactly gladiators fighting in a Roman coliseum, but it’s as close as we can come two millennium later. Football and other violent contact sports like wrestling and boxing allow us to reconnect with our warrior past, albeit safely and through proxies. Of course our proxies are not transformers; they are flesh and blood people. Line up rows of well-padded athletes weighing hundreds of pounds each, have them repeatedly charge at each other and players are going to get hurt.

Football playing simply models in real life what we watch repeatedly in television and the movies. Few things sell tickets more than violence, real or simulated. Few of us actually lust to be in violent situations, but we do like to imagine being in violent situations (and coming out triumphant). Violence is scary but also exciting and it seems a whole lot more real than the dull reality that most of us endure instead. Watching football though is better than watching a violent movie. In the movies you know it is all faked. In football, players can and actually do get injured. When we see RJIII limping off the field, we coo in sympathy for his pain. He did it for us, so we could win this game and move toward the Super Bowl.

We tell ourselves football is just a game. I disagree. Any game where actual violence is at its center is not a game. By definition, if it’s a game, it’s not real. Football is quite real. Who wins the Super Bowl really doesn’t matter, although it makes a lot of people very happy or very sad. Nations don’t collapse. Wars don’t begin. But actual people are regularly injured, sometimes seriously, and frequently endure a lifetime of pain. Why? It’s apparently because we still carry some bloodlust in our hearts and it means enough to us where we want to pay for the privilege to see it done publicly.

A truly civilized country would outlaw any sport where there is a high probability that players will be seriously maimed. Football and boxing are two obvious sports in this category. Arguably hockey is as well, although it does not have to be. It could be reformed with a “three strikes and you are out of the hockey ring permanently” policy. There are games that are gritty and look like they should be violent but which actually are usually not. Rugby is one of these games. Perhaps we could make rugby our new national pastime.

Billion dollar businesses like the NFL aren’t likely to go away as a result of legislation, at least not in my lifetime. Many would argue that we have a constitutional right to enjoy football, and players go into the game fully aware of the risks of traumatic injury and lifelong pain. Yet we outlaw bullfighting because it is inhumane to the bull. However violence is perfectly okay in professional football that destroys and maims healthy athletes. I just find it curious that we go out of our way to make safety such an important part of our lives, and just don’t seem to give a damn when it comes to violent sports. It makes no sense.

Take my sports section, please!

Yesterday, of course, was Superbowl Sunday. As usual, I did my best to tune the event out, and, as usual, I did not succeed. The (then) upcoming event was plastered all over my Washington Post. When I hit the gym in the afternoon yesterday, the staff at the front desk of my Gold’s Gym (who controls dozens of TV sets across the building) spent most of their time frantically flipping through the channels trying to find free Superbowl pre-game coverage. For fifteen minutes or so, they settled on Comedy Central’s censored version of the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and then they could not stand it anymore. Off they went in another frantic search for Superbowl coverage. And so it continued until 90 minutes later when I left the gym. They were likely still frantically flipping channels after I left.

Of course, you could not surf the online news without getting the latest details of this national sporting event. Hundreds of Iraqis may be dying in grisly suicide bombings, but no matter. On Superbowl Sunday, that stuff was unimportant. It was much more relevant to the world that I be informed that the Colts were ahead of the Bears in the third quarter.

Seriously, I have no objection to sports, if that is what trips your trigger. Hmm, perhaps I should qualify my statement. I have no objection to most sports. I do draw the line at a few, really objectionable sports like bullfighting, competitive eating and boxing. If I were God, they would all be outlawed. However, during Superbowl season, I feel a bit like a Jew on Christmas. Try as you might, there is no escape from the hype and crass commercialism surrounding the Superbowl. Perhaps you can spend the day reading a book in your closet with your ears firmly plugged with wax or with music blaring through a headset. However, the Superbowl will still find you. You are likely to hear the neighbors next door cheer or feel the thumping through the ceiling from the guy in the upstairs apartment whenever his team is having some success. Please! Make it go away!

Nevertheless, unless you leave the country will not succeed in ignoring the Superbowl. It will find you. Moreover, if you do leave the country, then it will be some other sport that will drive you insane. We happened to be visiting Paris last summer during the World Cup finals. France just happened to be one of the final teams. Needless to say, Paris went berserk. The roads were overtaken by flag waving football fanatics. Except for the restaurants, everything closed down during the final game itself. I pitied the fool who needed emergency medicine in Paris during last year’s World Cup. They would have bled to death on the sidewalk in front of the hospital. We were left to watching the game on TV in our hotel room because except for CNN International (which repeats itself every half hour) there was nothing else on.

However, at least the World Cup is held only once every four years. In addition, it is a truly global competition. Our “World Series” would be an entirely national event if the Toronto Blue Jays were not in the league. Needless to say, no baseball teams from Japan or the Dominican Republic were invited to play. Similarly, our Superbowl is not that super: a purely national event that, like most competitive sports, means absolutely nothing. I mean it is not as if the members of the Indianapolis Colts are actually from Indianapolis. I would bet there is not a single Indianapolis native on the whole team. So why are Indianapolis fans cheering when their victory was purchased by talented and overpaid players selected from other teams? Isn’t the whole point of team sports to celebrate some modern day form of tribalism? Why go delirious when it was strangers that got your city a Superbowl crown in the first place? Your part in your team’s success was to pay bloated ticket prices to attend games and buy heavily marked up logoware.

This essential emptiness in most sports could be the reason that I am so indifferent to team sports. There is a certain amount of talent required to be a World Series or Superbowl champion. However, to me winning seems much more about random luck than talent, tactics and terrific coaching. Figure skating, for example, enchants me. This may be because it is as much art as it is a sport. In fact, the Olympics is about the only sporting event that holds any appeal to me. We need more Olympics, not less. It is much better for nations to channel their aggressive feelings through sporting events than with a gun or a sword.

Nonetheless, in our sports obsessed nation I do sometimes feel like an oddball. It would be easier to be sports indifferent if I were a woman, but instead I am a man. It is not that I am missing the competition gene. However, I can tell genuine competition when I see it, and, sorry football fans, football is not it. Perhaps that is why politics is one of my fascinations. Events like Congressional or Presidential elections can have huge consequences for my life. I am very grateful that the Democrats now control Congress, because I worry much less that my daughter, who is nearing eighteen, will now be drafted to fight in a winless war overseas. Whether the Bears or the Colts win, the Superbowl will likely have no effect on her life other than what it has had on mine: something you must grit your teeth and endure at certain times of the year.

So take my sports section, please! I have not opened it in years. I did not know who was playing in the Superbowl until it made the front page of my newspaper. The Washington Post could save many trees if it just stopped including that section in my newspaper. Instead, find me reading the fine details in the national and international news sections. Let me ponder the Op Ed section and write my pithy little political blog entries. Professional team sports might be entertainment, but for all its hoopla they are just frothy and inconsequential stuff. Enjoy it for its entertainment value; just do not delude yourself that it actually means anything.