Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it is much more serious than that.
Nobody in football should be called a genius. A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein.
—Joe Theismann (former quarterback)
Football is a mistake. It combines the two worst elements of American life. Violence and committee meetings.
—George F. Will
I take no solace in reading that some hulking, swaggering, high school hot shots and big men on college campuses that used to stuff people like me into lockers are now suffering from football related injuries. Many of these men who succeeded in the professional ranks were my childhood heroes and it saddens me they have such a high rate of dementia, physical afflictions, and premature death. It sounds hollow, like claiming to read “Playboy” for the articles, but I never enjoyed the “big hits” and violence of the sport.
Some four thousand retired professionals recently settled a lawsuit against the National Football League claiming that the full ramifications of head injuries was known by the owners but not shared with the players. Much like the suits against “Big Tobacco” a generation ago, there was intuition that slamming your head into a crazed 300 pound opponent running full speed, and inhaling smoke were both bad for you.
Tobacco companies secretly manipulated the amounts of addictive nicotine and the risk of cancer. NFL coaches, general managers, and owners (from their plush sky boxes) questioned the courage of any concussed player who just had their “bell rung” and displayed no obvious broken bones. The crux of the players’ argument was that while exhorting them on and relying on their loyalty to each other (like soldiers in an unpopular war), team honchos knew more than they disclosed of the long term hazards to their charges. That a former player shot himself in the heart, leaving a directive that his brain be used for medical research, is sobering.
In my youth the strategy, artistry, and pure athleticism of football on a perfect autumn afternoon captivated me. A running back juking past three defenders leaving them grasping at air. A sixty yard touchdown pass that perfectly leads a streaking receiver. A stout band of brothers of all races, shoulder to shoulder, bloody but unbowed in a desperate goal line defense on fourth down, bunched up, unwilling to grant the invaders even an inch of ground. These are the elements of football that I miss.
I was never big or talented enough to make even the junior varsity, mighty mite midget, pee wee, Pop Warner traveling squad. Growing up, I watched the Philadelphia Eagles with my father, wrote a sports column (“Cook’s Corner”) for my high school paper, and went to the University of Michigan (Go Blue). Is my exile, going on twenty years, just a case of sour grapes? I do not believe so. I was a fan. I wasted thousands of hours on beautiful fall days watching Nichols State get trounced by North Carolina A&T, or the Phoenix Cardinals handle the St. Louis Rams.
Every year there are rookies who are bigger, stronger, faster… until they are not. They are blithely discarded for the next new thing. We are a consumer culture not only of products, but human lives. The only match for our thirst for violence is the greed of the owners. Between product licensing, alcohol sales, television revenue, and gate receipts, the NFL brand is a billionaires’ club. It still amazes me that I once cared so deeply about the sport.
Re-watch “The Magnificent Seven.” The Seven arrive as saviors, to defend a village from ruthless invaders (from Green Bay)? The farmers welcome them but wisely hide their women. The children idolize the gladiators whose lives appear more glamorous than the back-breaking labor of their parents. Yul Brynner, the leader of the hired guns, realizes that he and his cohorts risk their lives, but in the end have nothing. Then consider this: Three quarters of professional football players are bankrupt within five years of their retirement.
Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer wondering who is advocating for the high school and college players who have suffered post career concussion symptoms. He is delighted that the Gophers have given up plans to field a serious football team.