Football is dead. Long live football.
Concussions, lawsuits, death -- but fans are still cheering
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 3 NFL Preview. Subscribe today!
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 3 NFL Preview. Subscribe today!
Editor's note: This article contains explicit language.
1. In a typical regulation football game, the two teams combine to run roughly 120 plays from scrimmage compared with nearly 300 pitches in a typical baseball game. There are no "waste pitches" in football. Every play is meaningful, consequential, suspenseful. Every play is part of a mighty struggle, a drive, and in the end all 120 plays combine to create a narrative, or metanarrative. Baseball, boxing, handball, sooner or later every game gets compared to narrative, but only in football are the plays perfectly linear, drawn up with letters, and only in football is the field itself lined like a sheet of notebook paper. The metanarrative of a single football game then fits within the larger saga of Football, which fits within -- and helps explain -- the masterplot of America.
2. My cousin Jim doesn't think like this. He just loves the Jets. He has season tickets, even though he lives in Chicago. He keeps a green jersey in the trunk of his car, just in case a Jets pep rally breaks out. He once tried to buy Fireman Ed a beer at the Meadowlands. (Ed said no; he needed to stay focused on the game.) If Jim were stranded on a deserted island for 30 years and a rescue boat finally came, after the rescuers had treated his sunburn and poured cool water down his throat he'd ask them: How are the Jets doing?
3. But seven years ago Jim found a soul mate to rival Ed: Colleen. So on a sparkling autumn Sunday, Jim made the ultimate gesture of love. Though the Jets were hosting Jacksonville, he agreed to drive Colleen all the way the hell out to Wapella, Ill., in the middle of the cornfields, to meet her folks.
4. I remember the first time he told me this story. I could just imagine his stoic face as he made super-polite small talk with Colleen's mom, dad, sibs as he looked through old photos, petted the family dog, ate the waffles or scrambled eggs -- all the while darting furtive glances at the TV. The Jets weren't on, of course. In Illinois farm country it was the Bears. But every few minutes the screen flashed the out-of-town scores, and Jim saw that his Jets were locked in a nail-biter. Nursing a one-point lead. Third quarter.
5. Finally he couldn't take it anymore. Like a twitchy junkie he leaped up and announced he forgot something in the car, he'd be right back. Moments later, hunched behind the wheel, he tuned in the feed from New Jersey. (Do I need to say that Jim subscribes to NFL Radio?) The situation, he learned, was dire. Chad Pennington, shoulder injury, return questionable. Grabbing the Pennington jersey from the trunk, Jim sealed the car windows, cranked the volume and pumped his fist as Pennington's backup, Jay Fiedler, came on.
6. What the --? Suddenly the announcer said Fiedler was down too, making snow angels on the snowless turf. Just then Jim looked up. He saw Colleen's sweet mom peering through the farmhouse window. He'd lost all track of time. Had he been gone 10 minutes? Half an hour? As he and Fiedler struggled to recover (return questionable), Jim saw what Colleen's mom saw, what anyone would have seen. A grown man in a bright green smock, sitting alone in a car that sways with the vehemence of his pounding and cursing. Clearly Colleen's mom was wondering, as anyone would have, what sort of disorder afflicted her future son-in-law.
7. It's the same disorder that afflicts tens of millions of Americans. Maybe Jim suffers from a more virulent strain. Maybe not. Football simply has an iron grip on our collective psyche, to the extent that America has a collective psyche anymore. We love it. God help us, we love it.
8. We always have, going back 143 years, ish, to when it was nothing but a scrum of sweatered Ivy Leaguers, a mosh pit of privileged brats. The depth of our love, however, the irrational ferocity of it, has grown steadily, exuberantly, until now, in post-Ivy, post-9/11, postmodern, post-American America, we love football to distraction. We love it to the tune of $9 billion per annum. (That's just the pros.)
9. And yet, as with so many relationships, we quietly tell our friends: It's complicated.
10. Our friends don't let up. Like a Greek chorus of self-anointed Dr. Phils, they say our love for football is wrong, our love is unhealthy, our love is doomed. Just as we were getting excited for this 93rd season of the NFL, they warned us that we shouldn't count on a future with football. Football is bad for you, they say, as if we didn't know that already.
11. Buzz Bissinger, Malcolm Gladwell, George F. Will, they've all recently declared that football is going bye-bye. Or maybe that's the wrong way to put it. Maybe what they meant is closer to what George Carlin said about climate change. The planet isn't going anywhere. We are. Pack your shit, folks.
12. After all, boxing didn't go anywhere. Boxing is still here. No, honest, it's around here somewhere. You can still fly to Vegas this weekend, take in a prizefight. Just be prepared to feel the peculiar enervation of total irrelevance. Boxing, which once stood at the center of American cultural life, glistening arms aloft, now slouches punch-drunk on the tattered fringes. So while you're seated ringside, watching that fight, which won't even make the morning papers, and not simply because there are no morning papers, bear in mind: Messrs. Gladwell, Bissinger, Will and others say the same pall of obsolescence should hang over football games, pro, college, high school, peewee. Until the games vanish altogether.
