Sorry, but it's time.
We've "found out" a lot about the NFL this year. I put the phrase in quotes because we are mostly discovering things that we've suspected for quite a while--that violence perpetrated by players is epidemic, that the concussive and subconcussive impacts incurred as an inevitable result of playing the game produce inevitable lifelong trauma, the only question of which is how severe each individual case will be. And we also know that the NFL management absolutely could not give two hot sh*ts about any of the above except to the extent that it impacts upon the financial bottom line. This year in the NFL has been an absolute carnival of transparent greed and utter shamelessness, as management lurches uncontrollably from one crisis to another, imposing consequence after consequence that its own rules in no way justify, all while ignoring the real problems and attempting to buy its way out of the consequences of its lies about the health risks to players on the most laughable and despicable terms imaginable.
And let's be clear: the NFL, which I just described, is the part of football that ought to be PRESERVED. Because whatever else may be said of it, everyone who entered into that environment was a full adult, compensated for his efforts, and with some knowledge that he was trading lifelong comfort for momentary glory. It's a modern day gladiatorial game, no doubt of it, but the libertarian in me tells me that people should be allowed to be gladiators if they really want; there is a case to be made for a short and merry life over a long and dull one, and the athletic spectacle that results is indeed glorious (ISWYDT, Odell Beckham), and God save me, but I do enjoy watching it.
I no longer believe that there is a persuasive case to be made for football at any other level. Much has been made of the meatgrinder that services, for instance, professional soccer; the tens of thousands of teenagers in virtually every country who are pulled from schools in favor of soccer development academies run by professional franchises, who receive a laughable joke of an education as they become in effect full time laborers. The system spits out a precious few world-class players on the other end along with thousands upon thousands of young adults with no meaningful skills and no prospects. That's soccer. AMERICAN football is different, of course, because we don't make the franchises themselves turn the handle of the meatgrinder; we have publicly subsidized universities do the job for them. The cases of public universities subverting their educational mission in pursuit of gridiron glory are too many to list here. A few of them, the very top niche, do make a profit in the process, the bulk of which is plowed back into the program itself. Which is to say: the best argument IN FAVOR OF college football is that as many thousands of young men, largely from impoverished backgrounds, are brought in to provide uncompensated labor, and then spit out the other end with college "degrees" of questionable credibility (or in many cases no degree at all) and also with injuries that will cripple their earnings potential and their quality of life, there are A FEW universities that make a profit off of this labor, meaning that the underclass has served its purpose of entertaining the middle and upper classes and subsidizing their educations. That's the case IN FAVOR, and a sad and shabby case it is. The case AGAINST is to be found in less glorious locales, such as the Columbus, Ohio dumpster in which an Ohio State Buckeyes player was found dead this week, having shot himself to bring an end to the concussive trauma and self-perception of failure from which he was suffering. Or in the utterly sick priorities of the millions who cheered lustily this week at the courage of the (uncompensated) quarterback for Clemson, who was permitted by his (compensated) team trainer and his (very well compensated indeed) head coach to play the entire game against archrival Clemson on a torn ACL.
Then there is high school football, the new passion at my own institution of learning, involving young men from all walks of life, subjecting themselves to the same concussive and subconcussive impacts daily, with the permission and indeed the urging of their school community, in pursuit of collective glory and maybe, just maybe, the chance to do it for free for four years more. No question, those young men enjoy it. As do we, watching them. There are many things that young men enjoy doing which maybe we ought not to encourage them to do, particularly if we are, for instance, professional educators. No doubt the young men in question learn many lessons about teamwork and commitment and leadership from the experience. One wonders if there might not be an activity in which they might not learn many of those same lessons, and even catch some whiff of glory besides, that does not involve repeated head trauma. What needs to be screamed to the heavens about this phenomenon is that THESE. ARE. KIDS. These are not even eighteen year old men, legally permitted to make the dumb, dumb, stupid, stupid, dumb, stupid, dumb decisions that young men make. THESE ARE KIDS, in our care, and we are encouraging them to slam their heads into one another repeatedly because it's fun for them and us. Every generation has moral blind spots; slavery was once thought inevitable, for instance, as was Jim Crow later on, and our own grandparents by and large thought the wartime incarceration of Asian-American civilians was just. Blind spots are by definition unidentifiable to those of us who are experiencing them. Even so, I feel comfortable assuming that future generations will look back at us, at our collective and almost universal celebration of high school football, and ask, "What the HELL were they thinking???"
My school loves its football team, and they're very good at what they do, and they bring in resources that we wouldn't have otherwise, and I love seeing them succeed, and I hate myself and all the rest of us for how proud we all are of what we're all doing.
It all needs to end, at my school and everywhere else. Not because the coaches and the participants are bad people, but because they are good people, by and large; intelligent and capable men, young and old. Moral, vigorously competitive men, with valuable lessons to teach and to learn, and there has to be some better use to which our society can put them than to make them all grist for the NFL's mill, feedstock for a machine that grinds them up in order to churn out, at the other end, Ray Rice, Aaron Hernandez, and Roger Goodell's new yacht.
My own favorite non-NFL football team is that of the University of Kansas. It's a hot mess of a program that has won, I think, three conference games in the last six years, and has fired three different coaches in that time, one for among other things calling his players "gang-bangers" and the other two of whom are still drawing salary from the school because they had to be canned at the front end of long-term contracts. KU doesn't pretend to make money off of football and the student body by and large doesn't pretend to care about it; nobody is choosing to attend KU because they wanna watch football and anybody who'd leave because they're bad at it left a long time ago. Anyway, they just fired another coach this year en route to a 3-9 season, and there has been a whole lot of speculation in the press as to who they might hire to replace him, and here is who I think KU should hire as its new football coach: no one. They should take this opportunity to shut the program down. They should then use the money saved to endow 85 full ride scholarships for minority men, the initial recipients of which would be the former athletes. In doing so, they would demonstrate that the institution thinks young black men are worthwhile as something other than as entertainment for the rest of us.
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