This morning, fat kids across America ran wind sprints until they vomited, drove sleds like beasts until muscle collapse, and alternated between jogging in place and hitting the deck so frequently that it jarred even the insides of onlookers. And they do it all again this afternoon.
This isn’t a federal anti-obesity initiative. It’s football.
Two-a-days are good for you. Video-game addiction, blasting ear buds to “11,” and treating Skittles as one of the four food groups are not. Madly, it’s the fitness-inducing pastime of teenage boys that public health crusaders inveigh against as though an end-around were as dangerous as a pack of Marlboro Reds. They’re not called health nuts for nothing.
Football star Junior Seau’s autopsy released Monday by the San Diego County medical examiner revealed no brain damage. What cerebral malady caused so many otherwise sensible people to reflexively blame the linebacker’s suicide on decades of violent football collisions?
“Football’s in trouble for two reasons,” George Will explained in the wake of Seau’s suicide on ABC’s This Week. “First of all, the human body is not built for the violence that is inherent in football at the highest level. Second, people are going to watch football differently from now on, because they’re going to feel a little bit like the spectators in the Coliseum in Rome, watching people sacrificed for their entertainment, with a kind of violence that is unseemly — third suicide in 15 months.”
It may surprise the bow-tied baseball buff to learn that total suicides among Major League Baseball players greatly outnumber suicides among National Football League athletes. Should a numbskull baseball-hater have made a connection between Hideki Irabu’s recent self-inflicted death and, say, his 98 mph fastball, surely George Will would recognize the logical fallacy at work.
And certainly Will isn’t writing any columns about the dangers of baseball in the wake Wednesday’s $14.5 million settlement between defendants including Little League and a young pitcher left brain damaged after being struck in the heart by a batted ball. Like most intelligent people, the columnist recognizes that partaking in beneficial activities — travel, work, exercise, sex, eating — involves risk.
Why should football alone be judged by its risks but not its rewards?
There is a witch hunt quality to the Fourth Estate’s football fixation. The dubious connections made between on-field trauma and off-field drama — suicides, meltdowns, violence — ranks somewhere between shark-sighting sensationalism and SARS alarmism in the annals of journalistic irresponsibility. The facts don’t warrant the conclusions drawn.
Suicide-by-football fits too neatly into the narrative. And when the facts don’t fit, those seeking to sack football sack the facts. “For all players who play five or more years,” George Will reported in his column earlier this month, “life expectancy is less than 60; for linemen it is much less.” This isn’t true.
The study commissioned by the NFL Players Association and conducted by federal researchers found that athletes who lasted five or more years in the league between 1959 and 1993 lived longer than the average American male. As USA Today reported in May, “A records-based study of retired players conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) concludes that they have a much lower death rate than men in the general population, contrasting the notion that football players don’t live as long.”
Who would have believed that there are health benefits to running back-and-forth for four quarters on a hundred yard field?
“Facts are stubborn things,” John Adams reflected. More stubborn are prejudices.
Some people have a cultural aversion to football. Robert Maynard Hutchins, who jettisoned the original “Monsters of the Midway,” was one such man. Whenever I feel the urge to exercise, Hutchins famously quipped, I lie down until the feeling goes away. One grasps why the gridiron held no charms for such a man. The University of Chicago president found football a non sequitur for an academic institution, so in 1939 he killed off a program that once had been national champion. The Great Books devotee remarked, “Football has the same relation to education that bullfighting has to agriculture.” Perhaps so, but the analogy works for men’s gymnastics, too, which Hutchins spared from elimination.
The pigskin is as out of place in risk-averse America as it was at books-intense University of Chicago. In a nation where children socialize with other children in adult-surveilled play dates, where walking to school shows bad parenting, and where lawyers jump in on schoolyard fights, kids crashing into other kids at full speed seems so 20th century.
The anachronistic nature of football that makes it so off-putting to our overprotected culture is also what makes the game, and its players, so incredibly popular. We don’t admire the ordinary. Football has never appeared as extraordinary as it does right now.