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The Sports Desk

Let Football Live

Cracks are appearing in football’s helmet—injuries to athletes, injuries to the game. For one former high school and college player, the damage has gone too far.

Samantha Lucy for The Morning News.

I have long held two opposing ideas in my heart about football.

I have known that my father and his father loved football, that my friends and I loved football, and that my kids are already drawn to it, young as they are. I have known how it connects me to both the eternal and to my community. I have known how it entertains me like nothing else. Yet I have also known that the game is at its heart brutal and that what is beautiful about it—a defensive lineman’s spin move, a leaping interception with the feet just in bounds, or the sight of a perfectly executed sweep—is only a light overlay, that football was manufactured to prove an old kind of manhood that can no longer be proven in the real world and shouldn’t be. I have known that football damages its players more than a sport should when they are young, leaving them no choice but to justify the pain when they are old and perpetuate the illusion of glory by encouraging their sons to play the game.

And now I cannot keep the balance, for the grace no longer justifies the violence, and the myths no longer justify the corruption. It turns out that the very act that gives the game its power—hitting—may be fatally flawed. It turns out that persistent blows to the head—especially if they involve concussions—damage the brain, in the worst cases causing something called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. This trouble with concussions began to be clear to the public only recently, but it turns out that it was clear to the leaders of the game up to 20 years ago and that they have covered it up, allowing not just relatively well-paid pros but also millions of high school students and youths to play in a way that might turn their brains into mush.

But my own gridiron crackup is not a result of this sudden public awareness of brain damage and reports of demented former players killing themselves to end their misery. I used to think that was the case, but it’s not. I could live with the risk of brain damage—even my own, maybe even my son’s—if I still held a deeper faith in the good of the game. But I’ve lost my faith, not just in the NFL, the NCAA, and whoever runs the youth leagues, but in the essence of football itself.

First and Ten

Football is not a religion—it lacks any real theology or spiritual component, no matter how intertwined it becomes with certain strains of Christianity and no matter how strongly you might feel about the genius of a coach like Vince Lombardi, the grace of a soaring wide receiver like Lynn Swann, or the supernatural curses placed upon select teams (you know, like mine). But just below the ultimate mysteries, the sport has taken hold as “the sacramental expression of the American way of life,” a way to find grace amid a frisson of brutality, which is a powerful tonic in our violence- and religion-driven land.

Football is central to the myth of one part of my family, and from my earliest days I loved it with all my heart, and that love soon turned to unquestioned faith. Football was about hearing stories of my grandfather playing with an actual pig bladder in his gritty Michigan railroad town, and then returning from the horror of liberating Europe in World War II to play college ball, one of those upwardly mobile vets who took out their frustrations on the soft kids who knew nothing of real combat.

I could live with the risk of brain damage—even my own, maybe even my son’s—if I still held a deeper faith in the good of the game. But I’ve lost my faith in the essence of football itself.

Football was about my father playing for the same college as my grandfather had before transferring to an even bigger school, and it was about the fact that my dad was the only dad who played with us kids, drawing up plays in huddles and throwing around my grandfather’s old leather ball with homemade leather laces, a link to the post-war heartland under a relentless blue Californian sky.

Football was mixed in with romanticized memories of the orange and red autumn leaves of Hamburg, N.Y., where we lived before California, and it not only taught me about the struggle between good and evil but also helped me celebrate the harvest at Thanksgiving and the birth of each new year with the Super Bowl. I offered a part of my soul to my football team, long before I left any other part of myself in any other team, or any romantic relationship.

The rhythms of my life were centered on football—my entire Sundays and Monday nights spent watching the games, the yearly pilgrimages to the big stadium, the communion with my friends at school to argue or commiserate, and the sacred text of the Buffalo News delivered to our California mailbox just so I could read about the reappearance of my beloved Bills after years in the football wilderness. My football teams were my totem, and I lost control in my love—and this could have happened with any childhood fixation—but I fell for sports, and in my America, football was king, the most loved.

Football gave me something to recite rather than a prayer in quiet moments—the list of Super Bowl winners, or just all the teams by division, or who the Bills would play the rest of the season, plus possible playoff opponents. It did not matter whether I played touch or tackle in the schoolyard, whether I listened to games on the radio or watched on TV. And it was even more powerful because this was an organizing principle from the inside, which shaped my sense of the seasons, of patriotism, of my identity as an exile of sorts, hanging on to what seemed the most honest and romanticized code of the Rust Belt as I came of age in the shadow of Silicon Valley.

I offered a part of my soul to my football team, long before I left any other part of myself in any other team, or any romantic relationship.

It was a potent mix—and it touches on the eternal—and because of that it can seem eternal. But it’s not. The concussions are a part of this. I played on the line through high school and college, and I realize I’m almost surely fine, but just that sliver of doubt (up to 4,500 hits to the head, if I followed the norm) that I might start to slip at 73 or 83 instead of 93 or 103, darkens the ritual, and suddenly the whispers of worry that started already in adolescence have grown louder, and the spectacle seems a waste, while the crowds seem bloodthirsty, rather than communal.

