Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Americans and Their Hypocrisy Over Football

I'm 56 years old. Like most people my age, I've had to endure my share of bores at dinners and cocktail parties blathering on endlessly about their personal obsessions, not noticing the glazed look in the eyes of their interlocutors. These bores are often men. And no subject gets them going quite like the testosterone-soaked game known as American football.

Since I was a child, I've been struck not only by the violence of this sport, but also by the rabid frothing of its fans. Again like many Americans, I went to schools where football was king. And you were expected to bow down before it. 

I didn't.

I regularly engaged in arguments with its proponents, including players and coaches, who were routinely the most narcissistic and dim-witted people I'd ever come across. In my high school, for example (in Pittsburgh), the football coaches instructed their players not to "carry anything" the day before A Big Game. The players interpreted this to include books, paper, and pencils. So in class, a teacher might ask, "Lou, why don't you have your homework?"

"We have a game tomorrow. Coach told me not to carry anything today."

And they got away with it.

Of course we were expected to attend football (and basketball) games and root for our "heroes." Sometimes we were made to. First of all, I never gave a shit about the game. Second, how did the ability to throw a ball make you a hero? Third, I resented the forced conformity imposed on us by the school administration. You wanna watch a game? Go. Nobody's stopping you. But don't force me to go. I don't force you to go see the plays and musicals put on by the excellent theater department, where a hell of a lot more talent was on display than on the field of head-bashers. 

One year I had to give a mini-speech as secretary of the National Honor Society (for my foreign readers, an academic club that is a typical part of American high schools). I ditched the expected platitudes about "virtue," "honesty," blah blah blah, which the other officers of the club delivered, and instead compared the achievements of scholars with those of athletes, pointing out that the former weren't appreciated while the latter were lauded to the skies. 

I'm sure some of the school administrators weren't pleased, but I got applause from the audience, made up of students, teachers, and parents.

Later still, I found out that one of the school's star football players, who was actually a nice guy (unusual for the type), but who was barely competent academically, had been not only accepted to a prestigious college but given a full, four-year scholarship. I had applied to the same college. My academic record was stellar. I was rejected.

I fired off a letter to the college -- William & Mary in Virginia -- and got a predictably formulaic reply, though the respondent acknowledged that the decision to anoint the football player in question had caused a bit of controversy on campus.

One of the things I had always pointed out -- to, for example, Coach Lynn (yes, as unfortunate as "A Boy Named Sue") A________, who also taught social studies and whom I would intercept in the hallway between classes -- was the violence inherent in the game. Guys bashing the shit out of each other. Modern-day gladiatorial combat. And this was way before the current crop of grotesquely overweight, over-muscled behemoths that populate teams today.

Mr. A________, like his fans, would have none of it. "It's not violent, we take precautions, our guys are good students" yadda yadda yadda.

I was lucky to attend a college that wasn't sports-obsessed, and where none of the sports were inter-collegiate. All the sports were strictly intramural, and anyone who wanted to could play any sport they liked. Football was one of those sports, but it was flag football. No body contact. No tackling. And -- surprise surprise! -- people actually played it. 

Horrors! How could they possibly play such a version of football and, worse, have fun?? Impossible! 

Obviously you have to bash each other's skulls in, preferably causing a concussion, in order for football to be "exciting."

I still didn't give a shit about the game, but at least my friends weren't ending up in the hospital with brain damage.

Fast forward to adulthood. I started doing more research and discovered that athletes, particularly of the so-called "manly" sports such as football, basketball, and lacrosse, committed violent crimes far out of proportion to their representation in the population. In other words, such athletes commit more crimes more often than do regular Joes. Rape and sexual assault are favorites.

I didn't know this in high school and college (though it wouldn't have surprised me), so I started talking about the phenomenon. You can imagine the response.

