Thursday, October 17, 2013

Football is also beautiful

Last night I gave over nearly two hours to watching the POV/Frontline documentary League of Denial: the NFL's concussion crisis. The film is based on the research for Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada's book of the same name, just published. The show is slow, excruciatingly documented, and convincing in its core assertion that the NFL has consistently valued maintaining its brand and profits at the risk of the lives of football players, amateur and professional. This is not a pretty picture of the sport I delight to watch. (I never played, though I have an ex who played rugby and sometimes came home concussed.)

Critics of the Frontline documentary have pointed out that it ignores the complicity of the NFLPA, the player's union, in organized football's long campaign of silence about the dangers of the sport.

Accompanying the main film are additional filmed interviews with some of the talking heads in the film. San Franciscans -- and anyone who cares about the sport -- will appreciate the comments of retired 49er quarterback and current commentator Steve Young. Here's a sample of this intelligent man's appreciation of his sport.

You described the game as violent. I know that there are really tough hits, but the game itself, there are rules about it that really -- and I think the NFL is trying more and more to try to hone those down -- but I have always looked at it as a gentleman's game.

I know that people outside would say: "Oh, that Young, you're crazy. You don't know what you're talking about." But the guys that played it really well and played it for a long time, we were connected. Reggie White, Bruce Smith, some of my biggest adversaries or my best friends would knock me down and [say], "Steve, how you doing?" And I'd say: "Well, I'm not doing so good right now. Could you avoid this again?" I mean, we would have back-and-forth. ...

I'm not going to say it was just another day at the office, because it takes all of you. The demands of excellent NFL quarterbacking I always said took every piece of me, emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually. It was like it just took it all, and I think that was what was so energizing about it and unreplicable. ...

My life is more sublime now. It's wonderful. It's better in many ways, but you can't say, "Oh, I'm going to find that somewhere else." You just can't.

I believe Young here. The reporters who made League of Denial again and again assert that fans watch the game to enjoy the brutality of it all. That feels completely false to my sort of fan appreciation. Sure, seeing guys beat each other up is integral to football, but anyone who has watched with me knows that I'm likely to exclaim "did you see that??!!" when an onrushing defender manages to pull up in full stride and avoid smashing into an opponent who is already down. Some of the greatest athleticism of the game happens in those intentionally avoided hits.

This year with the current officiating emphasis on requiring players not to hit with their heads, I'm seeing men do amazing contortions with their bodies that are foreign to everything they learned in ten years of amateur football in pre-concussion awareness times. The skill is in contorting their bodies at full speed to tackle in the manner prescribed by the rules and still stopping the ball carrier. This sort of magnificent athletic accomplishment is what I watch football for.

Current rule changes are not the first time the sport has been reinvented to try to make it less lethal. The forward pass was legalized in 1906 because the tight scrum for running the ball was killing men. If the league takes the dangers seriously, perhaps they can accomplish another successful modification. I hope we don't as a society decide this sport is simply too inherently damaging. It is also beautiful.

1 comment:

Michael Strickland said...

You are so butch. I love your appreciation of the sport as performance art. Football's never been my thing, too brutal and stop-and-start in its rhythms. Plus, I was never any good at it as a young person, though my dad was a USC star with Frank Gifford before his knee was destroyed as a sophomore.

There's a certain kind of fan that watches football as a gladiator sport, with serious injury as entertainment, but they're a dumb minority. Having said that, all professional football players end up physically crippled in one way or another, but very few of them seem to regret it. Your quote from Young on that account is priceless.

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