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[Chalice] Troubles With Sports [Chalice]
in Our Football Nation

Presented February 6, 2011 - Super Bowl Sunday, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

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I have always loved this book, The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football, and so have my students when I have used it in my feminist theory class. Until recently, that is! I have taught that class every other year for about 14 years, and each time I teach it I use this book and the students, who are mostly women each time, just love it. But the last time I taught that class and used the book the students, mostly women of course, hated this book. They even resented me for assigning it and making them read it. "How could you make us read this garbage?" "I hate this book!" were some of the comments the students made in class. Now why did these students, nearly all women, hate this book?

Because, each student said, one after another, "we love football!" Nearly all of the female students said the same thing: we love watching football. Many of them said that watching football with their fathers growing up was important bonding time with their dad that they remembered very fondly and that they still enjoyed. Many of them said they enjoy watching football with their boyfriends. They really hated this book because they really like football.

Now I know you cannot draw conclusions about our culture from one class of QU students, and maybe this was an unusual group, but I do think that this big change in the reaction of the students to Mariah Burton Nelson's book is one small indicator of a big cultural fact we shouldn't ignore: contemporary American society is a football nation. Remember when baseball was called the national pastime? When I was a kid, we played baseball all the time. We even called baseball the national pastime. Now? Forget baseball. Football is our national pastime and America is a football nation.

In Football Nation, Super Bowl Sunday is almost a national holiday with parties and celebrations all over the country. More than 100 million Americans will watch the game later today, which is more, as comedian Bill Mahr has pointed out, than go to church on Christmas Eve. Millions of Americans who don't even know who is playing will still take time to celebrate this great culminating event of our national pastime. When was the last time you heard of a party to celebrate the World Series? Way more Americans watch the Super Bowl than watch the World Series. But our love for our new national pastime is not restricted to one night out of the year. Millions of Americans watch football every Sunday, and of course on Monday night too. Now of course we can all watch football on Sunday night too, and now there are often two games to watch on Monday night and even a game on Thursday night. Football has so eclipsed baseball as our national pastime that this past October more Americans tuned in to watch just another Monday night football game than watched the last game of the World Series. Baseball may have tradition on its side, but football has far outpaced it in popularity. Football generates more money and sells more clothes and other paraphanalia than does baseball. Die-hard baseball fans are beginning to feel like old fogies if not dinosaurs in the new America, Football Nation.

I have to admit that even I am becoming more of a football fan than a baseball fan and that is saying a lot for me because I am a lifelong baseball fan and come from a family of baseball fans. My parents would be one of the few people in western PA who would be watching a meaningless Pirates game on a Sunday in September rather than the Steelers game. I do root for the Steelers of course and am happy that they will play in the Super Bowl again later today. I'm more than very happy that this will be their third Super Bowl in five years, but I would gladly trade 5 Steelers Super Bowls for just one Pirates World Series. I am in my heart of hearts a baseball fan and even I am becoming more and more a football fan.

Why has football replaced baseball as the national pastime? Why are we now a football nation and why is this all problematic? Why have I called this talk Troubles with Sports in football nation? Let me deal with the first question first.

I suppose we could talk about many reasons why football has eclipsed baseball and is now our national pastime but I would put forth 2 main reasons. 1) To many people today baseball is just boring and football is more interesting and 2) Professional Baseball, our former national pastime, has largely destroyed itself.

Now I don't know if you are one of those people, like Dana, for example, who thinks that watching baseball is like watching paint dry, or actually watching dried paint. But a lot of people today feel that way. Let's face it, if you didn't grow up playing baseball and have no emotional connection to it, just sitting down and watching a baseball game is really slow and boring. To the casual fan just seeking entertainment, football is much more interesting and action-packed, especially if you can find something else to do during the zillion commercials.

