How does it feel to be a 21st Century football fan?
I loved playing football and baseball as a kid.
I've watched the NFL for decades. I was a New York City cabdriver when Joe Namath and the Jets shocked the world by beating the highly-favored Baltimore Colts. I moved to San Francisco in 1980 – just in time for the Niners' first Super Bowl, as Joe Montana helped rescue them out of years of mediocrity.
But the facts are the facts about what the game does to its best players – including the way repeated concussions can destroy a brain. “Yeah, he got his bell rung!” coaches used to laugh.
Jim McMahon, who threw his first college touchdown pass against UTEP, then won two Super Bowls, has early-stage dementia at 53. Star linebacker Junior Seau, 43, committed suicide after texting his family to have his brain scanned for damage. Thurman Thomas, who played in four straight Super Bowls, is 50, suffering from uncontrollable mood swings and sometimes getting confused about where he is while driving a road he drives every day. Doctors say Thomas's brain looks as if his head went through a windshield multiple times at high speed. Brett Favre says he wouldn't let his kid play football.
I feel uncomfortable watching football now. Like Favre, though without his credibility, if asked, I'd likely discourage a kid from playing. But my warnings would be as ineffectual as the ones I got against driving too fast, drinking too much, falling in love too easily, or going to remote or dangerous places.
I wonder when the mild discomfort of watching younger men destroy their bodies and brains for our amusement, like modern-day gladiators, will morph into guilt. Will we soon conclude that by watching football we're abetting a nefarious scheme that destroys young men's lives in order to sell billions of dollars of beer, sugar-filled sodas, poisoned hamburgers, and what-not?
I'm not taking a political position here.
I'm trying to figure out where I stand in relation to the ugly truth that's emerging.
I follow the game with a little less interest now. Sure, the Niners, run by egotistical baboons, shot themselves in the foot by firing Jim Harbaugh. And I'm aging, perhaps even maturing. But I'm also uneasy about what the game does to people's health.
Then there's the social cost. Football injures affect not only players, but their families – and ultimately, the rest of us. Many who suffer brain injuries will burden our over-stressed health system. Some will become public charges. Sure, the luckiest or most skillful players are extravagantly well-paid; but for every player with a zillion-dollar contract, there are thousands of kids who are unlucky enough to suffer serious brain injuries without getting closer to the professional game than a 30th-row seat. All to what end?
Someday we'll face the ugliness head on. It was ugly when TV-advertisers reaped zillions of dollars by promising kids that smoking cancer-sticks was glamorous and cool and would help a kid get somewhere with girls. It's ugly that selling beer by associating it with sexy women objectifies women as sexual products in men's eyes -- and messes up young girls' self-images.
So as the Aggies play their first conference home-game, and as everyone breaks out the Trojans and Bulldawgs banners, let me play crotchety old man. I haven't given up watching football. I haven't forgotten how glorious it felt to play the game, or how much I wished to be a better player. But if I'd played better then, perhaps I couldn't have written this as coherently today.
[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 2 October 2016, as well as on the newspaper's website the newspaper's website, and will appear presently on the KRWG-TV website as well. Please feel free to comment here or on either of those other sites. And thanks for reading. For football fans, apologies for typing in "Green Bay Pakcers" instead of "Baltimore Colts" -- it was the Colts, with the great Johnny Unitas and coached by Don Shula, who lost to Namath and the Jets, to our delight. Green Bay I think had won the first two Super Bowls by big margins, over Oakland and Kansas City, before the American Football League finally won one.]
[I'm not advocating anyone outlaw football tomorrow. More, I'm musing on a present in which our awareness of its dangers, or our willingness to deal with those, lags way behind their importance -- and on a future when, if leagues and teams and coaches and schools and parents don't deal with the realities, football might be outlawed or a lot less popular. I'm aware that some local schools and coaches don't abide by rules to protect their kids, but also that the kids are the last to insist on that. I'd never have wanted to come out of a game of any kind for any reason! Still not too keen on it.]
[I mentioned to a friend at Farmers' Market yesterday that today's column was on football. He made a face and told me he loathed sports. That's not an unreasonable position, particularly when sports so dominate academics and other concerns at so many institutions of learning. But it ain't my position. I'm addicted to playing sports and I'll watch professional baseball, maybe a little football, and maybe even a little golf on TV today. But I also understand the downsides of sports, which are not limited to injuries.]