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    A football player makes a catch on a snowy field

    Will You Watch the Super Bowl?

    Yes, football is too dangerous. But its grit is also why it deserves our love.

    By Reid Forgrave

    February 6, 2023
    • Jeremy

      The writer talks about his friend who was a football star being “the big man on campus” and how that wasn’t the only thing that made him who he is today. That is a good reflect of the immense ego involved in the culture of Football and even how one might accept the CTE is maybe a reflection of how much power a culture can have over us, even the victims. And to help shape boys and men, I think we can be more creative and effective at teaching our boys what it means to be a man and to be human.

    • Robert F

      I'm sure there was beauty in gladiatorial fights too. Nevertheless, no Christian should've participated in them, or watched them (though many did, even after the Empire was "christianized"). Same goes for football.

    • Aaron

      I agree with David. What is courage? To leave a violent sport (even if beautiful, as war from a certain lens can be beautified and glorified) behind because of the overwhelming damage to the player's body and the spectator's soul? Or to participate in a game (a human construct) for a prize (another human construct) for a feeling of self-worth and fighting for SOMETHING, when there is so much more (love, justice) in life to actually fight for?

    • Jim Deacove

      I seem to have no excitement over Football or the other sports that feature humans clobbering humans. At least today they have evolved beyond what was practiced in early eras when the losing team was put to death. I supposed there is some kind of beauty in that…kind of akin to the crowds watching in awe a public hanging. There are too many myths about competition and being beautiful is now added to my attached list.

    • David Moriah

      I'm with your mother. It's awful, and far from making us a more courageous society (at least for men, of course) it has made us a brutal, violence-worshiping society. We know too much, as you readily acknowledged, for us to justify our participation even as spectators in such an unholy enterprise. As a Christian, I can no longer have any part of it.

    • Mike Nacrelli

      My reaction is the opposite of Gordon's below. With all due respect, I think you guys need to get a grip. Football is hardly equivalent to the Roman gladiators. (A better modern parallel to the gladiators would be UFC.) The objective in football is never to hurt another player, and the rules generally have stiff penalties for doing so. It's a great mix of brawn, strategy, and skill not found in any other sport.

    • gordon hadlow

      Sorry Mr Forgrave, but professional football, IMHO, has absolutely no redeeming value. The CTE issue is a latecomer to the many reasons to shun the sport. Everything from the overall violence (it really is the modern day gladiator sport), the absurd salaries, the over-the top lifestyles, to the taxation of everyday people to build new stadiums, are just some of the reasons to avoid watching it, either in person or on television. I haven't watched a professional football game, including the Super Bowl, in over thirty years, and I haven't missed a thing. It's really easy to just walk away from the sport. Besides, it really frees up your Sundays to do much better things.

    When I think about the morality of football, my mind sometimes goes to a weird place: to Henry Cabot Lodge, the brilliant and vitriolic American statesman of a century ago. The Massachusetts senator, one of the leading isolationists of his time, spoke about football as key to the rise of the United States as a global power: “The injuries incurred on the playing field are part of the price which the English-speaking race has paid for being world conquerors.”

    Lodge’s words from 1896 capture the duality of football in the American consciousness of 2023: the sport’s awful beauty, its cathartic savagery.

    From a modern perspective, Lodge’s unabashed imperialism is a nonstarter. But in the context of his era – where the idea that the United States was ordained by God to spread democracy, and capitalism was the assumption rather than the argument – what’s interesting is how football enters the calculation.

    Our recent focus on the long-lasting damage that contact sports, most of all football, can do to the brain may seem like we are only just becoming aware of its brutality. But the turn of the last century was an even more brutal era for football; at least forty-five players died between 1900 and 1905 due to injuries suffered in games, with eighteen deaths during the 1905 season alone. Today’s football, still perhaps the most dangerous of mainstream American sports, seems almost quaint in comparison. Lodge referring to the sport’s physical damage as “part of the price” of American power was, at the very least, a bit heartless. But also, unquestionably true.

    A football player makes a catch on a snowy field

    Photo by Kyle Rivas/UPI Credit: UPI/Alamy Live News

    This Sunday, one hundred million or so Americans will gather around our televisions to watch Super Bowl LVII, only weeks past the on-field cardiac arrest of Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills. While the NFL has focused on the miracle of Hamlin’s recovery after his near-death experience, the image of Hamlin receiving CPR at the fifty-yard line will remain fresh in fans’ minds – one of the most haunting reminders of the sport’s brutality. Also lingering in our minds will be the growing mounds of research showing the long-term brain damage caused by concussions in contact sports – not to mention the even more concerning damage of subconcussive hits. Those smaller hits to the head aren’t dramatic plays like a concussion that knocks a player out of the game. Instead, subconcussive hits happen on every single football play – an inherent part of the game, necessary roughness – building up over years and, researchers believe, sometimes leading to the degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

    As we enter the national spectacle of Super Bowl week, with the celebrity-worship culture of Radio Row and the absurd look-at-me stage of Media Day and the obscene commercialization of the actual game (complete with thirty-second television commercials that cost in the neighborhood of $6.5 million each), these concerns tend to get pushed into the background. That is to be expected as the NFL – a league with an estimated revenue of $18 billion in 2022, greater than the GDP of seventy-four countries – celebrates itself and its cash-printing machine.

    Football is awful, no doubt about it: It is violent, dangerous, and militaristic. And not just the sport – one historian called football “surrogate war” – but the martial pomp and circumstance that surrounds every game. It can seem like toxic masculinity distilled into a one-hundred-yard field of combat.