The major reason I feel baseball is now far less popular than football---and this is certainly the case for me personally - is that Major League Baseball has largely destroyed itself in the last 20 years or so. Professional baseball has been destroyed by capitalism run amok. The owners of football manage the league in such a way that every team has a chance to win. All the teams have roughly the same amount of money to spend on the salaries of the players. Baseball has no such system that ensures competition. The only competition in baseball is among the richest teams competing with each other to get the best players. The teams with the most money, with the wealthiest owners, get the best players to play for them. Game over. That is how baseball works now, or doesn't work. There are a half dozen or so super rich teams and they always get the best players when they become free agents and these rich teams year after year get to the playoffs and the World Series. The poorer teams may have some good players, but after six years these good players become free agents and go to the rich teams, so the poorer teams actually become farm teams for the wealthy teams. This is the way baseball now is and will be, with no end in sight. Don't get me wrong. The fact that pitchers and catchers will soon report to spring training warms my baseball loving heart a bit, but the fact of the matter is that most of those teams might as well not even show up. Most of them don't have any realistic chance of being anything but fodder for the rich teams. Baseball is just not much fun for the fans when you know your team is going to lose.

My baseball team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, is often used as the perfect example of this capitalism run amok that has destroyed baseball. The Pirates are one of the poorest teams in baseball. For a few years there, the salary for our entire team of 25 players was less than the Yankees paid only one of their players. Now things have gotten much better. It takes almost two Yankees to make what the Pirates will pay their entire team this year. The Pirates team that shows up for spring training this year will make about 40 million; the Yankees and the Red Sox and a few other teams will spend more than 200 million for their players. The Philadelphia Phillies will spend more just on their four starting pitchers than the Pirates and most other teams will spend on their entire teams. The Pirates organization in the last nearly 20 years has responded to this capitalism run amok by playing by the rules of capitalism. They know they cannot compete financially with the super rich teams so why try? Besides, isn't the point of capitalism and of businesses to make money? So that is exactly what they have done. They have made money. They simply get rid of any good player when they start making money. The result: the Pirates have won! They have won the game of capitalism. They have made money every year. Of course on the field it has been a disaster. They have set a new record for futility among all American sports. They have had 18 losing seasons in a row! 18 seasons in a row not only have they not won the World Series but they have not even had one season where they won as many games as they lost. The Pirates have become a laughingstock in the world of sports. But the dirty secret is that while they have been laughed at, they have also been laughing themselves, all the way to the bank. As their fans have suffered loss after loss, year after year, the team has made money. And isn't making money what sports is all about anyway?

Now someone might point out that no one is better at making money out of their sport than the National Football League. That is no doubt true; just think about how the much money the NFL will make with every commercial we watch during the game later today. Those poor owners of the NFL, with their measly 9 billions dollars of profit this year, they need every last dollar from those bazillion commercials we get to see. But the NFL has been able to wring an obscene amount of money out of football without ruining the game. Baseball hasn't been able to avoid that. Baseball sold itself for money and Mephistopheles showed up sometime ago and demanded his price, which was the game itself.

The result of this is that many people have come to care about and be a fan of football more than baseball; it has even happened to me, the Steeler fan who would gladly trade 5 Super Bowls for just one World Series. But that Pirates World Series - it is not happening; it's not ever happening. Baseball is just not the kind of game anymore where my team and most other teams can win. So like a lot of people in our country I would say: I was a baseball fan but now I'm actually more of a football fan.

So what is the problem with our country becoming football nation, with this change in our national pastime from baseball to football? Why be troubled about it? Well, as everyone knows, football is not only more exciting than baseball but it is also a lot more violent. Unlike baseball, football does a lot of harm; football is a very damaging sport.

How does football damage the people who play it and the people who watch it? I'd like to think about the harm football does in two related but distinct ways, two types of harm that I will call soul damage and body damage.