13. Who am I to disagree? I'm hardly qualified, and I'm woeful at predictions. After catching the first episode of Dancing With the Stars, I howled: Who in their right mind would watch this? Also, my natural default is pessimism, especially about things I love, since most things I love are doomed (books, bookstores, newspapers, neckties, the environment). Still, I feel about forecasts of football's extinction the way I did about Stephen Hawking's warning that the world would soon be ruled by robots. My first thought: Well, he's a genius, it must be true. My second thought: Robots? Really?
14. Isn't that the word of the day? Isn't that the question that defines our age? The question that isn't a question, delivered with one raised eyebrow and a purse-lipped smirk. Really? You're wearing that? Really? You're going to eat that? As a rule, I avoid the word. My doctor says I'm getting too much irony. But now, for no other reason than the perverse thrill of being optimistic about something, let me respectfully but firmly say: Really? No football? Let me build a case, albeit a small case, a plaintive case, a somewhat illogical and unapologetically subjective case, for football's survival.
15. If nothing else, it will make me a hero in the eyes of my cousin Jim.
16. I'll begin by admitting the problem. Admitting there's a problem is the first step in ignoring it, right? Clearly, football faces threats from every direction, but among them are three major ones, three new ones, the first of which is science. In the past few years researchers have developed vivid new methods of quantifying and illustrating football's barbarism. Granted, no one ever said football wasn't barbaric. On the contrary, barbarism was always part of its charm. The sight of men mauling one another was viscerally satisfying, and Americans freely, breezily acknowledged this. Baseball "breaks your heart," Bart Giamatti famously said. "It is designed to break your heart." Fine -- football was designed to break everything else. That's why we used to chuckle wryly when football players carried their barbarous attitude off the field. How droll, we said, when Ernie Holmes led the Steelers to the title in 1975, just two years after going berserk on the Ohio Turnpike, firing shots at a police helicopter.
17. No one ever confused football with croquet. No one ever denied the physical toll it exacts. Ex-quarterbacks who can't raise their arms. Ex-linebackers who can't lace their shoes. Ex-fullbacks who can no longer get out of bed without help from their wives. We know, we know, we've always known, and we've appeased our conscience thusly: Hey, they played by choice. They knew the risks. No one put a gun to their head.
18. And yet suddenly, study after study finds that football's ethos of violence, its inverted doctor oath (First Do Much Harm) leads to unknown tiers of consequences, insidious injuries we never suspected. We're talking about more than concussions. We're talking about "subconcussive injuries," a phrase that will soon be everywhere and may become this generation's "secondhand smoke." It means smaller, repeated head blows that often go unnoticed and untreated but cumulatively can be more dangerous than having your "bell rung," a euphemism that needs to go away, now.
19. The second threat is litigation. Roughly 3,000 former players and surviving family members are suing the league for distorting and squelching and cold-shouldering data about concussions. If history teaches anything about massive societal change, it's that nothing causes it faster than straight cash. Politics, public opinion, they sometimes move the needle. But money kicks inertia's lard ass out of the way. The No. 1 reason people think football is invulnerable? Money. There's too much at stake, the argument goes, for the NFL to die. But that cuts both ways. Of the 50 most valuable sports franchises on the planet, 32 are NFL teams. It's hard to imagine this still being true if judges and juries begin levying Big Tobacco-esque, Catholic Church-ish, Erin Brockovich-y settlements against the league.
20. Third threat, death. When O.J. Murdock, wide receiver for the Titans, killed himself on July 30, he became the sixth former or current professional football player to commit suicide in the past two years. Kurt Crain, Mike Current, Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, Junior Seau, each reportedly suffered some combination of the classic symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE (headaches, slurred speech, psychosis, depression, dementia, memory loss, etc.). Duerson, a former Bear and a member of a panel investigating disability claims of ex-players, left his wife a note, "Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL's brain bank," then shot himself in the heart.
21. Seau didn't leave a note in the spring, but he did shoot himself in the chest, and his brain tissue is now being studied at the National Institutes of Health. Whatever the findings, they can't be more telling, more damning, than Seau's mother wailing at the sky: "Take me, leave my son!"
22. Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which got $1 million from the NFL in 2010, is studying the brains of 60 deceased football players. Thus far, the center has released the test results for a third of those brains; all but one have shown signs of CTE. Another 500 athletes have signed waivers, willing their brains to the center. Matt Birk, a Harvard grad and 15-year NFL center for the Ravens, says signing the waiver was his way of giving back to the game, helping future players. But after a lifetime of concussions, "it's too late for me."
23. No one can say definitively that CTE is the cause of football's recent spate of suicides. Cricket players, after all, don't present with CTE, and yet 100 cricketers have killed themselves over the years, an epidemic for which no one has an explanation. Still, one thing can be said definitively. Cricket players don't shoot themselves in the chests to preserve the battered evidence of their torment.
24. As if suicides weren't haunting enough, chilling new questions have cropped up about links between concussions and aberrant sexuality. Two recent studies find a possible correlation between childhood head injuries and a range of deviant sexual behaviors. Suddenly, you have to wonder about Lawrence Taylor, arrested in 2010 for having sex with an underage girl. (He later pleaded to a lesser charge.) You have to wonder about former Bengals linebacker Nate Webster, who was sentenced in June to 12 years in prison for having sex with the underage teen daughter of a former coach on his own team. You don't want to wonder, but you have to.
