Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Ugly Game

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Just another play.

I'll start with a confession: if a football game is playing on a television in any room I'm in, I can't keep my eyes off it.

It doesn't matter if I'm eating, drinking, shooting pool, having a conversation, trying to write a blog post: whatever I'm doing, I'll find my eyes straying every chance they get to the screen where large athletic bodies are crashing into each other as one set of them tries to move a ball down the field while the other tries to block that action. I have no fan skin in any of these games I watch: I know the names of only a handful of players, care little or nothing which team is winning, and have no idea until a few days before the Super Bowl who's going to be in it. And yet, the drama of this violent game grabs my attention every time. I thrill at successful passes, at dodged tackles and blocks, at interceptions that turn into touchdown runs; and I groan at hits that seem far too solid for any human body to survive--and feel my stomach turn when a player doesn't get up from one of those hits, and has to either limp off or be stretchered off the field. I grumble about rule-manipulating strategies that take the focus off the physical side of the sport and put it, instead, on using a time out or a knee on the field to stop the clock. And I shake my head at how much time referees must spend in rabbinical discussions about rule interpretation before the whistles are blown, the ball is hiked, and ten seconds of play elapse before the next penalty flag is thrown.

And then there's the racial element: more than two-thirds of NFL players are African-Americans. Meanwhile, the NFL fan base is more than 80% white. For an average 3.3 period in their 20s, black athletes are putting their lives on the line, risking injuries to their bodies and brains from which they may never fully recover, for the entertainment of white sports fans. And when they use their brief time in the spotlight to make a statement about how their people are treated by police officers, respectfully kneeling rather than standing during an anthem that, in its third verse, actually praises the institution of slavery, they are excoriated by the President of the United States, and threatened by the white men who own most football teams with docked pay and even unemployment.

When you hear football called "the beautiful game," it's not this American bloodbath that's being referred to. It's what we call soccer, a sport in which a 0-0 tied game can be considered a victory, and in which injuries are mostly limited to sprained ankles.

The football Americans cherish is much more akin to gladiatorial combat than sport. Soccer is a game which, like basketball, features rapid back-and-forth play, with frequent turnovers. Football, on the other hand, is all about strategically claiming territory, advancing one's position a few yards at a time, unless an opening in the defense can be exploited for greater gain. Offensive drives in football can take whole minutes of time. And, of course, there's the violence: massive, muscular men slamming their bodies into each other, tripping each other up, piling on top of each other. Not counting playoffs, NFL football seasons are 16 games long, compared to 82 for the NBA, and 162 for major league baseball. The reason for that is simple: bodies that have been so badly abused need time to heal.

So why do we love this slow-moving game that is so often interrupted by the need to carry a wounded warrior off the field? I think it's in the euphemism I chose for that last sentence: watching football is as close as most Americans will ever get to experiencing war. Basketball and soccer are about endurance, keeping things in play until the clock runs out. Baseball is a fast-twitch game in which patience and attention are rewarded with the flurry of activity that follows a hit. Football is about brute force and gained territory. The plot line of a football game is like that of World War I: for the offense, move the line of scrimmage a short distance through no-man's land, regroup, and try again; for the defense, fight back with everything you've got until the offense is forced to cede the initiative back to you, then replicate their advancement strategies in the opposite direction. And through it all, crunch bodies together, land blows that can bruise brains and break limbs, all in the name of claiming a victory for a fan base that is too weak and uncoordinated to even attempt what you're doing.

Considering how much these mostly black players are sacrificing for their mostly white audience, it is especially galling that their one, brief attempt during a game to take a stand on a national issue by, ironically, kneeling causes so much outrage among those white fans and the first President in decades to not only admit but embrace the reality that he only represents the shrinking number of Americans who are both white and conservative.

That fan base has been shrinking. The President and the NFL owners who support him will argue it's because of the anthem protests, but I think it runs far deeper than that. I think we, as a nation, are outgrowing our need for a weekly reenactment of the ugly trench wars of the past. I hope we're outgrowing the need for wars in general. We don't need to watch young men maim themselves to satisfy our violent impulses, because we're evolving past them. And what if some of the fans leaving the sport are doing so because they're fed up with the exploitation of young black lives on the gridiron, coupled with the efforts of a President who does not represent them to quash their one attempt at expressing their opinions?

The time will come when we look back on this controversy an wonder why such an ugly game was permitted to exist for so long, why so much money was spent on it, why so many millions of Americans devoted so many hours to watching it on their huge televisions, and why it was permitted to survive for so many years past the point when it became clear just how lethal it is to the future survival of the young men who play it. How could a civilized nation that values freedom and equality sanction a pastime so contrary to those values?

And in answer to that question, these future Americans (assuming the nation survives long enough that there are still people who call themselves that) need only look to the freak show we permitted to occupy the Oval Office. Maybe all that talk about freedom and equality was just talk. Maybe we were never all that civilized to begin with.

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