Football unlike baseball or basketball or golf or tennis involves physically dominating other human beings. To play football is to be locked in a physical battle where your own body tries to exert its power over someone else's. Violent physical struggle is not the only thing that happens on a football field, but it is what always happens on a football field. You never have a play without violent physical struggle between people. Now we can live our whole lives and even be quite physically active, running, playing golf and tennis and lots of other things, and never use our bodies to physically dominate other human beings. So does anything happen to a person when they immerse themselves, their minds and bodies, in this brutal physical struggle that is football? Do they come to think of themselves as a physical force capable of dominating other bodies and enjoying that physical domination? And does this damage them as human beings, damage them on the inside, cause them to be brutal, insensitive, potentially cruel to other people? Does playing football, the immersion in this world of physical violence, does it cause what we might think of as damage to the soul?

And what about the rest of us, the millions of spectators, the fans of this essentially violent game, are we affected in any way by spending so many hours watching enthusiastically this continuing violent physical struggle that is football? Do we ourselves become inured and insensitive to other people's physical pain as we watch more and more football and become more and more a football nation? Do we suffer some degree of soul damage as we enthusiastically cheer on our football team, our great gladiators of our football nation? Is there a difference between a culture where the souls of its citizens are steeped in nonviolent games like baseball, soccer, golf and tennis and a culture where the souls of its citizens are steeped in the essentially and inescapably violent game of football?

Is there such a thing as soul damage and does football, playing it and watching it and enjoying it, does it cause soul damage? This is essentially a theoretical, speculative, philosophical question. It is an important one for a culture that has gone from being a baseball culture to a football nation. Whether or not football causes soul damage is a question we can debate and discuss; reasonable people can disagree about this and put forth perfectly rational arguments on both sides. Whether or not football causes soul damage may well be a philosophical question that is undecideable, that essentially remains as a genuine question. But the other way football is damaging, damaging to bodies, well, the evidence for that is all around us and we hardly need to have a debate about that.

In my other life, as a college professor, I interact with student athletes all the time. Quincy University is a pretty serious place when it comes to college sports. We are Division II and we have many students who are scholarship athletes and who are very serious athletes and we have all the major sports. Now when it comes to soccer players, baseball and softball players, basketball players, tennis players and golfers, my main concern is that the students genuinely enjoy the game they are skilled enough to play at such a high level of competition. The football players, on the other hand, are in a totally different category of concern. With the football players, I just hope they get through the weekend without suffering some serious damage to their bodies. Injuries happen in every sport, but every weekend some of the football players are going to come in to class limping or on crutches. You talk to a soccer player or a baseball player about their sport and they will probably tell you how much they love playing soccer or baseball. You talk to a football player and they will talk to you about surgeries, about living with physical pain. Sometimes the football players will even say that they wish their parents had gotten them into some other, less damaging sport.

Whether or not football causes soul damage, it certainly does cause body damage, and it does so constantly. Sometimes the body damage is right there in your face in that present moment, like when a player has been tackled and is lying still and everyone in the stadium or watching on TV is wondering if the player will be paralyzed or when a 20 year-old college student talks about multiple knee surgeries. And sometimes the body damage can only be seen and understood over a long period of time, in the rear view mirror. When I think about the baseball players, the Pirates, I use to root for when I was a kid back in the 70s, I see them somewhere out there still in good health, enjoying their lives, maybe playing golf. But the football players from those great Steelers teams in the 70s? Some of them are out there having fun, playing golf, but a lot of them have had serious, debilitating health problems, and a lot of them are dead. Mike Webster,, Dwight White, Ernie Homes, Justin Strelzyk, etc., all dead. 18 of these former Steelers from the glory years of the 70s and 80s have died in the last decade. I'm sure it is glorious to be a pro football player, and even more glorious still to be a Super Bowl winning Steeler. But my favorite line from the Bible has never been more appropriate: "It's better to be a live dog than a dead lion."