25. Even if football eludes these threats, the accretive damage might already be done. Ominous headlines, frowning scientists, addled Hall of Famers, the whole slowly unfolding buzzkill can't help but have a suppressive effect on parents. Since parents are the first owners, agents, coaches and GMs of future athletes, they might already be steering their charges toward other sports. That exodus might soon become a stampede as the latest bad news becomes more widely known -- concussions are far, far more dangerous for children than adults.
26. Emergency rooms now treat 175,000 kids each year for sports-related brain injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among high schoolers, the majority of such injuries are football-related. When parents get better at spotting concussions, when parents more fully appreciate the downstream effects of concussions, that number will spike, which will lead to more bad publicity, which will translate to fewer players.
27. At some point in every human problem, math takes over. When the player pool shrinks, so does the fan base. When the player pool and fan base shrink, the game atrophies. When the game atrophies, it dies.
28. It will be years before the science is conclusive, before the litigation is settled, before the body count becomes high enough for Congress to step in. Which may be why you hear an airy optimism from so many NFL fans. It's the same thing you hear about peak oil. Oh, they'll think of something. In other words, sooner or later they will come up with a better helmet, a space-age polymer, a silicone gel insert cushion foam thingamajig that will create a perfect Fort Knox for the cranium. Never mind that "they" have been pretty clear to this point: Such a majig isn't possible.
29. Scientists compare the brain to Jell-O, or an egg yolk, or an oyster, or fettuccine Alfredo -- it's hard to get the metaphor just right when you're dealing with the seat of consciousness -- but the point is that you're not supposed to jiggle it. The brain is not a snow globe. Neurons don't simply settle back down after a vigorous shake.
30. No helmet can prevent the head from stopping short, nor keep the cortex (thinking, vision), basal ganglia (messaging neurons), frontal lobes (problem solving, judgment) and temporal lobes (hearing, memory) from sloshing forward and banging into bone. That's when the damage occurs, damage that shows up in postmortem staining tests as heinous brown splotches. Yes, it's true, football turns the brain brown. Football makes the brain look like a football.
31. The concussion-proof helmet is like the plastic bag that biodegrades into topsoil or the electric car that goes from Maine to Baja on one penny-size solar-powered battery. It's a product of our childlike dreams, not of any real drawing board.
32. In the 1960s new helmets boasted innovations like "air-inflation," "micro-fitting," "injection molding," "one-piece shells," all of which were supposed to snugly Nerf the head, but in fact weaponized it. At the same moment that quantum leaps in training and nutrition began to make players as big and fast as rhinos, new helmets induced them to lower their heads like rams. People blame the concussion crisis on the freakish size and speed of players, but 50 years ago, when players were smaller and slower, football's violence was ghastly. The game didn't become a Headbangers' Ball until "safer" helmets turned players, or led players to turn themselves, into 250-pound spears.
33. It takes a concerted effort to remain hopeful about football as you read through the lawsuits. The most recent, Derrick Walker, Plaintiff, v. National Football League; and NFL Properties LLC; Riddell Inc., d/b/a Riddell Sports Group Inc.; All American Sports Corporation, d/b/a Riddell/All American; Riddell Sports Group Inc.; Easton-Bell Sports Inc.; Easton-Bell Sports LLC; EB Sports Corp.; and RBG Holdings Corp., Defendants, depicts NFL doctors as a network of Conrad Murrays and Hannibal Lecters. It cites the sad plight of Wayne Chrebet, former receiver with the Jets. Chrebet says team doctors not only cleared him to play immediately after he was concussed, they pushed him. Researchers now believe the dangers of a concussion are magnified if the patient suffers another soon after. That's why new league rules say a doctor must hold out a concussed player for days, sometimes weeks, until he's passed a battery of cognitive tests. Chrebet, however, played in olden times -- seven years ago. As a result, according to Walker's suit, Chrebet now lives in a fog: "The effects of brain damage have changed Chrebet's life. As Chrebet has explained, 'I have good days and bad days. A bad day is when you can't get out of bed and there's this dark cloud hanging over your head. A good day is anything else.'"
34. One of Chrebet's concussions may have happened while my cousin Jim was punching his dashboard in that Illinois cornfield. I wonder how this knowledge will change the way Jim watches football, how it will change the way we all watch. The next time a receiver gets blown up, the next time his helmet flies off and there are X's where his eyes should be, will we feel the old shivers of perverse voyeuristic car-wreck excitement, which we're loath to admit, or will we feel new and even more uncomfortable pangs of -- guilt?
35. Years ago, when I was a newspaper reporter, the circulation at my newspaper started to tank. This was before the Internet, before hand-held devices, before newspapers accepted that their time on earth was up. Frantic to stanch the circulation drop, management conducted a series of focus groups. Over and over, the people in the focus groups said the same thing. They enjoyed sitting with a cup of coffee each morning and reading the interesting articles. They simply didn't have the time. Consequently, the newspapers stacked up by the back door. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday -- at week's end, as the people carted the stack out to the recycling bin, they felt guilty about not staying informed, guilty about killing all those trees, guilty, guilty, guilty. I remember sitting with my fellow reporters, each of us asking the ceiling: What kind of future can you project for a consumer product if the main emotion it inspires in consumers is guilt? I now ask myself the same thing about football.
36. Wait. I nearly forgot. I'm supposed to be arguing for the survival of football. I guess my head got the better of my heart.
