Even if you are among those who have made an effort to disregard football since high school jocks shouldered you in the halls, next weekend’s Super Bowl will be worth watching. Why?
Reason No. 1: It’s not soccer.
American exceptionalism is alive and thriving on Super Bowl Sunday. National Football League franchises are overwhelmingly owned, managed and manned by American citizens. Even as other major sports have growing numbers of Latin American, Asian and Eastern European players, pro football remains ours alone. Neither immigration nor foreign capital has made a perceptible dent in the game. And you and I have proudly subsidized all this. American taxpayers have built many NFL stadiums, and American universities, with their government grants, have shaped the sport. Multimillion-dollar college football programs (which, despite claims to the contrary, are rarely profitable) train the players, and sports management departments train the front-office personnel.
Reason No. 2: No dogs were harmed in the making of it.
The controversy over allowing Michael Vick back into the select company of other NFL felons — reportedly about one-fifth of the playing population — faded after the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback showed contrition, spoke to schoolchildren, proved to be one of the most electrifying performers in the game, and then lost early in the playoffs, avoiding the embarrassment of PETA demonstrating at the Super Bowl.
At 30, Vick was clearly better than he had been before his 21-month imprisonment. He had added a previously missing work ethic and level of concentration. One wonders if the sharpening of Vick’s focus had to do with losing what might have been his primary outlet for sadism and violence, the brutal world of training fighting dogs and then killing the losers in often unspeakably cruel ways.
Reason No. 3: No Chicks
The so-called feminization of America (really the slow movement toward equality) is reflected in most aspects of life, including sports, many boardrooms and the military. But not in football.
Football is the last estrogen-free zone. No wonder high school and college teams have such bloated rosters. (College teams routinely “dress” 85 men, compared to a pro team’s 53.) This gives more boys the chance to imagine themselves in the testosterone club, even if many of them hardly ever get into a game. Later, as jock alums, they will donate to alma mater and speak reverently of how old coach taught them to be men — or at least not women.
Yes, there are girls playing in some youth and high school football games, even in college, mostly as kickers. But the freakishness of it is still the story. The NFL is so relentlessly misogynistic that off-field incidents like those involving Brett Favre when he was a New York Jet and Super Bowl-bound Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tend to be dismissed as boys-will-be-boys antics.
Unfortunately, there’s a certain logic to this; since they began playing the game, they’ve been told they can be real men, not girls, not sissies — if they submit to a coach, play hard and play in pain. Is it any wonder they expect the perks and entitlements of conquering warriors?
Reason No. 4: Injuries! Pain! Violence!
If football really is the bread and circuses of this dying empire, the injuries suffered by the gladiators make the game more real, more urgent. And their willingness to take the risks absolves us from blame. After all, they volunteered.
There is no question that violence stirs fans’ blood. Football players know this; they have been remarkably hostile to attempts to soften the mayhem, especially those ringing helmet-to-helmet shots, an offspring of the modern technique learned in PeeWee leagues of “putting a hat on him” (which means tackling headfirst rather than the more traditional style of wrapping one’s arms around the ball carrier’s legs and dragging him down).
For those of us watching on TV, the collisions seem almost like cartoon hits. How can those players just pop back up? Is it the pride, the adrenaline, that allows them to pretend they are made of steel? Of course, the real damage — the dementia brought on by head trauma — is years, even decades, away.
The concussion discussion was launched several years ago by the revelation that former pro football players were being diagnosed with dementia, and even dying from suspected long-term brain trauma, at disproportionate rates for their age. It was helped along by a number of workers’ compensation cases and the superb reporting of Alan Schwarz of the New York Times. The discussion also has raised the question of whether parents should allow their children to play the game — years of small, unreported traumas to the head can’t be good for developing brains. It even occasioned a rare but telling ESPN column on abolition.
But let’s hope they don’t ruin football. We need the big game. The critics of empire say our superpower, super economy, super you-name-it are all in two-minute warning. The Super Bowl may soon be the only super thing we’ve got left.
• Robert Lipsyte, the JockCulture correspondent for TomDispatch.com, is the author of a forthcoming memoir, “An Accidental Sportswriter.” A longer version of this piece appears on TomDispatch.com.