Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the year in which President Theodore Roosevelt took steps to make football safer. Roosevelt summoned representatives from several major colleges to the White House in 1905, not 1912, to discuss how to reduce the brutality of the sport. This version has been corrected.
What is it about football, anyway? It long ago passed baseball as America’s most popular sport and now attracts millions of viewers to a “weekend” that stretches from Thursday to Monday. Its followers range from people who paint themselves in team colors on game day to those who casually keep up with the home team’s fortunes in the sports pages.
Many explanations of this phenomenon have been offered. Football is a game made for television. It is truly a team sport, in which every play demands top performance from all the specialized athletes on the field. Professional teams provide a kind of glue that binds metropolitan areas together — an effect familiar to Redskins fans. But most of all, from my point of view, football provides a kind of universal bond in the male culture, in a world where such bonds are rare.
This was brought home to me several years ago, when I was lecturing to a group of judges. The man introducing me had been my host at dinner the night before, and he began his introduction by describing his trepidation at having to hold a conversation with a theoretical physicist. “But it turns out he’s a major Bears fan,” he said, and I could feel an instant connection forming between me and the (largely male) audience. To my mind, this sort of shared bond may be the game’s most important contribution to society.
These two books approach the game in very different ways. In “Why Football Matters” University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson uses his experience as a high school football player to examine how the sport functions as a preparation for life. His basic approach is to take each personal quality that football is supposed to develop — character, loyalty, courage, etc. — and describe how those traits proved valuable in his life, with frequent references to notable figures in Western culture. In this analysis, football becomes a tool for human development.
Take character as an example. Edmundson shows how the brutal two-a-day practices at the start of the season functioned as a kind of trial by fire — an ordeal that caused many prospective athletes to drop out but rewarded those who persevered with a coveted team uniform. The ability to stay with it, to keep on going, to refuse to quit, is what he calls character. He talks about how this trait, developed on the practice field, helped him get through a particularly difficult period in the writing of his PhD thesis.
Similarly, in writing about courage, he talks about the problem faced by players first learning to make hard physical contact. This time he delves into Homer’s “Iliad,” discussing the different manifestations of courage in Hector (a decent human being who could become a warrior when needed) and Achilles (a pure warrior), and wonders which kind of man football training will produce and which kind society needs. After all, as Edmundson points out later in the book, courage can be a positive aspect of a man’s life, but can easily turn into aggression and bullying.
In a wonderful literary aside, he compares the work of William Wordsworth (who would probably have made it through the two-a-days) with that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who clearly would not have) and wonders whether the kind of character football develops would preclude the writing of a creative masterpiece such as “Kubla Khan.”
Deep stuff. In subsequent chapters he talks about the ability of the game to teach young men how to handle loss — a subject rarely broached — and brings in Sigmund Freud’s scientific paper “Mourning and Melancholia.” He talks about the association of football with patriotism, religion and the military; touches on issues of race (bringing in Ralph Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man”); and concludes with a description of his mixed feelings when his son started playing the game. All in all, he presents a richly textured look at football as a vital part of American culture.
I don’t know — maybe it’s just that Edmundson and I both grew up in blue-collar towns, played the same position on teams named “the Mustangs” and wound up as professors, but this book really resonated with me. It shows the deep connection between football and the core values of Western culture, something that isn’t often stressed in as-told-to football books. Frankly, I can’t think of a better way to while away the time between games this season than reading it.
As the title suggests, “Against Football” takes a very different view of the sport. Journalist Steve Almond clearly knows and loves the game. He also takes a point of view more easily associated with left-wing professors in the faculty club than with guys in a sports bar, a point of view that unfortunately seeps into his analysis. He is a very good writer, and his analysis of problems confronting the game today is well done. His work concentrates on the NFL, with short asides about the college and high school games. He is incensed with the league’s corporate structure but concentrates on the main problem we have to think about these days: the risk of permanent brain injury suffered by players because of repeated blows to the head. His discussion concludes with the argument that people who watch and enjoy football are committing an immoral act, and he spends a good deal of time trying to reconcile this feeling with his love of the game.
It’s easy to find fault with this kind of overheated argument. As it did in 1905, when Theodore Roosevelt remade the game because of the deaths of college athletes, football seems to be able to adjust to new concerns as they arise. The kind of helmet-to-helmet collision from the year 2003 that Almond cites in his introduction has already been banned, for example, and newly instituted medical rules for concussion management are already a familiar feature to fans. This season will see new rules about tackling receivers as well. When he visits the Center for Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, one of the major research centers for brain damage, Almond grudgingly admits that it receives major funding from the NFL — hardly what you would expect from unethical executives unconcerned about player safety.
The main value of “Against Football” for followers of the game, I think, will be to highlight the problems we now face. Will an ethical stance based on today’s problems make us stop watching? I doubt it, and I think Almond doubts it, too. In fact, as I put the book down, my main sense was that I had been reading the manifesto of a man desperately trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t really believe.
WHY FOOTBALL MATTERS
My Education in the Game
By Mark Edmundson
Penguin Press. 229 pp. $26.95
One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto
By Steve Almond
Melville House. 178 pp. $22.95