Monday, November 17, 2014

The twisted image of manhood of the NFL

Nearly everyone loves football, it's the American way, it's so ingrained in our culture that it is hard to  imagine the United States without weekend football to get excited about.  Except, for me, I don't enjoy watching it anymore, for a number of reasons, and the latest headline to point out one of them is about the DEA pulling a surprise inspection on some traveling teams this weekend looking for illegal administration of drugs to the players.

These raids are in response to a class action lawsuit from 1300 former NFL players, including Chicago Bears superstar, Jim McMahon.  He played 14 years in the NFL and received thousands of pills to put them out on the field hurt:

"The DEA’s investigative interest in the NFL is partly based on the agency’s conviction that lackadaisical prescribing practices creates addicts. McMahon, who played from 1982 to 1996, said in the lawsuit that he received “hundreds, if not thousands” of injections and pills from NFL doctors and trainers, including Percocet, Toradol, Novocaine, amphetamines, sleeping pills and muscle relaxers. He said he became so hooked on pain meds that at one point he took 100 Percocets a month."

Of course this is no surprise to anyone. In 1997 there was a movie "On Any Given Sunday" with Al Pacino and Jamie Foxx that showed blatant abuse of the players by pumping them full of pain killers and pushing them out on the field.  Jamie Williams, former tight end of the S.F. 49ers was a consultant.

So, I used to say so what? it's a violent game, all the players are there by choice, they can become very wealthy, they are stars, they take their risks, it's a free country.  But...

I stopped watching after the Joe Montana/Jerry Rice years.  In part because of the influence of the other kinds of drugs that were obviously distorting the game by distorting the players - steroids, human growth hormones, and whatever other magic pills that made people bigger, faster, less human and more uber-human.  I remember the Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus days where linemen were 250 pounds, but they became 300 and now 325 pounds.  It's like watching factory assembled robots play against each other rather than highly trained superb athletes.  The game became too distorted for me to enjoy the way I used to.

Then, I became aware that brain damage was in integral part of the game, not just the knockout concussions, but every block, tackle, bounce off the turf produces sub-concussions - many times every game - and that produced permanent brain damage that alters personalities, destroys mental functions, and leads often to early death.  What fun is there in watching that?  To me, not much fun at all.

And how voluntary is it?  

"In the Post survey, nine in 10 former players said they played hurt during their careers, and more than two in three said they felt they had no choice."

The teams force the players to become bigger and stronger (drugs needed), and to play hurt (drugs needed).  Who forces the teams? Isn't it the fans?  

Which brings my to a more troubling aspect of football for me.  I stopped being a fan quite a while ago, so I'm not hypnotized by it.  And what I see is a strange idea of what it is to be a Real Man - one who crushes opposition, a dominator, one who intimidates and terrifies others, one who is impervious to pain, impervious to any feeling at all, one who thinks all that counts is winning, one who thinks the ends justify the means, one who has stopped being a human being with feelings, doubts, questions, choices, one who stops being a human, one who stops being a ... man.  It's kind of a young adolescent boy's guess at what it is to become the man that he fantasizes becoming, an unrealistic projection beyond human achievement.

Maybe all of these characteristics are needed in actual war on actual battlefields.  Maybe one has to cut off all feeling and turn oneself into a terrifying crusher of foes in real war.  But football actually is not war, it is actually a game, and one shouldn't have to stop being human, at least to some degree, in order to play a game, I don't care how much money or fame is at stake.

I am in a lifelong inquiry to uncover what it really means to be a man, and I think that there is more to being a man than being a warrior - being tough and scary.  How about qualities like courage (not just physical courage but moral courage), nobility, gallantry, service, humility, character, honesty, responsibility, and most of all HONOR?  How about the ancient masculine virtues of chivalry?  Aren't these better measures of manhood than domination, violence, and intimidation?

My ultimate vision is that fathers will stop allowing their sons to become football players because it will be obvious that if even Hall of Famers like Mike Webster and Junior Seau die young and in mental and emotional agony due to their diseased brains, it can and may happen to their sons as well.  

And, who knows, maybe the American sports fans will lose some of their taste for violence.

Personally, I'm a big fan of golf.  Love it, nobody gets brain damage.