[This article appeared in the DC Gazette in the 1970s. Nothing much has changed.]
SAM SMITH – It’s almost over. Our autumnal orgy of orchestrated injury, our paean to triumph at any cost, the pageant of American Darwinism. Football season.
I treat football season like February. I avoid it whenever possible. But, like February, one must leave town or face it at some point. It looms nightly as a desert to cross in order to learn both the evening news and the weather. It turns up on television sets incongruously propped in strange locations so we can follow the game as well as do whatever else we had planned for that afternoon. It speaks to us with Orwellian omnipotence from screens in bars, behind store counters and perched on stools in parking lot shacks. My bank, in a singular departure from its normal practice of applying service charges to every transaction, offers me a free guide to it each year. It is the male thing of which to speak during the darkening months and if one wishes more than a cursory conversation with other males then more than a cursory glance at the sports pages is required. For while it is all right to be indifferent to baseball, soccer, or hockey – if one is discreet about it – indifference to football verges on androgyny or worse. Skip the totems if you like – the bumper stickers and the logo festooned wool cap – but avoid the issue completely? Never.
Well, the truth is that not only am I indifferent to football, I don’t like it I can find only two things good about professional football. The first is that it is so popular in Washington that no otherwise pleasant friend has invited me to attend a Redskins game. The second is that it may serve the nation to some extent by sublimating violence that could be expressed in more dangerous forms. Football is part of the pornography of violence and, if we accept the liberal sociologists’ view of such matters, it is perhaps wisest to let the Battle of America be won on the playing fields of RFK Stadium.
I say perhaps. The evidence is cloudy. We managed to engage in the most stupid war of our history while at the peak of arousal over professional football. And we are regressing into the state-contrived violence of capital punishment, SWAT squads, and massive subsidization of foreign and domestic police state activities apparently unappeased by the bruises of the NFL. But then, who knows what even more grizzly avocations we might find for ourselves and our nation were it not for the ritualistic release of our lust for battle on Sunday afternoons (and Monday evenings and Saturday afternoons and. . . )
Football was long kept in its place in part by the American love of baseball, that remarkably friendly game that more than any other sport seemed to reflect national political and social ideals. Slow as a bill working its way through Congress, enamored of individual eccentricity, full of conflict between citizen (ball player) and authority (umpire), organized in American technological fashion with a specialist for every position all working towards the same goal but keeping a genteel distance from each other, dependent upon skills other than physical size, and featuring the pitcher as democratic hero, recallable upon loss of a vote of confidence, baseball was closely attuned to the way we were.
But we didn’t stay the way we were. As America’s imperial longings became more apparent, as merchandising considerations increasingly insinuated themselves into every corner of our values, as our businesses merged and our minds conglomerated at the drop of anything bigger, more exaggerated or more “super,” and as television demanded larger and larger audiences as the price of admission to its cameras, the countless, casual, dreamy and so unextraordinary afternoons of baseball no longer were what we were about. Baseball had been a way of life for America, but America’s life had lost its way. As we lost confidence in the future, we needed something that would fulfill the moment – the moment that was increasingly to serve the functions of past, present and future. We no longer wished to wait a half a year to find out who had won or lost or to choose our heroes only after observing their performance in scores of games. Professional football brought us the Big Event – history in an afternoon, destiny a baker’s dozen of hours on a 100-yard patch of artificial turf.
Baseball is different. As Eugene McCarthy said, theoretically, a game could go on forever. A ball hit out of the park could ” travel to infinity. And baseball has a past that echoes with every crack of the bat.
I was in the cavernous-waiting room of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station recently when Mohammed Ali walked in. The entire Philadelphia patronage of Amtrak for that hour stared as much as it dared. I remembered the first time I saw him. It was 1961 or so. I was in the lobby of the Louisville Courier Journal and this black tornado roared out of the elevator bragging, yakking, dancing. Who’s that, I asked. Cassius Clay. Who’s Cassius Clay? Now I knew. And the reason I knew was that beyond the braggadocio, the hype that no Madison A venue copywriter would be brazen enough to emulate, was quantifiable achievement, achievement attained over enough years, with enough pain, to prove its worth. Boxing is a brutal game too, too brutal for my inclinations, but at least it knows how to find a hero.
Football has its heroes. But as in contemporary politics and contemporary music, the real ones are obscured by the institutional necessity to make every action heroic, dramatic or controversial. The truth simply does not out itself at velocity adequate to pro football’s economic demands. Football has premised itself on the existence of supermen. When it can not produce them or activities worthy of them, it and the press that fawns over it simply lies to us.
Football also not only involves an unreasonable number of individual injuries but a progressive deterioration of the physical health of nearly all players. The spectator is not viewing an occasional accident, but the pandemic maiming of most of those on the field. This problem is most severe in pro ball, but is a characteristic of the game all the way down to the little leagues. Football is actually an anti-athletic endeavor since its main physiological effect is to hurt bodies rather than to make them stronger.
The sport is organized along extraordinarily authoritarian lines, with plays committed to paper in advance and individual innovation encouraged only when the play goes astray. The coach assumes an importance unparalleled in sports. The concept of a team representing a blend of individual initiative is replaced in football by, a system dependent upon each player doing precisely what he is told, providing yet another parallel to recent American political and economic history.
The watching of football and other sports has become a substitute for physical activity on the part of the spectator. I believe that part of the attraction of television sports is a subconscious belief that the karma of the athlete is transmitted to the viewer through the tube. Unfortunately, there is no metaphysical or medical evidence to support this. On the contrary, for a nation so obsessed with sports, we are remarkably unfit. When more than a thousand American males 18 to 20 were given a twelve minute running test, only six percent rated in the excellent category. A similar sample of young Austrian males found 30% rated excellent.
Simple observation suggests that this situation does not improve with age especially in that category of American males most glued to the Sunday tube. We send our top six percent to the Olympics and the stadium. A much higher percentage we send to the intensive care unit.
The obsession with football interrupts many other facets of life, not the least being sports itself. One example; A few weeks ago 1,500 persons started in the Marine Marathon here. More than a thousand finished. Based on participation it was probably the largest sporting event ever held in the area. As far as the local media was concerned, though, it was a sidelight. It rated a couple of photos and cut lines. Not stats, no detail, no real coverage. The press was following the money, not the athletes and so once again devoted its space to football.
For me, that’s enough reasons to long for a new year, for a temporary end of Super Bowls, wild cards and draft choices. For me there’s enough greed and brutality in the real world. A good sport takes us away from the avarices and perversions of the mind and lets us discover skill, speed, strength, grace and surprise that lie beneath the shoulders. A good sport is fun. It’s play. Football is neither. It is hard, mean, power-grubbing, hurtful work because instead of releasing us from the less admirable aspects of our world, it emulates and encourages them.