Suddenly I do not see order created out of chaos or find redemption in the violence and simulated battle. Suddenly I see an industrial machine that chews up and spits out the little guy, all to create a glitzy yet gritty product for the masses. Suddenly I realize there must be plenty of other ways to ground my son and my daughter in the blue-collar Midwestern narratives of their American family.

Second and Three

I blew my knee out for the first time when I was 14, during the third or fourth game my freshman year of high school. I sprinted down a wet field to block for a teammate who had intercepted a pass. I swung my left leg in front of the last possible tackler, planted my foot, heard a pop and watched my teammate—a future All-State defensive back—fumble the ball out of bounds, untouched.

Seven years later, during my senior year of college, I covered my head with a towel and wept after I wrecked my “good” knee on an ineffective pass rush, no special story on this one. In all, I played five and a half of a possible eight years between high school and college, starting whenever I was on the field, but so often not on the field. For me, football became less about letter jackets and male bonding and more about knee braces, lonely rehabs, and crazy weight swings—I just couldn’t keep my lineman weight on—up and down 50 pounds at a time.

I earned myself a cauliflower ear, chipped four teeth, permanently bent my pinky finger, and still cannot control myself at buffets because I am existentially afraid of going hungry. I cannot jog and should not play basketball or go skiing, certainly not without my two huge knee braces. But I can walk, swim, ice skate, ride my bike, stand at my desk all day, and, most importantly, chase, carry, and wrestle with my kids as much I want, which is a lot.

I never had a concussion, though my freshman year I suffered a perpetual headache (I finished that season playing on an agonizingly misdiagnosed knee). When I returned to the field my junior year, my parents bought me my own “air” helmet, which were soon standard, and the headaches went away.

I lived for game day, which was transcendent from a massive breakfast with my father through the struggles of the game itself to the pain and exhaustion afterward. I played mostly on the defensive line, and I always filled my gap—no freelancing on my side. I knew the playbook and paid attention to film and never challenged even the most incompetent coaches. I made a handful of big plays but mostly I was a grinder who always won the fourth quarter, even if only I and the guy across from me knew it.

I viscerally loved the collisions (in games, not in practice), even though I would be the last person to get in a bar fight or even brawl on field. I loved the mud, the armor of the helmet and pads, and the deep bruises across my entire body. I did not flinch at the injuries of others or think too hard about my own. I was not a stereotypical football player socially but, especially at my college, being a football player at all was decidedly uncool, which meant we all played despite the social milieu, not because of it.

In a way, I was exactly what the fathers of the game wanted back at the turn of the 20th century—a professional manager-in-training, a tough and dutiful high achiever who would subsume my ego to the corporation. It is no accident that football as we know it was developed in the elite Ivy League. This was not a sport founded to channel the frustration and quicken the inclusion of immigrants, mill workers, and disadvantaged minorities, but to build toughness in a new class of professional men supposedly going soft in new industrial jobs, men who had never done the real hard (and dirty) work of subduing the land like their fathers and grandfathers.

In football, they found the perfect way to relive the messy glories of the Civil War and later of World War I and World War II. Here was a game with clearly defined lines and roles and ever-increasing specialization, with coaches wielding ultimate authority. And like good management consultants, the rulers of the game maintained a tricky balance between violence and grace, adding the forward pass and helmets but glorifying the head slap, the clothesline, and the helmet-to-helmet hit, even as these were then outlawed one by one. This is how hegemonic masculinity works—it does not follow a single code that establishes men as the superior sex but is instead a shifting set of rules that adjusts to meet the era, which is why it’s so persistent and so powerful and so easy to buy into, no matter whether it works for you or not.

There must be plenty of other ways to ground my son and my daughter in the blue-collar Midwestern narratives of their American family.

But here’s a news flash: The industrial age is over.

The game has primarily shepherded the white American male through a century of paradigm shifts, and that’s an uncomfortable comfort. But it also raises the obvious question of whether it’s done the white American male any good to be coddled, to be fed this illusion of violent, homosocial power that both oppresses huge swaths of our society and will be of absolutely no use to us in a digital, feminized, globalized, and multi-cultural future.

So how do we prove our manhood in this new world? Will we need ever more violent sports? Or as men become ever more involved parents and ever more equal partners, do we turn away from football as too risky, too much like coal mining or cigarette smoking, and let the sport wither and die? Because that doesn’t feel right either.

Hey, no one said that the breakdown of the patriarchy would be easy.

Third and Inches

Of course, for all my mythic childhood associations, and my ruined knees, most of my time with football has been as a consumer of media. This was not a game built for TV but one that has shaped itself to fit the dictates of the small screen, and I have, in response, often bent my life in order to fit the presence of football on TV, specifically pro football.

