Goodbye Football

22526A few weeks ago a friend posed a thoughtful question along these lines: “what cultural practices are we engaged in now that, when we look back on them in a few decades, we will regret having taken part in?” It is difficult to conceive that slavery was once an accepted part of our community, and a century ago a majority of the population was content that women could not vote. What will we be similarly embarrassed about in coming decades? There are lots of large and small candidates.

My own vote was football.

I enjoy watching football; it is the only sport to which I routinely pay attention. The combination of strategy and execution in each game, even the various off-season moves capture me. I like the draft, the signings, the personalities, the controversies. But over the last few seasons I have been unable to escape the violence.

Football has always been about large fast objects changing the direction of other last fast objects to advance the ball. But recently, for me at least, the pure physics of the sport has surrendered to a growing brutality in its execution. Football today seems less like chess and more like assault. We appear to be on the cusp of a widespread diagnosis of lingering brain trauma among players whose bodies have been pummeled by larger men hitting them at greater speeds. Signs that these players may have been, and may still be, at risk must not be understated by the sport’s governors or, by extension, fans like me. It is sad that commentators now routinely suggest that it is not the best teams that have playoff or bowl success but rather the ones that have been least ravaged by serious injury during the season.

Off-field violence among players has appeared to increase raising concerns that the brute passion so useful within the field of play, is bursting the confines of the game and making its way into player domestic relationships, sports celebrity expectations, and popular culture itself.

The observation that football players are America’s gladiators is unoriginal. But ancient Rome had as complicated a relationship to its gladiators as America does with its quarterbacks and linebackers. The gladiatorial code spoke to bravery and honor, even in death, values the Empire largely revered, and the original contests were usually ceremonial and commemorative events.  But the gladiator spectacles gradually became costlier, more self-indulgent and cruel, no longer linked to a shared value but instead cynical political entertainment exploiting the bloodlust of the crowd until the advent of Christianity as the Empire’s state religion dulled the appeal of the contests in the 4th and early 5th centuries.

American football is not the same. It does not applaud cruelty. Not yet anyway. But it is now a costly, indulgent, powerful commercial spectacle increasingly associated with violence, on and off field, and unless the game itself can recover its soul we fans will demean ourselves when our passion as spectators requires these men and boys to forfeit their physical and mental health, shorten their lives, and restrict to the field of play that cultivated aggression without which they cannot achieve athletic success.

Perhaps I will discover that the incidence of domestic and other physical violence among football players is no higher than other similarly situated populations, and possibly we will learn that the rate of head trauma has been overstated and the game can be made safer than it currently appears. I hope so, because local sports loyalty is one of the few remaining unifying, democratic, non-partisan endeavors and football still rules local sports loyalty.

But I am not going to wait. This year I have chosen a tiny little private boycott. I will not watch the live broadcast of any professional game. This is not a moral crusade; I won’t avert my eyes from football reporting during the local sportscast, and I’m not recruiting for a big cultural movement. I’ll still read the NFL coverage every week and even give myself a free pass for the Super Bowl. But until then I deliberately refuse to watch a game live until I can convince myself that decades from now I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren, without shame, that I did so. I do this not because I don’t like football but rather because I like it very much.

As I related my intentions recently someone said “if the Cowboys are 6-2 at midpoint of the season we’ll see if you keep your promise.” It’s a good point.

But I just don’t think that’s a big risk this year….


6 thoughts on “Goodbye Football

  1. As always, a very thoughtful comment on a significant part of our culture. What intrigues me is the relative importance we place on football for our young people. The Allen ISD spent $60M on a high school football stadium. I wonder if they considered the cost of building a start of the art physics/robotics lab? I too LOVE football but sometimes wonder if we’ve taken it too far.