37. Football will survive because it's weathered this crisis before. I don't know that I believe the old chestnut History repeats itself. Life is various, ever changing, and though situations might have precedents, every situation is a snowflake. I agree with Chesterton: "Of all earthly studies, history is the only one that does not repeat itself." And yet, it must be acknowledged, football has been here before. Right here. On this same moral hash mark. It was born in blood. It was weaned on death. It was invented in the late 1800s when some mad scientists got the idea to combine rugby with soccer, then slowly stirred in elements of wrestling, boxing, lacrosse, bullfighting, track and field and keep-away. Then they simmered it real slow, like a meat sauce, until it congealed into something that would make gladiators shudder.
38. It caught on right away, captured the public's imagination, because its ruggedness was thought to cultivate masculinity, to instill vitality, just when American men feared they were losing touch with those things. (Has that ever not been true of American men?) Rules were added. The forward pass. The line of scrimmage. Gradually the game acquired a matrix of dos and don'ts, a rulebook more complex than the assembly instructions for an Ikea entertainment center.
39. Complexity made the fans feel like cognoscenti. With a little homework, the everyman could monitor the action knowingly, through field glasses, like a five-star general watching the battle from a distant hilltop. But the game never alienated the ignorati. Maybe while watching the Packers vs. Vikings you notice the D dropping a man into coverage, or sugaring a safety down into the box. Maybe you recognize that the O is in an 11-personnel set, or a 22. Maybe you don't. Maybe you just like all the pretty colors. Doesn't matter. The NFL is a capacious tent. Come one, come all, step right up.
40. Nothing else approaches football's universal, transcultural, transgender, trans-generational appeal. Besides football, clean water and the Gap, nothing else in modern America can claim black fans and white fans, gay fans and straight fans, male fans and female fans, 9-year-old fans and 89-year-old fans.
41. Television, which tells us who we are by showing us when we gather, proves football's cultural hegemony better than anything else. Nine of the 10 highest-rated single telecasts last year were football, including the Super Bowl, the most watched program of 2011, seen by 110 million people, or more than one-third of the populace. Four of the five most watched TV programs in American history have been Super Bowls. Thanksgiving Thursday and Super Bowl Sunday are the only two days when the entire American Family gathers in Rockwellian fashion around the dinner table, and let's be honest, both days are all about football.
42. Michael MacCambridge, author of America's Game, says we miss the point when we think of football as a man's game. It is and it isn't. "I think everybody knows that the TV show each year watched by the greatest number of men is the Super Bowl," he says. "But the TV show every year watched by the greatest number of women is the Super Bowl. That's true for African-Americans, Hispanics and so on -- across the board."
43. MacCambridge says football exploits something in our national DNA, something we have in common with the ancient Romans -- a weakness for spectacle. "What I think American life is about now is big events that people can look forward to and gear up for." Sometimes that means the Oscars, he says, sometimes it means the season finale of Breaking Bad. But come autumn it means the Big Game. "The presence of the game is everywhere," MacCambridge says. "You feel it in coffee shops, you feel it in churches & There's this quickening pace."
44. Equally telling, however, are the smaller spectacles. The first Bears practice with pads this summer drew 12,000 Chicagoans hoping to see Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall renew their bromance. The first Broncos scrimmage with Peyton in the saddle drew 41,000. Fan Day in Lincoln, Neb., drew 5,500 despite rain-forest humidity. One woman had to be carted off the field with what looked to be heatstroke.
45. The Hopi have no distinct words for the four seasons. Their words for the seasons are synonymous with the sensations of the seasons. Thus the word for summer is the same as the word for hot. We're not all that different. Say "autumn" and try not to think of football. Of sweaters and snare drums. Of marching bands and cheerleaders. Of the sound of 100,000 people roaring as one.
46. We might not love our football any more than the rest of the world loves theirs. We might love it less. We have no hooligans, after all. We do have that Alabama nut job who poisoned the majestic century-old oak trees on archrival Auburn's campus. And we do have that asshole alum who reportedly paid for said nut job to attend the national championship. We also have the mental defectives who spotted the nut job in New Orleans and treated him like a celeb, asking him to pose for pictures. But these, we hope, we pray, are exceptions. What makes our football different, what distinguishes our relationship to it, isn't passion. It's the same thing that endangers it -- violence.
47. Not just any violence. If violence qua violence were all we needed, we'd make a bowl of popcorn, lock the door and watch prison shows on MSNBC. No, we don't like mindless violence, even though our favorite game may render its players mindless. What we crave, apparently, is scripted, synchronized, organized, evenly matched martial violence of the hypermasculine kind. We want the simulacrum of hand-to-hand combat between two lines, fear and heroism in a yin-yang knife fight with intervals of balletic speed and poetic grace and the stakes sky-high, all of which feels directly traceable to football's militaristic roots. The ontogeny of football is bound up with war.
48. Football is the direct by-product of not just one war but two. Football, like baseball, exploded in popularity just after the Civil War. Unlike baseball, however, football didn't help people forget the clash between North and South. Football gave people a way to relive it, to romanticize it, to exorcise the war's demons by scrimmaging with them. In firsthand accounts of the baseball fever that swept America in the 1860s, you can feel beneath the fever a deep yearning for peace, and for a peaceable game. A war-ravaged nation embraced baseball's soothing, pacific tableaus. Men in a pasture. Individuals confronting, but coexisting with, group dynamics.