In 2003, I had to fight the old-boys' network at the Baltimore Sun tooth and nail to get an op-ed published. Though I had all my ducks in a row, every fact checked and double-checked and sourced to within an inch of its life, certain people (i.e., male fans) in the newsroom became apoplectic. How dare I criticize their precious game? How dare I mention the name of a beloved local football player, one who had weaseled out of a deadly serious felony charge (another common occurrence for athletes), I, who wasn't fit to touch his hem?

The op-ed page editor, as it happened, wasn't a football fan, but he was soon brought to heel. He began questioning and re-questioning every sentence I had written, and kept coming up with claims that were patently false, and which I knew his newsroom colleagues were feeding him.

Credit where credit is due, he eventually acknowledged that I knew what I was talking about. The piece got published. But in a watered-down version. For example, I couldn't call crimes "crimes"; I had to call them "things." Here's the op-ed. Imagine it before it became denuded. 

(Incidentally, I had the same experience at NPR, which sucks up to sports just as much as every other mainstream media outlet, and where I still had to fight to get anything on the air, even once, about the enormous number of crimes committed by athletes and the impunity therefrom.) 

Fast-forward again. Now we're in a period where people are shocked, shocked! to discover that football is -- duh -- violent, and that its players are receiving -- duh -- serious injuries, including -- duh -- concussions, which are leading to -- duh -- brain damage, even to the point of -- duh -- death.

Heaven forfend! Who could have foreseen this?! O woe is us!

The display of -- simultaneously, no less -- concern and hypocrisy is something to behold. All over television, radio, newspapers, the blabbosphere, people are talking about the violence of football. Fans who gleefully watch somebody getting the shit kicked out of him now pretend that they never noticed this before -- while continuing to cheer said shit-kicking.

We even have people who are fans but who wouldn't let their own children play the game. They enjoy watching other people destroy each other, but not little Johnny or Jimmy. 

Sidebar: if you're a parent and you let your child play football, you should be charged with child abuse in my book, or at least negligence. But that's another sacred cow we're not allowed to gore in this country -- the "values" and "sanctity" of sport. Talk to the kids at Mepham High about values and sanctity, or at Glen Ridge, or Steubenville, or Penn State. Now multiply. By god-knows-how-many. There's your sanctity for you. And the parents, coaches, and fans who dismiss this behavior are just as despicable.

In the state of Maryland, where I live, the most highly paid public employees are college coaches. They make more than the top physicians, lawyers, judges, scientists. More values on display.

In the city where I live, you're treated to the spectacle of grown men and women behaving like 10-year-olds when their beloved team is in season (or whatever the correct locution is -- like I give a fuck). Even in professional settings -- banks, offices, municipal agencies -- employees are festooned in team colors, usually in facsimiles of uniforms, meaning that instead of talking to someone dressed like a professional, in suit and tie, say, or skirt and blouse, or at least a pressed shirt for God's sake, you're faced with a grinning idiot with an oversized Number 10 or Number 8 or Number Whatever on his/her chest and a purple ribbon around his head.

And as ever, the forced conformity comes into play. There are workplaces where you're actually expected to dress this way; and if you don't, the disapproval is loud and clear. What's the matter with you? Why can't you participate? Why can't you "support the team"? You're not a "team player." The latter is the worst sin you can commit in corporate America.

So here we are at the end of yet another football season, where everywhere you go the "glory" of the game is shoved in your face, where you can't even read the news without headlines screaming about this or that team. And here we have, yet again, the hand-wringing and rending of garments and faux concern about the apparently newly discovered violence of this game. And as usual, nothing will change. 

The fans will paint their faces, they'll trot out their "team spirit," they'll get drunk and get into fistfights in the stands or gather around the TV at home to watch O Wow The Great Commercials!, they'll cheer for their favorite obscenely overpaid stuntmen (who cares that many of them have committed crimes?), they'll gamble on "Fantasy Football," placing bets the way the Romans did before the fights in the Colosseum, and they'll act like the Super Bowl is the biggest event of their lives.

I normally have a healthy appetite, but the atmosphere around here is sticking in my craw and making me choke.