Everything has its time, and football is running out of it. Like gladiators, dueling, bullfights and bear-baiting, the game has run its course. Ask Margaret.
You wouldn’t know this from the tens of millions of fans, or the millions who play, or the happy tailgaters outside stadiums nationwide, or the breathless sportscasters with their dazzling array of stop-motion, screen graphic and database-mining tools, or the hundreds of hours of professional, college and high school down to Pop Warner games broadcast each week — but that last snap from center is on the horizon, just as surely as and inexorably as the collapse of a great oak, which, having endured a century of droughts, storms, shipbuilders seeking main masts and ambitious landscape architects finally succumbs to an army of bugs.
Football has been under attack for most of its life, from the beginning of the twentieth century, when President Teddy Roosevelt called the game’s senior custodians onto the White House carpet and demanded they do something about an alarming increase in serious injuries. Broken bones, cracked skulls and the like were becoming commonplace in weekend games between well-known football powers like Harvard, Yale and Princeton, and Roosevelt advised the college sachems that if they didn’t act to stop it, he damn well would.
Since then, the game has changed beyond anyone’s ability to imagine. And with these changes has come a growing murmur of disapproval. This weekend that murmur became a roar, when the New York Times seemed to devote a fair part of its editorial space to the notion that the game should be done away with altogether.
In the sports section (if it can still be called that), commentary focused on a variety of football woes: the apparent lockerroom “bullying” of one player by another, the sudden physical collapses of two professional head coaches, and, in two opinion pieces by William Rhoden, a senior Times columnist, and Frank Bruni, formerly a food critic, the whole question of the game itself.
The bullying story is perfect fodder for the dodgeballphobes. One 340 pound behemoth has been suspended by the Miami Dolphins for harassing another 340 pound behemoth, including calling him hurtful names like “the big weirdo” and sending him nasty text messages. Worse still, the bully compelled his victim to buy him and other veterans expensive dinners. How you get someone the size of an orca to buy you dinner involves “peer pressure,” according to press accounts, but that’s not the point. The point is that these boys are behaving in the locker room like — well, like boys in a locker room — and their victims need the protection of their team, the league, and, yes, if necessary, the President.
Here, we can take some comfort in knowing that in the present President we have someone up to the job, as he famously commented earlier this year that he was pretty sure, if he had sons, he wouldn’t want them playing football. This is a pretty far cry from Teddy Roosevelt, but times change. Ask Margaret.
Bruni, whose forays into the sporting culture often dazzle us with new age sensitivity, sums it all up in one column. He gathers all of pro football’s warts into one grab-bag of woe and heaves it, like a sack of manure, in the readers’ faces with a “so there.” No one is spared. Aaron Hernandez? The NFL turned him into into a serial killer. Fox and Kubiak, the two ailing coaches, were driven by the league’s relentless culture of competition into damn near killing themselves. Martin and Incognito, the dueling Dolphins, are just the tip of an iceberg that glorifies all that is worst in humankind. Bruni throws everything but the kitchen sink at the NFL (and if he were still back on his old beat standing in a kitchen, the sink would surely have followed as well).
For his part, Rhoden decried the game’s lack of “civility,” stating definitively that “if the sport brings out the worst in human beings, then let us get rid of the sport.”
Bruni — who is generally entertaining, when he is on turf that he actually knows something about — might consider this: right now there are 1696 active professionals playing in the NFL. We do not hear about 1690 of them, except within the context of the sport itself. Aaron Hernandez et. al. may not be representative of these guys, many of whom, to be fair, most likely are quirky. The world they live in has little in common with any world most of us inhabit.
They may watch their kids play Little League, scold them about their grades, shop at the local grocery store and take their wives to a movie, but when your living depends on playing a violent game for as few as four minutes — and generally no more than 25 minutes — once a week six months a year in front of an audience of millions of people, it’s fair to say that this exerts some pressure on your ability to have a “normal” life. And yet, most of them seem to be able to do just that. When they don’t, we hear about it. Bruni’s catalogue of woes notwithstanding, the general behavior of pro football players is probably a cut above that of some of sport’s more colorful citizens, but we don’t see the entire New York Times calling for a ban on snowboarding.
And Rhoden? He says something that sounds reasonable at first, but the more you think about it, the funnier it gets: “If the sport brings out the worst in human beings, then let us get rid of the sport?”
Whoa, boy. Down.
All sports bring out the worst in human beings. Didn’t you know that? That’s part of their charm. The pressure of competition often unmasks the weaknesses we have. The worst behavior I have seen is not in lines at airport gates, or at the fish counter at Zabar’s, or in a boardroom on Wall Street, or hailing taxis in the rain on a Manhattan street, or any of the other places our inner piggies come out to play. But nothing brings our selfishness, our ego, our venality and our animal “incivility” out like sports. You’ve seen it. It’s the guy who calls “Out!” when he knows it’s in, or who habitually thumps the rough behind his ball with his three wood, or who grabs an opponent’s jersey because the ref isn’t looking.
In fact, the worst behavior I have ever witnessed was in a high school water polo game at an “elite” eastern boarding school, where much of the action is underwater. Some girls pinched others, pulled at their suits, elbowed and sometimes simply climbed on each other, all illegal, all nasty, spiteful, and decidedly unenlightened — but that was their choice; that’s how they played the game. Others did not. That’s a choice everyone makes. And for all those whom the pressure of competition may degrade, there are those whom it elevates. There was only one Bobby Jones, but he had — and has — millions who aspire be like him.
And that’s the point. Somewhere in our lives we need to learn how to contain the impulses of our darker nature, and the playing field is one of the places we learn it best. But some suggest that football’s savagery is sufficiently unique, and that the level of “incivility” inherent in the game is so dreadful, that the game itself should be done away with — that, far from inspiring us to play fair, it goads us into a kind of bestiality. These critics do not seek to improve the game, or eliminate those aspects that are unnecessarily dangerous. They have a more deep-seated resentment towards football, and what they think it represents.
Bruni et alii reveal this deeper purpose. It is the agenda of the “we’ve banned tag at recess because the boys get too rowdy” mentality that confuses rambunctiousness with savagery. That creates a “level playing field” by bulldozing anything and anyone that excels. That fears what it cannot understand. And that’s Margaret talking.
Who is Margaret? Remember Dennis the Menace? Margaret is the little girl neighbor who always tries to get him to stop playing with Joey in the mud and sit at a little tea table playing house with her dolls.
Well, Dennis isn’t having any of it. Nor does he insist that Margaret join him and Joey in the puddle. He just wants to get dirty, roll around and splash mud. He knows that the bathtub is waiting, and he’ll have to get up the next morning and go to school, but, for the time being, he’s happy as he can be.
There’s a lot we can do to make football a better game. Roosevelt’s demands produced helmets and pads. The legitimate concerns about mounting injuries and long-term permanent physical damage have created an ongoing discussion about rule changes, some of which have already been implemented, with others doubtless to come. That’s fine. But please, please, don’t give in to Bruni and all the other Margarets. Surely, somewhere on cable, there’s a synchronized swimming event or one of those bizarre ribbon-swirling dance thingies they can watch. As for football, leave it for those of us who still remember fondly our inner Dennis.