49. Four snow-white islands of safety.
50. You want safety on a football field? Get the fuck out of bounds.
51. The first football games weren't just battle re-enactments but actual battles, with actual stretcher bearers and actual mortalities. People forget during this current safety crisis that football players once died. In bunches. Eighteen of them in 1905. Another 11 in 1906, 11 more in 1907 and 13 in 1908. The number shot up to 26 in 1909, dropped to 14 the following year, then stayed in double digits each year until the eve of America's entry into World War I. ("The Gridiron Crisis of 1905: Was It Really A Crisis?" John S. Watterson, Journal of Sport History.) This means that from 1905 to 1916 the number of football deaths was greater than the number of U.S. casualties in Iraq during the past three years. No wonder politicians, academics, editorialists, preachers, President Teddy Roosevelt, everyone cried out for football to be abolished.
52. But football has always had a Whitney-Bobby relationship with violence. Football vows to quit violence, but it can't, baby, it just can't. Football and violence are syllogistic. Trying to separate them is like trying to separate meat from a steak. History says football deaths stopped, but it's more accurate to say the deaths were slowed down. Linemen die young.
53. When football was reborn during the Cold War, its violence was celebrated, seen as its raison d'etre. Football as we know it -- the rules, the equipment, the strategies, the mindset -- grew out of that unique moment when violence on an apocalyptic scale was imminent. With America and the USSR caught in a nuclear stalemate, with Khrushchev pondering a missile blitz on Manhattan, nothing tackled the era's zeitgeist like football.
54. Kurt Kemper, author of College Football and American Culture in the Cold War Era, argues that football's helmeted, cage-faced strongmen, grappling in mud, throwing bullets and bombs, helped Americans process their nuclear-age anxieties. Our autumn game prepared us for oncoming nuclear winter. It fostered the feeling, or illusion, that we were physically ready -- and morally superior. "No team sport," Kemper writes, "better represented the route to the new cult of toughness than football, a sport that evoked manliness, technological superiority and material affluence."
55. We should be careful about overstating the relationship between football and war. As one of Don DeLillo's characters says in his brilliant novel End Zone: "I reject the notion of football as warfare. Warfare is warfare. We don't need substitutes because we've got the real thing." But much of the novel comically refutes this. Football is war, war is football. Ground attack, aerial assault, sack, blitz, you can't ignore the parallels. You can't deny the bellicose mascots, the Raiders and Buccaneers, Cowboys and Redskins, Giants and Titans. You can't overlook the "training camps." You can't pretend "rookie" isn't short for "recruit."
56. You can't forget that among the most common injuries on any given Sunday at Soldier Field, as at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, is traumatic brain injury.
57. It doesn't matter if we connect football and war. The players do. No one has ever heard a second baseman refer to himself as a warrior, but you can't walk through an NFL locker room without hearing the W-word.
58. Yes, 2012 is an eon away from 1962. The Cold War has ended; we no longer use football as nuclear Kabuki theater. But Doomsday is still uppermost in our minds. You can't sit in a church, or movie theater, and feel safe. Terrorism is neither gone nor forgotten, though we pretend both are true. Meanwhile, the national debt crests $16 trillion, the thermometer rises like a bloodred soufflé. Drug-resistant viruses, flesh-eating viruses, grid-eviscerating computer viruses, all lurk. A subcontinent of soda bottles and condoms and dental floss blobs around the Pacific. Mutant species. Solar flares. Seventeen-foot pythons. Nancy Grace. Wyoming lawmakers recently debated what their state should do when the United States collapses. Options they weighed: buy an aircraft carrier, raise an army, print special Wyoming currency. Q: How much is that loaf of bread? A: Ten and a half Cheyennes. (Half a dozen other states have had similar debates.) Football still comforts us, still braces us, because no matter what Armageddons we face, or imagine we face, the gridiron is a grassy stage on which we can watch something we need to watch, something we as a society can't seem to watch enough -- courage.
59. I don't mean simply Hemingway's pressurized grace. I mean order. Courage, among other things, is order. Simple order. Cool, clear order. One of the exquisite pleasures of a football game is seeing a group of men risk their bodies, their lives, their fortunes, figuratively, literally, to wrest order from entropy.
60. This is the meat and potatoes of all mythology. This is the primal drama. This is what the play-by-play guys are really talking about when they talk about third and long.
61. Baseball can be orderly too. Let me be clear, I love baseball. I always have. I always will. Baseball can be deeply sedative, like a tincture of melatonin, or those spa recordings of night sounds in the forest. But when you need real relief from the grind and whirl and existential dread, baseball can't hack it. The games are too slow, the trough between pitches too deep. Baseball gives you too much time to think about the mortgage and the melting ice caps. In autumn, when baseball and football pass in the night, when you can switch from the Braves to the Falcons with the press of a button, the contrast is stark. Football feels like a chrome-and-glass penthouse at the Bellagio. Baseball feels like one of those boarded-up mansions in a Faulkner novel, filled with choking dust and woolly-headed eccentrics who don't know that General Lee surrendered.
62. Football is always about right now, this moment, because it's always evolving. Part of creating order is adapting, and football is Darwinian, inside and out, whereas baseball fights off change like a 3-2 curveball. We live in an age of God Particles and nanorobots and live feeds from Mars, and Bud Selig is still Hamleting about instant replay? The mind reels.