Now naturally enough the National Football League doesn't talk much about its prematurely dead lions, but there is more and more scientific research about how damaging football is to the bodies of the people who play it, some of it based on autopsies of the dead lions of the NFL, autopsies that reveal an alarmingly high percentage of brain damage in former football players.. When Justin Strelzyk died in a car crash the autopsy revealed he had the brain damage of an 80 year-old with dementia. He was 36. Andre Waters was a running back who killed himself at the age of 45. His brain looked like the brain of an 85 year-old man with dementia. Same thing with Mike Webster and Terry Long, another middle-age former football player whose dementia led to his suicide. Thse alarming autopsies eventually led the National Football League to be so concerned about this that they have tried to change the rules and make certain hits where a player uses his head and his helmet as a weapon against another player illegal. As you might expect from a group of owners who are now so concerned about the health of their players that they have instituted these new rules even as they have demanded that the players add another 2 games to the schedule starting next year, these new rules are not going to fix the problem of football damaging players' bodies. The research is showing that the greatest danger to the players' bodies comes not from the rare brutal hit that renders a player immobile for a while and gets shown over and over again on SportsCenter. The greatest damage comes from this continuous pattern of knocks to the head that is inevitable in the game of football.

My wife Dana has tried watching football a few times with me and as you might suspect it hasn't gone too well. She thinks it's a primitive game and all that happens is that big men crash into each other and fall down. Now we all know a lot more happens in football than that big men crash into each other and fall down. But the truth is on every play in football big men are crashing into each other and falling down, and it is precisely this continuous pattern of big people crashing into each other that is the most damaging aspect of football. The University of North Carolina has been studying the effect of playing football on their players. Their research shows that their football players receive on average for a season nearly one thousand hits to the head. Their research and other brain trauma research are showing that this continual pattern of low level and medium level hits to the head eventually causes serious brain damage. The NFL can create new rules to protect players and can actually enforce them. But they cannot eliminate the crashing of heads. That's an inevitable part of football. It happens several times over on every play. Football just is damaging to the bodies of the people who play it. You cannot have football without body damage. Even so, more of more young people are playing it and more and more people are watching it and fans of it and this country is a Football Nation.

So yes, we do have troubles with sports in our football nation. In some way these troubles I have been discussing can all be demonstrated through our little son Sebastian. Even before he was born I had to decide if I would raise him as a Pirates fan. I sent a clear signal to all family and friends: no Pirates bibs or clothes or anything. Baseball has been ruined by capitalism run amok and I am not going to have my son suffer the way all Pirate fans have suffered and will suffer in the future. Steelers bibs and Steelers clothes? I told everyone they were ok and have bought some Steelers stuff for him myself. I can see a future where Sebastian and I watch Steelers game together. I hope he grows up loving to play baseball. But do I want him to play football? Would I want to sign him up for little midget football or play high school football or college football? Hell no!

Closing Words

From Offensive Play by Malcolm Gladwell The New Yorker 2009

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt called an emergency summit at the White House, alarmed, as the historian John Sayle Watterson writes, "that the brutality of the prize ring had invaded college football and might end up destroying it." Columbia University dropped the sport entirely. A professor at the University of Chicago called it a "boy-killing, man-mutilating, money-making, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport."


"Lately, I've tried to break it down," Turley said. "I remember, every season, multiple occasions where I'd hit someone so hard that my eyes went cross-eyed, and they wouldn't come uncrossed for a full series of plays. You are just out there, trying to hit the guy in the middle, because there are three of them. You don't remember much. There are the cases where you hit a guy and you'd get into a collision where everything goes off. You're dazed. And there are the others where you are involved in a big, long drive. You start on your own five-yard line, and drive all the way down the field - fifteen, eighteen plays in a row sometimes. Every play: collision, collision, collision. By the time you get to the other end of the field, you're seeing spots. You feel like you are going to black out. Literally, these white explosions - boom, boom, boom - lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter."

©2011 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob 2011. Troubles With Sports in Our Football Nation, /talks/20110206.shtml (accessed July 7, 2020).

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