Thursday, May 10, 2012

Why Johnny Hates Football

Why might Johnny hate football?

It hurts?  It's dangerous?  It's no fun anymore?

The violence of football has taken center stage in an unprecedented way in the last year or so.  Between the lawsuits by former players alleging long-term disabilities to the suspensions related to the bounty program by the New Orleans Saints to the recent suicide of Junior Seau - who joins a list of former NFL players plagued by depression to the point of early death - football is in the crossfire for becoming our guiltiest of pleasures.  Watching incredibly large and athletic men smashing into each other intentionally at high speeds has replaced baseball as our national pastime.  But many cultural critics are having second thoughts.

The national dialogue is beginning to rise above the din of smashing shoulder pads, and many are questioning whether the sport has gone too far.  From Malcolm Gladwell and Buzz Bizzinger debating why college football should be ended to ESPN analysts discussing the issue almost nightly, the question of how to deal with our fascination with hard hits on the gridiron are becoming uncomfortable.  What to do about the violence?  How guilty should we be about our guiltiest pleasure?  We know it's a dangerous game, and we expect it to be.  But we like it, and these men are on the field by choice.  And, of course, despite the concerns raised by tragedies like Seau's suicide, aren't the majority of former NFL players functioning and as healthy or healthier than the general population?  Certainly, the analysts in the booth are not suffering from early onset dementia.  And some research has even asserted that former NFL players outlive and are healthier longer than the average man.  Could be.  Makes sense in many ways.

Most recently, John Kass of the Chicago Tribune weighed in with an indictment of the sport, claiming "U.S. football is doomed."  Kass wonders whether parents may begin asking, "Is football worth it for my child?"  At least one national sports analyst has stated publicly he will not let his son play football professionally, or, if I'm not mistaken, even beyond the high school level.  His professional gut tells him that the risk of playing football at the highest level is simply not worth it.  I know it's not a question for me.  While my son is athletic and quite successful in baseball, basketball, and running, he has shown no interest in football.  In fact, his youth hoops coach is also a football coach, and he's begged my son to play for a few years.  But we tell him, "Coach, he's not interested."  Our boy doesn't like getting bumped into and tackled.  Pushing in the lane for a rebound is enough for him.

And, I'm glad.  Having grown up in a soccer community, I was never that interested in football.  Though when my friends went out for football during high school I was tempted.  My mother had a fit, reminding me of a childhood friend who passed away at the age of twelve on the football field.  It can be that cruel of a sport.  And as kids get bigger and more athletic, it only gets more dangerous.  They are, it seems, as a friend once told me "our gladiators."  And, something about that makes me uneasy.  The pressure for success on the sports field has become a serious societal force.  And it's a key ingredient in why, more and more these days, "Johnny Hates Sport."  And that's sad because the athletic field is a source for so much good in the lives of young men.  Many great lessons can come from the football field, and we may have lost some of that as concerns about health rise.

Something has to give.  And it can't only be the helmet and shoulder pads.

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