63. Football will survive because, from its inception, it has reflected our image of an idealized manhood. "Modern American men," MacCambridge writes, "found a truth and beauty in pro football that was more reliable, more sharply defined, than almost any other aspect of their lives." Why? Because manhood isn't something you possess, manhood is something you must prove, repeatedly, and a three-hour football game offers repeated proof.
64. Michael Oriard, a lineman with the Chiefs in the 1970s, now a sports historian and literary theorist, has written widely about the Meaning of Football, its connection to American masculinity and to his own. In his elegant memoir, The End of Autumn, Oriard describes his odyssey from little leaguer to grizzled pro and recalls the moment in his childhood when football seemed less a game than a path. "Football players looked like the most heroic of men; the ones I saw on television with their massive padded shoulders and thighs looked all-powerful, invulnerable -- the opposite of how I felt as a boy in an adult world."
65. Manhood in America used to mean mastering a trade. Then it meant conquering frontiers. After industrialism killed craftsmanship, after the frontiers were paved under for a million Bed Bath & Beyonds, what was left? A few things. Football, chiefly, according to novelist Frederick Exley: "In football a man was asked to do a difficult and brutal job, and he either did it or got out. There was nothing rhetorical or vague about it; I chose to believe that it was not unlike the jobs which all men, in some sunnier past, had been called upon to do. It smacked of something old, something traditional, something unclouded by legerdemain and subterfuge. It had that kind of power over me."
66. Some of football's gaudiest displays of manliness are purely aesthetic. It's not what players do, it's how they look doing it. "There's no collection of physical specimens," Oriard says, "like a football team."
67. I remember interviewing a female professor from the University of Texas at Austin. We were eating at a diner just off campus, discussing the all-powerful Longhorns. I asked her why Texans, why Floridians, why Americans are so enslaved to football. She forked her food, thinking. Finally she said something like: The male body. You can't ever underestimate the awesome power and appeal of the male body. She then said more things about the male body. She talked about a particular football player in one of her classes, the rocked-up statuary Greekness of him, and I feared the girls around us were staring. It was like that moment in When Harry Met Sally ... I'll have what she's having.
68. The manhood piece is tricky. If you say football is about manhood, you risk disenfranchising all the women who enjoy it. If you say football isn't about manhood, you willfully ignore the tribal, testicular aspect of the sport. Oriard says: "I think the masculine is deeply tied to football, but it's in an interesting way, because it's old-style masculinity relative to the world we live in today. It's compensation for what's missing in life."
69. As in all things, men and women are compensated very differently in football. You have to wonder how that imbalance will shift as current societal trends play out. Women already earn more college degrees, more postgraduate degrees, than men. Women are in a position to dominate the economy of the future. They're coming. When they overtake men as breadwinners, when emasculation becomes more common than hay fever, will football's old-style masculinity be as compelling? Will it be more compelling? Isn't this what we can learn from the otherwise infuriating and inexplicable Fifty Shades of Grey, that women enjoy fantasizing about a roughneck who doesn't ask, he just takes?
70. Baseball always gets credit for the foundational part of masculinity -- the father thing. The eternal game of backyard catch, Field of Dreams, the Ripkens, the Griffeys, the Bondses, so on. But football is the real paternal game, because it's a conveyor belt of father figures, in the form of coaches.
71. Basketball's eras are defined by teams -- Celtics, Lakers, Bulls -- and baseball's epochs are defined by players -- Ruth, Robinson, Mantle -- but with football, it's the sideline strategists, the nutty professors and topcoated Lears. Show any football fan a grainy clip of some preposterous fedora or lumpy polo shirt or moth-eaten hoodie, he'll tell you the team and the year. We know our coaches, we love our coaches, because they're more than coaches. They're symbols, totems, Old Testament patriarchs. Richard Nixon was a football fan, but that's not why he wanted to pick Vince Lombardi as his running mate in 1968.
72. We pledge our fealty to football coaches. (Until they go 8-8, then we cry for them to be burned at the stake.) Players give them their souls. John Wooden, possibly the greatest coach ever, in any sport, often instructed his players on the proper method of putting on socks. That's hands-off compared to Derek Dooley, football coach at Tennessee, who teaches his players how to shower. "We did a clinic yesterday," Dooley told reporters, "on proper shower technique and soap and using a rag & Y'all think I'm kidding, but I'm serious." No one who knows football thinks he's kidding. Paul Brown used to tell the Cleveland Browns when they could and could not have sex with their wives.
73. Go to Texas, stand outside Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, ask people about Darrell Royal. The legendary coach won three national championships, never had a losing season, but that's not why locals place him alongside Bowie and Crockett. When Royal and his wife recently appeared before a committee of state lawmakers studying Alzheimer's, a senator from Brownsville got choked up singing his praises. "Coach came to Texas to teach Texas men how to be men," said Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. "He did that."
74. I was once interviewing a college football coach during practice. We were trundling around the field on a golf cart when suddenly Coach spotted a group of bare-chested linemen running drills in a lackadaisical fashion. These fatties, Coach grumbled. With each chirrup of the whistle, two linemen would run tentatively at each other, rub bellies, break. Coach sighed, shook his head. He strolled over, waving his arms. Everyone gather round! As the boys formed a semicircle, Coach stood before them and asked softly: Y'all ever seen two butterflies fuckin'? Stunned silence. Coach repeated the question. Y'all ever seen two butterflies fuckin'? Again, silence. Coach informed the boys that in fact they'd just witnessed two butterflies fuckin', that's how daintily and pitifully these linemen were going about the deadly serious and brutal business of blocking. Now he wanted to see them do it again, like men. In that moment, I believe every boy on that field would have run through a brick wall for Coach.
