The headlines indicate football’s headwinds. “Is American Football Evil?” “Should Kids Play Football?” “Is Football Wrong?” “Should We Ban Football?” Some questions give answers just by asking.
With the public equating football with the NFL — especially on the day after the league settled a lawsuit with its retirees for $765 million — it’s easy to forget that less than one-tenth of one percent of the sport’s four million players compete in the league that dominates television screens on Sunday. The most watched league may still thrive. The most played-in leagues struggle.
For the first time in almost two decades, participation in high school football dropped (the data comes from 2011-2012 — the latest for which we have statistics). Football still reigns as the king of high school sports in terms of numbers — more than a million boys play. But the decline foreshadows a conceivable future without football, or at least without football operating within the American mainstream. In Pop Warner and other kids’ leagues, the exodus is more extreme. The youth leagues shed six percent of its players in 2012. A few more seasons like that and Pop Warner will go the way of paperboys, Victrolas, and telephone booths.
The war on football hurts anonymous athletes, not the famous ones who play in overflowing stadiums. For these competitors, football isn’t a profession. It’s a passion.
One of the unlikeliest citizens of Football Nation is Jessica Cabrera, a player in the Women’s Football Alliance I came to know through writing The War on Football. Thirteen years ago, the former collegiate basketball player donned a football helmet for the first time. When Jessica initially told people she played football, she encountered disbelief. Her Boston Militia teammates recall snickers, smart-aleck queries about the Lingerie League, and confusion over whether by “football” they meant the kicking rather than the tackling sport. “It is a source of pride,” the defensive end notes of being present at the creation of women’s professional football. “Being part of something that many said would not and could not happen makes me feel very special.”
Rather than a threat to her life, the gridiron veteran regards sports as the passion that saved her life. “I had no stability growing up,” Jessica confesses. “I bounced from living with one aunt to another aunt. My mother was a drug addict and my dad was an alcoholic, so family for me did not consist of mom and dad. I would be in Brooklyn right now probably lost or even on the other side of the law [without athletics]. Sports were the key to my success.” The first in her family to graduate college, Jessica following her educational aspirations back then appeared as unusual as her pigskin passion does now. Whether pursuing her degree or a quarterback, she lives for proving naysayers wrong.
Jessica’s job offers daily reminders of how her life may have turned out without sports. She works as a corrections officer at a Boston jail. “We are outnumbered in a unit around 80 to 1,” she explains. “In our facilities we house the entire spectrum from J walkers to serial killers.” Across the United States last year, ten fellow corrections officers, four of them women, lost their lives in the line of duty. Just two football players died from hits. For Jessica, football isn’t danger but a vacation from it.
Just as Jessica’s sex places her outside of the typical football demographic, her age (39) proves equally eccentric. About 95 percent of players can’t even vote. Even though we obsess over the teams that field giants, preadolescent boys comprise the leagues in which most compete. Nevertheless, non-NFL adult leagues like Jessica’s, though a small corner of Football Nation, experienced both of 2012’s collision deaths — tragedies that have become a tiny fraction of what they once were.
If the women’s marquee league is anything like the NFL — the salaries (the ladies pay to play) surely aren’t — thirteen years on the field will prove a boon for Jessica’s health. Chasing down quarterbacks, wrestling with bulky tackles, and containing speedy running backs requires a dedication to bodily wellness rare in a nation more obese than every other save for its southern neighbor. The jail guard plays football as a stress reliever and “a way to stay active and in shape,” not as a means to undermine her health.
Not for the first time, others believe they know what’s good for Jessica better than she does. The impulse to take the ball and go home, once the purview of spoiled kids, has somehow become the responsible, adult thing to do. The abolitionists seek to make football as much of a curio as women’s football. But prying the ball from the hands of players who know football as more a game of the soul than of the body may prove difficult. “I play because I love the sport,” declares Jessica. “It makes me feel alive.”
Like Jessica Cabrera, the gridiron game opens the 2013 season as an underdog. Guilt-tripping parents into the dubious belief that football means signing their kids up for long-term brain damage and lawsuits that make the sport cost prohibitive through escalating litigation and insurance fees have left football at the bottom of the pile, unsure whether it can continue for many more years.
If the example of players like Jessica can’t inspire a more full-throated yet intelligent response to football’s current crisis, then the beleaguered game’s enthusiasts might want to look to the dynamics of an actual game. Players constantly rise up after getting knocked down. Teams succeed by overcoming obstacles rather than whining about them. The best coaches motivate their squads after setbacks to regroup, not retreat. Competition challenges athletes to give more than they thought themselves capable. Teams fall behind on the scoreboard to claim victory by persevering until the last whistle blows. On fall football fields, the impossible becomes the possible every weekend.
Such a sport attracts comeback kids like Jessica. It produces them, too. But the spirited game’s proponents, in the face of a ferocious attack on their passion, offer a milquetoast, listless defense. They apologize for what they should be celebrating. Jessica, not to mention gridiron antecedents such as Jim Thorpe and Red Grange who overcame similar hurdles, deserves better.
America’s Game desperately needs a pep rally, some cheerleaders, and a crowd’s roar to uplift it. Surely it can’t suffer through too many more mean seasons and remain America’s Game much longer.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons