The Ray Rice story and the continuing angst by many Americans about the National Football League and the game of football is snowballing into a truly disturbing heap, and this probably will not stop anytime soon.
It’s too soon to know if these events reflect some kind of tipping point in our reverence for football — especially Roger Goodell’s handling of the sordid Rice saga. I do know more and more people who are terribly conflicted about that story, as well as concussions and the physical violence of the gridiron, that they’re not watching the game any longer, or they’re seriously considering turning away.
I understand all that. “Football is wonderful. The NFL is awful.” There is absolutely no dispute with that in this corner. None at all. My fandom was severely tested several years ago during the nauseating Michael Vick story that still bothers me.
On the college scene, the Penn State scandal is still hard to shake, although anger at the NCAA’s restoration of the program’s bowl eligibility this week has been strangely muted.
And then last night, I opened up the current issue of The New Yorker — with Derek Jeter on the cover — and read “Phi Beta Football,” a splendid little story by John McPhee, recalling the glorious Princeton single-wing teams of his youth, and what became of the men of his generation who played there. It was written in typically graceful, elegant McPhee fashion, and I quickly thought about a post I wrote a couple weeks ago about the challenges of writing stylishly about football.
“Phi Beta Kappa” more than fits the bill for what I hope will be a future collection of football stories.
There’s also this excerpt in the Los Angeles Review of Books from “Why Football Matters,” which I blogged about recently. I think I was a bit unfair to author Mark Edmundson, whose love-hate relationship with the game more finely balanced than I first thought. Mostly, he writes of how compelling the game has always been for him, in spite of its dangers and dehumanizing effects, and he rightly suspects he is far from alone on this:
“I’m fascinated by the way that the game combines violence and beauty. Pater said that he loved it when art merged beauty and strangeness. But violence and beauty — there’s something about that, too. It’s been said ballplayers look like Homeric warriors, and they do, but football players may more closely resemble knights, jousting in a tournament, with rules and standards and dignity and respect for the opponent, though it is dangerous, too.”
At some point I’d like to think there will be an honest, open public discussion about football along the lines of Edmundson’s argument. For the moment, the mainstream media and social media channels are convulsed with football — and many other sports — primarily in the context of social issues (domestic violence, gay athletes, race and gender, etc.), and that won’t be subsiding anytime soon.
The question is whether there might be some room for something beyond the white-hot outrage machine, with its idiotic and pretentious trolling, snarky, clickbaity gumsmacking and a mob mentality that greets any attempt at a nuanced perspective with a sledgehammer of shame and cultural arrogance.
I still believe that while the game of American football is inherently brutal, it is an honorable code that is played, coached and operated by mostly honorable people who do not commit crimes, who do not brutalize women and who do not try to evade or sweep away ugly matters.
There is a traditional culture of the sport that is worth defending, even in these grim times.