75. I would have driven that golf cart through a brick wall for Coach.
76. Football will survive because there will always be kids who need it even more than they love it. Marcel Reece, a fullback with the Raiders: "People ask me all the time, How'd you choose football? I tell them, I didn't choose football. It chose me. It was the only time in my life I experienced love at first sight."
77. Takeo Spikes, linebacker with the Chargers, ditto: "You can lock me up in solitary confinement for a couple of years, never tell me the date, never tell me the month, anything, and I could tell you what month it is, and I could tell you when it's football season, that's how much it's been embedded in me."
78. Delanie Walker, tight end with the 49ers, used football as a lead blocker in his escape from Pomona, 30 miles east of Los Angeles. Gangs, drugs, crime, poverty. "Football saved my life," he says, sitting in the 49ers' training facility at the start of camp. He has no trouble remembering the epiphanic moment. "I was about 8. My mom couldn't afford to put me in Pop Warner, so I used to play this game with other kids called three flags up." The rules were simple. There were no rules. Someone threw a ball in the air. The kids all jumped. Whoever came down with it then turned heel and ran for dear life, the mob in hot pursuit. Again and again, Walker snared the ball and ran, and no one could catch him or bring him down. "I just remember that day thinking, This is me. I don't think I can do anything else."
79. Walker never knew his father. "I don't even remember how he looked." Football gave him a way to deal with the anger. In high school, seconds before the snap, he'd often have tears in his eyes, so fierce was his desire to hit and be hit. "Whatever bothered me, I'd just let it out," he says. "Like, I'm so mad, I'm about to come down on somebody."
80. First concussion? He was in high school. He remembers it proudly, like his first hickey. The other team's quarterback was talking trash. Walker, playing linebacker, forgot his assignment, forgot the crowd, forgot everything but busting that quarterback in the mouth. "I didn't even stick my dude. I was supposed to stick the tight end on this play, but the QB boots, he boot out, and he just take off running and he don't even juke. And we just -- ." Walker smacks his hands together.
81. He remembers feeling dizzy. He remembers staggering in circles. He remembers refusing to come out of the game. "I shake concussions off," he says. "As players, we shake them off." He knows that goes against the science. He doesn't care. Science has never suited up. Science has never been in a huddle. Anyone who thinks NFL players are going to change how they play because of science doesn't get it.
82. He's not blind. He sees older players shamble through the locker room, bent over like jumbo shrimp. "I know I'm probably gonna have some problems when I get older. I've already broken my jaw in two places. I got metal plates in my face. I just had surgery on my knees, surgery on my shoulder twice. I'm losing cartilage in my knees."
83. But what choice does he have? "I can't do anything else. If they was to say, 'You keep playing football, when you 60 you might have heart failure, you might not remember your kids,' that's just something I have to chance. Because without this, my kid ain't be in the situation he's in now. I didn't want him growing up the way I grew up. He's in private school, dresses good, has whatever he wants. And he knows I'm in the NFL."
84. Jameel McClain, a linebacker with the Ravens, says people make it complicated when it's really quite simple. Football offers clarity in a world of doublespeak and lies. "Everything else in life, people can label you without getting the chance to understand you. In football, I tell you who I am. What I'm about. It's the one thing to me where the definition of you ... it's all in your control."
85. It first struck me at Super Bowl XLII. Manhood is the flip side of the legal definition of obscenity. You know it when you don't see it. I was at the game with a friend and his 7-year-old son. The son was wearing a Tom Brady jersey, because that Super Bowl was to be Brady's coronation. Instead it turned out to be Eli Manning's bar mitzvah. As we exited the stadium, I was shaking my head in wonder, but my friend's son was hanging his, glum. He was confused. He hadn't known that kings could be deposed. He asked his father if he could be an Eli Manning fan from now on.
86. My friend looked down: Sure. You can change sides. But just this once. If you choose Eli, if you become an Eli fan, then you have to stick with Eli. You can't switch loyalties every time your guy loses.
87. His son was wide-eyed. He nodded. I was wide-eyed. I nodded.
88. It may be that not all parents will reject football, only certain parents. In Westport and Chevy Chase, Grosse Pointe and Cherry Creek, Coldstream and Nassau County, parents may ask, Why risk it? Parents elsewhere, however, perceiving no other options, will continue to let their kids play. That's what Oriard calls "one of the really grim prospects. That's a racial and class divide we don't want to see happen."
89. And if it does happen, won't that mean more guilt?
90. Football will survive, but it may be narrower, lesser. In a future filled with scarcity, football may be yet another thing reduced and rationed. Red states, especially Southern states, already embrace football with religious intensity. (The past seven champions of college football have come from the Old Confederacy.) If football becomes redder, if it becomes regionalized, yet another thing we all disagree about, like Obamacare and gay marriage and guns, it might not be football, per se.
91. Metaphorical links between football and war will feel literal, deeply unsettling, if red states, which already provide a disproportionate number of soldiers, provide a disproportionate number of football players.
