There are many, many reasons why we can argue football is a horrible scourge on the nation. The terrible workplace conditions, the exploitation of unpaid college labor, the deification of violence–these are all really good reasons! I’m not going to defend any of them. But, as an American, I also have to at least acknowledge the social position football plays in American life. Football unites many of us. It’s what families can talk about at Thanksgiving instead of politics. It’s what different generations can bond over. It covers up other social ills that tear us apart. These are important things. There’s not worth it, but then that’s what Americans and maybe all humans do, create justifications for their actions even though they impact others in such a horrifyingly negative way. Jamil Smith wonders what this all says for the national character and why he enjoys football so much even though he knows all of these problems well.
I have no excuse, really. Every time I’ve thought about leaving the sport behind, I remember my favorite photograph: a black-and-white shot my mother took of me in my football uniform in the eighth grade, standing next to my father and smiling after a win. But nostalgia is a reason to love the game, not a reason to need it. Perhaps, then, this is where I should tell you why—even in the wake of Omalu’s revelations—I feel we still need football. Not to rescue the NFL’s largely black labor force from its humble origins, or to entertain the masses that refuse to let it go in the wake of mounting tragedies. We need it partially because football serves as a kind of fun-house mirror for our national character.
The reflection comes in various forms: social movements, national tragedy, political spectacle, and yes, our sports. And we are a dramatic country, so much so that the volume of theatrics we see in every corner of our lives dulls our senses. We need more, and we need it louder. And in spectator sports, we want to see the best versions of ourselves reflected back at us, or else why would we consider it entertainment? We want to believe that inside that arena, everything will be all right because our men are the strongest, and our fight is the hardest. This is why between 2012 and 2015 the Department of Defense paid 18 NFL teams a total of more than $5.6 million for marketing and advertising, including flying military bombers over stadiums at taxpayers’ expense. It’s also why we watch hit montages week after week, delighting in the crack of the pads or the punch of the music without wondering whether that player just got pushed a bit further toward CTE. Football marries artfulness to brutality, providing the most honest interpretation of American character that we have available, and I enjoy football despite its horrors because I have learned to do the same in my life in America.
Unlike Smith, I am not African-American so the horrors of my life in America are significantly fewer. But football does speak to us in very American ways. We don’t watch because we love exploiting people per se, but we do love to watch violent spectacles, whether in video games or boxing (back before the corruption doomed it to a second-tier sport) or MMA or professional wrestling or violent movies or our military kicking some ass overseas. None of these things are really good for society I suppose, but they are what they are.
When people on the left self-righteously talk about how they hate sports (although now you have the exception of “I hate sports except soccer and go USA!” which is a new twist on this), I wonder what then do they talk to working-class people and the conservatives in their families about. And I guess the answer is nothing. They don’t talk to working-class people or the conservatives in their families.
America is complicated. Even though every reader of this site knows the horrors of football, many of us will watch the Rose Bowl today or the NFL on Sunday. Or hopefully Oregon in the Alamo Bowl tomorrow. It’s also nice to know that college football still prioritizes the desires of a few rich men in bad looking blazers over the game itself, as in order to protect the traditional time slots of the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl, the NCAA held the college football playoffs on New Year’s Eve. I haven’t compared ratings to last year, but ESPN was certainly concerned and they must have been lower. I couldn’t believe I was missing the playoffs, but it was New Year’s Eve, and I was going out with my wife. Why they couldn’t be held on January 2 is beyond me. But that’s college football for you.