mm511: My Football-Free Fall

Perhaps you’ve noticed this logo accompanying my Facebook and Twitter postings since the football season began during late summer, 2012. As that endless season closes out today, with a certain “super” event, I decided that it’s time for another, more full explanation of what it’s been about.

We’ll begin by noting that I have loved the game of football since I was very, very young. Indeed, I recall that my parents gifted me with a kid’s plastic helmet and shoulder pads when I was about 10 years old, and I dimly remember playing in some kind of loosely organized games with that gear. As was always the case where yours truly and athletic effort is concerned, my interest level far exceeded my (pretty much non-existent) athletic ability, and, as a lineman I enjoyed playing the game but didn’t make much of a positive impression on my teammates or of any school coach. But, my love of the game only grew. I watched the college game, especially, on our (in those years, manifestly) black and white small screen television, and the annual Army Navy game, with its accompanying pageantry made such an impression on me that I was less surprised than I might have been when many years later our older son suddenly revealed as a high school freshman his interest in attending the Naval Academy, which indeed he made happen.

But I digress. Professional football, a much younger sport than the college game that began organized play in the second half of the 19th century, was embodied in my home town, Chicago, by the Bears, one of the first couple of teams created in the early 1920s by George Halas, who was still around as owner-coach when I began paying attention to the game. I don’t recall seeing many televised professional games, until I was in high school in the early 1960s, and the Bears actually won the championship. Exciting stuff. By the time I was attending that Evanston school, which itself had a lengthy history of football excellence, and an actual nationally known coach, Murney Lazier, I had long since been dissuaded by my parents from even considering attempting to try out, unlikely to be successful as that would have been, given my afore mentioned lack of any type of athletic ability – the violent, injurious nature of the game was understood by them long before I had achieved any kind of mature perspective on the issue. But I attended all of the high school home games, and, my senior year when I was driving, a few away games too.

So, that was me, football fan, even more than baseball, my dad’s longtime love. (A slight digression, but a wonderful story: he always said, and his mother confirmed, that he was an indifferent student of arithmetic until he began attending Cubs games [thanks to some generous uncles, as his father died when Dad was only five years old]. In those benighted years before newspaper in-depth coverage and Jumbotron scoreboards, my dad pushed himself to learn the math behind batting averages, so he could attend, or listen on the radio, and better understand the nuances of that game). In that same way, I loved watching football, a love that eagerly welcomed the television-fueled expansion of both the professional and college sport.

I remember the pre-Roman-numbered (prehistoric?) pro championship games, the first Monday night football game (by then viewed on our very own “large screen” [21-inch] color television – yes, I had to wait to get married before having such a luxury under our own roof), and I eagerly consumed all I could, professional and college. Meanwhile my dad, for whom I was working by that time in his small sales business, more than once expressed his own disappointment in the game, as its capacity for injury increased in proportion (or perhaps, beyond proportion) to the ever-increasing size and ferocity of its players. Even in those years, injuries were stunning. Chicago’s own Gale Sayers, a once in a generation talent, had his stellar professional football career as a running back and kick return specialist cut tragically short due to the accumulation of damage to his knees. Although, in retrospect, that brevity might just have salvaged his subsequent life, which has been quite professionally and philanthropically successful.

But, I ate it all up: the college game, the professional game, and although we were a late adapter of cable television, once ESPN was available to me, with its expanded coverage of both, I had long since become addicted. Indeed, advance forward 10-15 years to when ESPN once bragged that its “family of networks” went 37 straight days broadcasting a college or professional football game. Quite an advance from my first experience: high school and college – Saturday [no Friday night lights for our local high school until the naughts]; pro – Sunday, period. But, I ate it all up.

Yes, though my father had long since passed, I still heard his voice expressing his dismay over the injuries. Yes, I had long ago given up my subscription to Sports Illustrated, as its coverage of sports more and more resembled the crime log in a daily newspaper, what with drug arrests, bad behavior, including domestic violence, and, yes, those injuries, occupying more and more of its attention. But, I still watched the games, and listened to them on the radio while in the car, totally consumed the game (just loved Friday Night Lights, for its high quality domestic drama as much for its wonderful football drama), read all about the game, including a columnist that my son had called to my attention: Gregg Easterbrook, the Tuesday Morning Quarterback, whose weekly 9,000 word essays during the season are erudite and insightful of the professional (and college) game beyond my previous experience (Gregg, it’s you I have missed most of all this Fall!).