92. And the Deep South, which first embraced football as a way to salve its wounded pride, to restore its shattered psyche, will be left clinging alone to yet another Lost Cause. Except that in this one, the soldiers will be African-American. (They already make up 67 percent of the NFL.) Try to wrap your unhelmeted head around that.
93. I forgot again. I'm supposed to be arguing for football's survival.
94. Football will survive because its absence would create a cultural vacuum. Maybe not a vacuum, because nature abhors a vacuum and nature wouldn't abhor the loss of football. Nature would be fine. The death of football would create a cultural DustBuster. "Institutions are embedded in it," Oriard says. "It's embedded in institutions. If it goes away, the question is, What replaces it? How will we satisfy whatever needs it served?" Offhand, Oriard can't think of a way.
95. I remember it like this morning. I was 10, too excited to sleep. When the first light came through the window, I got up and went down to the kitchen. My mother was already there. We put a pot of water on the stove, waited for it to boil. My mother opened the bag from the sporting goods store and took out the plastic thing. She held it over the boiling water as if it were frog's legs.
96. I asked: Why do you have to boil the mouthpiece? She shrugged. That's what the instructions say. She dropped it in. We watched it for a while. When it turned opaque, we fished it out. I put it in my mouth, bit down. Soft like taffy, it formed to the shape of my teeth, one or two of which were baby teeth.
97. We sat at the kitchen table, my new white pants that we couldn't afford stretched out before us. We tried to figure out which pads went in which slots. We were both nervous. The kitchen, I remember, was cold.
98. She helped me lace up the plastic breastplate of my new shoulder pads. Then I struggled to pull my jersey over the pads. At last it was time. She drove me to the field.
99. There were about 200 boys, all looking excited, scared. Each boy was issued a white helmet. Then we were divided haphazardly into teams. I was on the Raiders. A man set my helmet on the grass and spray-painted it silver.
100. I remember the sound of the pellet in the spray can, the smell of the wet paint on the cool fall air.
101. I remember, when the silver dried, putting on the helmet, looking at the world through the steel face mask, feeling powerful.
102. I'd never before felt powerful.
103. Coach asked if I was fast. Yes, I lied. Good, you're a receiver. He tried to teach the team a few plays. We were slow learners. There were no future NFLers on the field that day, though none of us knew that.
104. The following Saturday we played our first game. The Vikings -- I remember their helmets weren't the right kind of purple. They looked like unripe grapes. On one of my first routes, down the sideline, I had my man beat by a step. The quarterback, two years older than I, lofted the ball perfectly. I turned, saw it, extended my arms, held it for a moment. Dropped it.
105. I ran to the bench. Coach smacked me on the side of the helmet. Get your head in the game. I stared at my feet. Every time I looked up, Coach was glaring.
106. In the second half, Coach called the same play. Terrified, I stood at the line of scrimmage. Down-set-hut. I ran as fast as I could. Ten yards. Twenty. When the defender looked up, I did too. The ball was falling out of the autumn sun. I stretched my hands, felt the ball touch my palms, clutched it to my chest. I remember few things about my childhood as clearly as the look on the defender's face. It was a look of fear. No, shame.
107. I was not an unkind boy, but I rejoiced at his shame, as he'd rejoiced at mine. Then I lost all awareness of him. The ball tucked under my arm, I turned and heard nothing but my own breath and my joyfully thumping heart as I neared and neared and then crossed the goal line.
108. My whole life, I'm reasonably sure, would be different if I'd dropped that second pass.
109. Shortly after the season ended, my mother and I moved to Arizona. Everything was different there. The boys were bigger, rougher. The sun was closer. The coaches were made of leather and rawhide and beef jerky. They told me I was a linebacker. A second-string linebacker. I spent most of my time on the sideline, eating orange wedges, which were delicious. One of the moms brought two garbage bags full of them.
110. In our first game, we jumped all over our opponent, built a big lead. Coach sent in the scrubs. I got into the stance I'd been taught, watched the quarterback's eyes, felt a run coming. I saw the fullback glaring at the hole between center and guard. Hut-hut. Sure enough, the quarterback turned, stuck the ball in the fullback's gut and here he came. As he burst through the hole, I was there, waiting. I lowered my head. He lowered his.
111. He was made of different stuff than the other boys. He felt like a cement bag swung from a crane. There was an explosion. I flew backward. I heard another boy say, "Whoa!"
112. I remember lying on my back, looking at the desert sky.
113. I remember thinking: Life is not all touchdowns and orange wedges.
114. I remember thinking: I love this game, but this game is not for me.
115. I remember these things because my memory is intact. My memory is intact because, shortly after that first concussion, I retired.
116. I felt a great sadness when I said goodbye to football. But it wasn't goodbye, not really, because some of the most vivid moments of my life have been connected to the game.
117. Interviewing Namath. Watching the G-Men stomp around the old Meadowlands like pissed-off Visigoths. Feeling Mile High quake to its rivets as Elway led an impossible last-minute comeback. If today, tomorrow, 10 years from now, I must say goodbye to football again, for good, it will be harder. It will leave a void. It will be like losing a friend.
118. I really don't see it happening. But if it does, if it doesn't, that's tomorrow's problem. We shouldn't borrow trouble. We should do our jobs, ignore the clock, focus on this day, this season. Football isn't baseball; it's often over long before it's over, but still.
119. We soldier on, snap after snap, hoping.
120. This is one of the numberless things football teaches us.