    But allow me to hearken back to Henry Cabot Lodge and add something to that thought:

    Football is beautiful, too.

    This is an argument I have made to my mother many times before, to no avail. Whatever the opposite of a football fan is, that is my mother. She loves Super Bowl Sunday – not because of the game or the attendant spectacle, but because it’s a perfect time to go to the mall, since no one else is there. She sees only the awful parts of football, and when I tell her of the beautiful parts, she shakes her head and gives me the withering look of a disappointed parent.

    So allow me to make this same argument to you.

    The worst part about football has become more apparent with each passing year: the risk of debilitating injury. But that risk of physical injury is also intrinsic to the best part about football. The remarkable athletic feats we watch by the likes of Justin Jefferson or Patrick Mahomes or Ja’Marr Chase are made more impressive by the awareness of what is at stake.

    And forget the elite players. For youth football players, the act of arming up and walking onto the field, facing the fear of potential injury and the certainty of some amount of pain, is character-building. “In any republic, courage is a prime necessity,” President Theodore Roosevelt said of the sport whose violence he adored. “Athletics are good, especially in their rougher forms, because they tend to develop such courage.” And not only the individual sense of physical and mental toughness, but the ability to work together as a team. That is football: a sport that helps forge that traditional American male, and a sport (for all its faults) that has helped forge modern America (for all its faults).

    In the end, the manly ideals of face your fears and fight through pain, worthy as they are, will never be entirely separated from risks that may or may not be worth the sacrifice.

    It is a challenge to raise boys in an America where our definition of manliness – and of gender itself – is shifting under our feet. When my older child was four or five and would burst into tears or do something that warranted a reprimand, I’d always say, “Look me in the eyes like a man.” I know: what a dumb thing to say to a kid. For a couple years, though, that was my thing. (As my wife would say to me, “Do you mean a woman can’t look someone in the eyes?”)

    But what I was clumsily trying to get at was that the traditional view of manliness still has much to aspire to – to instill a sense of strength and courage I wish I’d had more of myself. I did not play competitive football as a youth, but when I look back to my childhood, I see a kid who was too afraid to face his fears. I believe playing football could have helped that.

    When I speak with fellow parents of boys about football, I often hear a variation of this: I love football, but no way will my son play. The steady decline in participation in youth football – more than one hundred thousand fewer high school students played football in 2019 compared to a decade before, a 10 percent decrease that is only accelerating – could hollow out the pipeline to the professional game. As much as NFL leadership hates to talk about it, this is an urgent issue for the sport, nothing less than an existential crisis. But then, it has faced such crises before.

    In 1905, with universities and state athletic associations banning the sport because of its brutality, Roosevelt convened a White House summit of university presidents and football power brokers to make the sport safer and more palatable to the public. A 1955 Life magazine cover depicted football as “Savagery on Sunday.” Heck, moral concerns about football’s violence even predate the sport. Football is derived from rugby, which is derived from soccer, which came about in medieval England more than half a millennium ago. In 1531, English statesman Sir Thomas Elyot called the sport “nothynge but beastlye furie and exstreme violence … malice and rancor do remain with they that be wounded.”

    The modern version of football has, in stops and starts, inched toward a way to take player safety seriously while retaining the sport’s grit. The denialists, who in the first decade or so of the 2000s fought back against the earliest research on links between hits to the head and the degenerative brain disease, have mostly gone silent. The sport has made improvements along the margins, with various changes to equipment and rules and player safety protocol, but football is still dangerous to the head. The canard of “you could get a concussion riding your bike too” is silly; of course you can, but hits to the head are an inherent part of football, not a freak injury. It remains to be seen whether the risk of CTE can be minimized, but the risk will never be removed. We can only hope that researchers can figure a way to spot CTE at its early stages – it can currently only be diagnosed posthumously – and find a way to treat it. Some early research, piggybacking on the billions spent on Alzheimer’s research, sounds promising.

    In the end, the manly ideals of face your fears and fight through pain, worthy as they are, will never be entirely separated from risks that may or may not be worth the sacrifice.

    I have a friend who was a successful quarterback for a well-regarded small college program. He experienced plenty of concussions during his career. He told me he once played an entire second half of a game and had zero memory of it. A couple decades after his playing career ended, he is experiencing memory issues, and he worries what his future will bring. He’s also a successful businessman and a great husband and father, and he attributes much of that to football. The sport taught him teamwork and confidence. His college coach is the man he credits for his ethical framework. He told me there’s a very real chance he has CTE. He also told me he wouldn’t trade his time on the football field for anything, not only because of that feeling of being the big man on campus but because of how the sport shaped him.

    Just like Henry Cabot Lodge from a century ago, that’s heavy stuff, with a lot to unpack. I can’t imagine having such a dark view of my future – but then I also can’t imagine crediting a sport for so much of my success in life. When my friend first told me this, I was stunned. I hope the scientific research into CTE gathers steam in time for him and others from his generation to benefit from it, and I hope football speeds up its incremental progress with player safety while retaining most of the sport’s character.

    Maybe that’s an impossible needle to thread. But in the meantime, I’m going to continue to believe that football is not purely awful and not purely beautiful – that football, somehow, is both.

    Contributed By portrait of Reid Forgrave Reid Forgrave

    Reid Forgrave, a journalist and author in Minnesota, wrote about America’s complicated, tortured relationship with football in his book, Love, Zac: Small-Town Football and the Life and Death of an American Boy.

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