Opinion | Despite flaws, football continues to preserve characteristics of American sports culture
Roger Goodell's NFL is at the top of the sports heap. The league's ratings crush every other major sport. Millions of kids across the country grow up playing backyard football with friends and playing Madden for hours on end.
The game has reached its cultural peak. The spectacle that is Super Bowl week is unmatched in American sports. Football is undoubtedly America's game, and though that should be celebrated, the game does come with its contradictions.
Football is violent. It's a game with violence at its core. Hitting another man as hard as you can (or being able to take the hits) is the fastest way to gain accolades. ESPN's pregame show might've gotten rid of the segment, but fans still love to watch guys get "jacked up."
That's why an obsession with making a fundamentally unsafe game safe is in vogue today. Americans will worship the violent game, but are fundamentally uncomfortable with the notion of violence. They cannot abide by hard hits to the head, which are certainly unsafe (though at times unavoidable on a football field), so the league penalizes such hits. The purists say, "You're fundamentally changing the game." Some pragmatists say, "What about the knee injuries to come?" There's really no good answer to any of these questions.
Roger Goodell is smart to get behind and work with Heads Up football, which teaches youth league players to tackle with their heads up to avoid head injury. But even the most Pollyannaish football fan (of which I am one) will admit this doesn't eliminate risk of serious injury. Hitting with a vengeance will lead to injury. The injuries are hard to watch. The Colts-Chiefs first round game was at many times painful to sit through because guys were going down left and right. And nobody needs to be reminded of the Navarro Bowman leg twisting injury during the NFC championship.
Yes, the injuries are hard to watch, but still over 100 million Americans will most likely have watched the Super Bowl on Sunday. With all apologies to Alan Alda, pretty soon the list of the top five most-watched TV programs in American history will be nothing but Super Bowls.
Nothing illustrates the obvious contradiction football creates better than the President telling "New Yorker" editor David Remnick he wouldn't let his son play football while they worshiped at the altar of the NFL during some downtime aboard Air Force One. The elites are, more and more, rejecting a game for themselves that's fine for the rest.
Some, like Malcolm Gladwell, suggest that down the road, football will go the way of boxing, spurned by the upper classes and played only by those trying to lift themselves out of poverty because of the risk of brain injuries.
But there's risk in everything, and if they stop playing the game in the Acela corridor and continue to replace it with lacrosse, then fine-I doubt the rest of America will follow suit for quite some time. And we should hope we never follow suit, because there will still be nothing more fun than banding together with teammates and working together to win any kind of game. There's really no game more rewarding than football: hours upon hours of preparation for the shortest season in all of major league sports. It takes the most mental toughness of any game.
Football is actually one of the better things about today's culture. The game is physical, but also can be looked at as one big chessboard. Even the smallest movement a player makes can make all the difference on a given play, and each play is part of a grand strategy based on many hours of study.
It's steeped in contradictions, but ultimately so rewarding; the handwringing is only taking away from the joy it can bring.
On top of that, people in our generation are already too often so mentally weak, so unable to take criticism. And because of this, they are so afraid to stake out intellectual claims or take smart risks. I worry about a culture that rejects games like football that teach men to be men. It's a game that teaches kids to take constructive criticism, teaches them not to be afraid to make mistakes doing their best, and holds them accountable to for their effort. Many sports do these things, but none is quite like football. You just cannot fake it in football. Teamwork is completely necessary to win. And without the game, this pervasive cultural weakness will only get worse.
Underlying violence and all, football is worth preserving ultimately because it preserves character traits drying up throughout our culture. Traits we have to find some way to preserve.
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