Some time ago I determined that I had watched about one thousand football games in the thirty-five years I’d been on the planet, which led me to conclusions similar to those expressed by Steve Almond in David Cook’s September 2015 interview “The Church of the Gridiron.” Like Almond, I stopped watching football but eventually fell off the wagon in order to better relate to my father. After reading his interview, I am committed to finding new ways to connect with my dad other than watching this brutal sport.
Steve Almond’s interview about losing his faith in football brought to mind my experience of the sport. The damage to my body started in my junior year in high school: concussions and a serious knee injury. My saving grace was a sensitive, compassionate coach who cared more about his players than about winning.
College football was another story. In addition to knee and ankle injuries that were just “taped up,” daily concussions and “subconcussive events” were routine. Most of us suffered the emotional trauma of believing that your self-worth was a function of how tough you were. Having your “bell rung” was a badge of courage that you eventually enjoyed. It was clear that the best thing you could do in a game was hurt someone. Nothing brought higher praise.
I lost all respect for the game in 1965 and continue to question how anyone can maintain an interest in a sport so focused on brutality. Football is a national embarrassment and an ongoing tragedy for nearly everyone who participates.
“The Church of the Gridiron” nicely summed up my concerns with football. I was an avid fan in the early nineties, ready to purchase a big-screen TV to have football parties in my home, when I saw a documentary on the injuries the sport causes. It showed a former player unable to crawl, let alone walk, with his two-year-old son. He could move on the floor only by pulling himself along on his elbows. I never watched another game.
Steve Almond makes an impassioned case for the danger of football yet says he does not want to abolish it or lead a movement against it. Why on earth not? What about football is redeeming enough to keep?
I was the director of a brain-injury clinic on a military base for two years. We mostly saw concussions, but also a few severe traumatic brain injuries. It was an eye-opening experience. We should not allow anyone to get hurt like that for recreational reasons.
Football should be banned. We need to educate the public about its dangers so that fewer parents will allow their sons to play the game, and it will gradually lose its glamour and die a natural death.
Steve Almond makes a terrific point that the NFL reflects our culture’s triviality and spiritual vacuity, but he is wrong when he suggests that perhaps Christians love football because we “connect to the idea of sacrifice.” Not so. Christians love football because we have failed to integrate our faith and our life. We compartmentalize our religion so that we can live any way we choose. Jesus, we love you — just don’t ask us to give up what we truly love. Our infatuation with football is merely a metaphor for our insistence on separating the sacred from the secular. We want to be free from discipleship, justice, and mercy.
David Cook’s interview with Steve Almond mentions that the ancient Mayans played a sport in which the losing teams were sacrificed to the gods. I must offer an alternative version of that legend. When I visited the Mayan ruins at Tulum on the Yucatán Peninsula, the guide said that it was not the losing team but the captain of the winning team who was sacrificed. It would have been an insult to offer the gods anything less than the best, and the captains went proudly to their reward — much like American football players do today.
Your critique of football misses the bigger picture. NFL players earn enough money to provide their families security and education for generations. Most of the players know this and risk their physical health in this pursuit. Players also donate to charities. The NFL creates thousands of jobs both directly and indirectly. Steve Almond’s gripes are valid, even laudable, but the economics of football are also important. We should respect the players for risking so much. Their contribution to society extends well beyond the field of play.
I am an eighty-five-year-old Korean War veteran with a passion for football. I played varsity football as a quarterback and a defensive safety against players like Gino Marchetti and John Henry Johnson, who later joined the NFL. Both weighed more than two hundred pounds, which was uncommon in the 1940s. Once the football was in my hands, the greatest sensation went through my body. The game was everything to me. To this day many of my dreams take me back to the field, where I do incredible things. In reality my team won only two games in 1947. I did gain physical strength and courage, though, which helped me endure the Korean War.
I would have played football in the Navy and in college had I not injured my ankle in my senior year while pole vaulting. Should we abandon pole vaulting because of the possibility of head and back injuries? We need courageous men in football and in the armed services — no matter what injuries or deaths may be sustained.
Steve Almond responds:
If Jeff Ziegler is interested in the “bigger picture,” he might consider this: the salary awarded to Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen last season would have paid for the hiring of 474 elementary-school teachers, 440 paramedics, or 661 police officers. The central economic function of the NFL is to siphon money from the public till into the pockets of billionaire owners. It’s a circus meant to distract us from the excesses of capitalism. The idea that it empowers the underclass is nonsense. For every millionaire NFL player, there are tens of thousands who never make a dime playing the game. Even many pros wind up broke within a few years of retiring. I detail all of this in Against Football.
And I’m glad Jerome J. Martinez enjoyed playing football. Perhaps it did help him endure the Korean War. But the idea that “we need courageous men in football . . . no matter what injuries or deaths may be sustained” sounds to me like a defense of human sacrifice.
Joel Peckham’s essay about football and how it affected his maturation [“Phys-Ed,” September 2015] mirrored my own experience. My father also became who he was through football. The son of immigrants with little formal education, he found that the sport was a means to an education, a path he encouraged his sons to take. It worked well for my brothers and myself, gaining us admission to schools with top academic reputations.
My college coach insisted that academics were the primary reason for us to be at that school and on his team. I found the majority of my teammates to be bright, articulate, and sensitive. But the day I liked football best was the day after the season (and the pain) ended. Football helped me succeed in life, but the cost for players today is too great. The all-consuming nature of youth sports and the violence of football outweigh any of the positives.
I have four wonderful daughters and am grateful I don’t have to worry about a son begging to play football.
As I read Samantha Tetangco’s “Cash Cow” [September 2015], about the author’s experience dragging an oversized painting to a taping of Antiques Roadshow, I smiled at her mishaps. When I hit the line about Randi, the writer’s wife, I first thought I’d been mistaken in thinking the author was female.
I wasn’t. I was just accustomed to the pre-2015 world in which it was controversial for a woman to call her partner a wife. I’m proud of this new America, where the Supreme Court has confirmed that Samantha and Randi may be a wedded couple without any need for further explanation.
My ninth-grade English teacher assigned Robert Edwin Lee and Jerome Lawrence’s play The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. Since then I’ve been deeply influenced by Henry David Thoreau and would not be who I am today had I not been introduced to him. Jim Ralston’s essay “That Terrible Thoreau” [September 2015] reminded me how challenging and relevant Thoreau can still be.
I have been a Sun reader for nearly thirty years. It reminds me what a professor of mine said the real job of higher education is: to make students uncomfortable on purpose. This is what The Sun does to me. Reading it makes me agitated, motivated, dissatisfied, and exhilarated. It’s just what I need.
We mistakenly listed the copyright for Anne Stevenson’s “Poem for a Daughter” as belonging to Marie Howe, the author of a different poem in our November 2015 issue. Anne Stevenson is the rightful copyright owner. The Sun regrets the error.