    • Last night I was working on an account plan for a client while my husband watched the Giants game. I overheard th coach say that he’s using GPS to track top speed, burst and how long the player has run in terms of time and miles per game to measure performance. My first thought was that cardiovascular remote monitoring is capable of so much more than a consumer grade running app, this must be paid for by a sponsor. My second thought was biometric remote monitoring at Vanderbilt.
      Considering Medicare does not reimburse hospitals if a patient is readmitted within 30 days of being discharged and Cardiac beds are the most expensive occupancy in the hospital, it’s critical to prevent a heart patient from being admitted due to a minor issue that could be corrected by adjusting meds or diet. My recommendation for my Vandy has been reduce the risk monitoring patients with a device that works sort of like a FitBit, except it’s not a trendy pedometer, it’s a biometric mobile device.
      Biometrics monitors stats like oxygen saturation levels, body temperature, glucose level, blood pressure, heart rate, caloric intake, water weight gain/loss, caloric output, physical activity, sleep pattern, peak exertion and cardiovascular fatigue. Did the patient gain 4 lbs. since breakfast? Their blood pressure meds need to be adjusted before they pass out. Is their body temperature 2 degrees low? The doctor can call in an antibiotic before they get sepsis from the blood infection they don’t know they have yet. The patient can take action before problems become symptom or worse.
      What’s this have to do with the football? Well unlike other students who pay Vanderbilt to attend the university, most elite student athletes do not pay Vanderbilt full tuition, rather Vanderbilt invests millions into each recruit over the course of a 4 year period. Athletes are not Vanderbilt’s customers but they’re not Vanderbilt employees either. They’re valuable capital assets when they’re performing but before proof of concept season one, they’re risky investments. Like the discharged patient, until day 31.
      If I were going to spend millions of dollars to reserve an early decision roster spot for a kid based on his physical abilities, I would hope my decision was backed up by more data than a negative drug screen and clean annual physical. If the Giants GPS was biometric not only would the monitoring show how fast, how far, how often their guys are running but biometrics could point out that that the QB rotates his hip after 5 miles. Far better to strengthen a week hip muscle than to compensate with a knee and blow out an ACL the first time you play through to the 2nd half.
      I went to LinkedIn to see who you’re connect to at Vanderbilt in an effort to identify a tech savvy executive VU football fan wouldn’t be too surprised to hear these suggestions. Your connections are private so I downloaded Who@, naturally. I needed your email to add you so I went to Twitter, followed you, synced by followers to outlook and then outlook to Who@ but first I saw the tweet “Goodbye Football”. Then I read this blog/comments.
      1. Blame in on our culture but prophesy fulfilled, here I am evaluating the cost of a state of the art robotics/physics lab compared to Vanderbilt’s Football Facilities. Not ironically, the first time I read about m2m technology was in AP physics in 2002 when UC Berkley’s robotics department published the paper “Smartdust”, the conceptual emerging technology MEMS and theories for practical application for remote monitoring. The cost of their state of the art physics/robotics lab was $2.95M.
      2. Off the field behavior may result from physical trauma plus biophysical predisposition. We can identify and manage those risk factors if we had the data to do it. An EKG does this today with the heart condition called SADS.
      3. We don’t know stats on head injury prevention because we decided treat all potential injuries with extreme caution by as if it’s for sure a TBI, just in case it is. I think this has worse implications than prior.
      4. When David beat Goliath, it was the thud of strategy and physics that quelled the crowd’s bloodlust. I’m suggesting Vanderbilt does the same but to save a life, not TKO a linebacker.

      With all due respect, don’t you think your grandchildren will think my idea is better than you closing your eyes?

  2. “But until then [end of 2014-season playoffs, IOW, today] I deliberately refuse to watch a game live until I can convince myself that decades from now I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren, without shame, that I did so.”

    Noble as the day is long, but how does your single-year-yoga-stance change your grandchildren’s view of you as some sort of gladiator thumb-downer? Shouldn’t you be adopting this ban for *life,* i.o.w., watch nothing but the Super Bowl? [I already do that too, unless the Saints are in the hunt.] After all, still-forming college-age brain pans are softer, etc., so all *that* viewing is out too, right? Just askin.

    • Good points but my view is that statements come in many flavors and the most compelling is often simply “consume less”. Asking people to “consume none” may be too hard or too daunting but asking them (or yourself) to consume less is a realistic first step. I still use plastic containers and gasoline, and processed sugar but over the years I have committed to use less and have seen benefit. Maybe the League changes, and maybe they don’t. I’ll decide nest year whether to carry on. Or maybe next year I will add a scary little tool and publish the list of all the NFL sponsor companies and when possible, purchase alternative brands! If enough did that…Roger would notice.

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