And then…

Easterbrook had been poking at the issue of injuries, specifically head injuries and inadequate helmets, for several years. His career as a writer (books, quality journals such as The Atlantic Monthly and the New Republic) and especially his (paid, I’m sure) status as an ESPN.com columnist, has been informed by his avocational experience as a coach of the organized teams participated in by his sons as they have grown up. He has always pointed out that high school and younger teams take their cues from the college and professional game. College leagues, especially, function as farm leagues for the pros, so they certainly reflect the professional ethos. And the professional leagues have steadfastly ignored, until very recently, the value of more up to date protective gear, especially helmets, in protecting the brain from injury. And, unfortunately, as the professionals go, so go the colleges, the high schools, the Pop Warner leagues, ad nauseum.

And then…

Dave Duerson, a defensive star of the championship Chicago Bears squad of the 1980s, committed suicide in a very particular way: he shot himself in the heart, and texted instructions to his survivors for his brain to be examined for football-related trauma, specifically chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)

And then…

Junior Seau, another, more recent defensive football star, died in the same way, with the same instructions.

And then…

A guy I’d never heard of named Jerry Sandusky (sorry, no link for him, he’s not worth the effort for me to place it, and you to read it) shat on the sport of college football, especially the prestige of Pennsylvania State University and its highly respected, long serving head coach, Joe Paterno.

It wasn’t the stomach-turning years-long sexual abuse of young children, nauseating as Sandusky’s crimes were. It was that he was aided, abetted, yea, enabled, by the corrupt nature of college football, as exemplified by Penn State, in whose facilities Sandusky perpetrated his dismal depravities, and whose leadership, including that revered Mr. Paterno, and extending to the president and administration of the university, shielded and protected him, even when the criminal nature of his activities was revealed to them.

But the corruption in the college game is far more extensive than just one institution. It’s all of the major leagues and organizations, who set football and its coaches on pedestals unworthy of the institutions’ purported academic aspirations. Football, and the television contracts negotiated on behalf of the premier schools, earns tens of millions of dollars annually for the premier competing colleges and universities. Coaches, as a result, are hyper-paid, and usually loyal, not to their employers, nor the young men they recruit with such glowing promises, but to the highest bidder for their services. And those young men, restricted by archaic regulations about payment, are effectively indentured servants of their colleges, paid, if they’re fortunate to be able to pay attention to their studies at all rather than the all-consuming sport they were recruited to serve, with scholarships that could, in a minority of cases, yield a diploma.

Between Sandusky, whose trial took place in early 2012, and who received an extended sentence that unfortunately did not include castration, and Seau, who died in May, 2012, the clamor in my mind regarding the truly criminal nature of the game I had loved for so long became too loud to ignore. Thus, Steve’s Football-Free Fall.

No, I am not the beginning of any trend, nor the founder of any movement, although I’ve been known to innovate. The game ignored my symbolic withdrawal. Beer still got sold in Amazonian quantities, as did pickup trucks. Super Bowl 47 will go on today despite my non-viewership (a first in that string, by the way).

But, I feel I accomplished quite a bit this fall. I read a great deal, on-line, and books, on my Kindle Fire. I followed, and contributed hard-earned dollars to, our first black president’s first black presidential re-election campaign. Very satisfying indeed. I continued my personal improvement program by dropping more weight.

And, it turned out that my supposed addiction to watching, reading, consuming the game of football was pretty easy to shake. No more horrible collisions on the field ending in stretchers, and suicides designed to further research into the hideous nature of the game. No more head coaches disdaining multiple-millions for multiple tens-of-millions, and, by the way, thereby likely depriving too many truly deserving underprivileged students and young adults of the opportunity for tertiary education.

Nope, no residual side effects. Except more free time. And, less nausea.

I think I need to change that graphic.

Steve’s Football-Free Life.

Not quite so alliterative. But a recipe for, perhaps, a more productive personal story.


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