It’s hard to fathom now, but the National Football League was once the underdog, the league of working class players struggling to pierce the privileged veil of Notre Dame, Army, Michigan, and Alabama. I liked this history—it reminded me of my grandfather, probably—and the NFL also happened to be particularly intertwined with the two cities I grew up in—Buffalo and San Francisco—in a way no college was.

But my devotion bled far beyond the boob tube and regularly scheduled games. I ran a pick ‘em pool among my extended family—by snail mail—when I was 12. I put up Super Bowl posters in my room and collected “hits” tapes that provided visceral inspiration but also a deep grounding in the myths of the league. I was in my first fantasy football league in the early 1990s, when you had to check the box scores in the newspaper to calculate your score. I shivered in the middle of the night in Balkan war zones to listen to games on short-wave radios, and I have woken up at 3 a.m. in Sweden to watch the end of Sunday night football with my infant son.

I want football to change, and not half-assed changes passed off as revolutionary, like eliminating kickoffs and three-point stances.

Through all these years, I’ve always liked the humble grittiness of the NFL players, and I still like NFL players today, the flashier the better, actually, because the violence and the grind seem to ground the showmanship in a way impossible in, say, basketball.

What I don’t like anymore is the NFL as an organization and its push toward a reactionary America. I don’t like the massive public theft that lies behind most stadium deals, the pandering to a military-industrial entertainment complex, even as the actual military is pushed beyond reasonable limits. To be honest, I don’t like the war stuff on any level. I’ve lived in war zones, and I’ve spent lots of time with homeless vets. The shtick of the football player as warrior or gladiator might have worked for a couple decades—in the middle of the Cold War perhaps—but not in this age of dirty, drone-filled endless war.

The “No Fun League” on TV has become harsher and the game is ever more beholden to technocratic and autocratic coaches and league officials. For me, football is starting to reflect the same American divide that brought us the government shutdown, the tea party, and Occupy Wall Street. It is becoming a socially conservative position to take in the culture wars.

But what I really don’t like is the cover-up on concussions, the fact that the powers that be chose evil over good and suppressed concerns and research about the effects of head injuries. And, no, I don’t care if the scandal is overblown, if the costs don’t merit the panic, if it’s all being fueled by the kind of risk-adverse middle-class neurosis that I usually scorn. That doesn’t make it right. There is now much talk about the possible death of football, and I’m certainly a bellwether—will the middle class “knowledge worker” and former college player give up the sport?

Yeah! Or, well, yeah, sure. You know, maybe.

For it is easy to be angry in print and another thing to actually leave the church. Let’s be honest. I’m going to watch games with my dad. Football—and by extension the heartless NFL—is my Rosebud. It is the repository of family, childhood, Buffalo, transcendent bliss, and obstacles overcome. It symbolizes barriers I smashed against, battles I fought, the way I molded my own masculinity, for better or for worse. I could never regret playing because it was never an option not to, and as I write this, I realize I desperately want to find a way to watch it in good conscience. I am moving back to California after 20 years away and that means temptation and expectation and a craving for the familiar as my kids leave the land of their Rosebuds and make the same journey I did to a more complicated (yet hopefully safe, sunny and happy) childhood.

Can I give them football? What would it take to make football all right?

Fourth and Long

What do I want out of football? I want football to change, and not half-assed changes passed off as revolutionary, like eliminating kickoffs and three-point stances.

And while people may not change in relationships, football can. The game has faced the same problems for a century—dying players and the corruption of money—and the reason it endured is because it evolved. The guy who first picked up a soccer ball and ran with it added grace. Teddy Roosevelt helped to add grace by pushing for the forward pass. Rules to protect quarterbacks and wide receivers ensured even more grace. How can we now push the edge of that balance between grace and violence to allow for honesty about the level of brutality inherent in the game?

What I really want is more player autonomy, more flow, more collaboration. I want less specialized positions, more players calling their own plays, and more players making up their own plays. Talk to me when the sport is coed or when I see flag football at the Super Bowl.

Talk to me when we can go real old school and take the helmets off and not get anyone killed.

The other day, I found a deflated American football as we closed up our summer cottage for the winter. We bought it on impulse in an out of the way sporting goods shop when my son was an infant. Now he and the neighbor kid picked it up and threw it around in the disintegrating autumn leaves, two Swedish kids not sure what to do with it.

And watching them, I remembered why I love football. I remember the energy and the running and the damp ground and the grass stains. I could feel the boldness mixed with the tradition. I could see football as a bridge between the industrial age and whatever is coming next. At 40, I’m too old to fall in love with a new tradition in the same way I did in Hamburg in the late 1970s. But my son and daughter are ready, and if I can’t find my faith in football again, I will lean on more inclusive and less divisive myths to ground them as American kids, and I will ignore the gap in my heart left by the passing of football from the story of my family. And that would be sad, but it would also make me more whole, and that is more important than the game.

Nathan Hegedus is a Stockholm-based writer whose work has appeared most recently in Quartz, Slate, and the Christian Science Monitor. More by Nathan Hegedus