Perhaps more than any other sport, professional American football was what excited me about sports, making me the equivalent of a tweener or teenager for the first time. I needed an acceptable and accessible escape from the daily grind of the ’81-’82 recession and our free fall into welfare poverty. Not to mention my summer of abuse. In the midst of this comes the NFL’s first strike-shortened season, emblematic of economic woes across the country. I think — no, I know — that was the reason for noticing the NFL at all.
Then the nine-game season started in earnest at the end of October, and the occasional glimpses of football I did catch peaked my interest. Other than Mean Joe Greene, Earl Campbell or Joe Montana’s “The Catch ” drive against the Cowboys, I’d not given much thought to football. But watching what I could only describe as the combination of raw, brutal power and poetic, almost ballerina grace, I started to get hooked on the game. Watching John Riggins and the Redskins’ offensive line mow down defenders on the one hand, watching James Lofton make an incredible catch and running at breathtaking speed for a touchdown on the other. In what I saw off and on over two and a half months, I began to understand why so many loved, watched and played football.
After the so-called Class of ’83 draft that included quarterbacks John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Ken O’Brien, and several others, and after that season, I was hooked. I tried out for and made my high school’s junior varsity football team the summer of ’84 (only to quit — more on that in a future blog). For years I dreamed of throwing or catching touchdown passes as a metaphor for what I needed to do in order to climb out of the gigantic hole that I found myself in growing up at 616 and in Mount Vernon.
For the most part, I don’t dream in NFL metaphors these days. The game has changed, and so have I. I don’t get as much satisfaction rooting for underdogs anymore, because many NFL players and almost all starters are far from Horatio Alger stories. Teams that lose twelve or thirteen games one year can use the draft and free agency to win at least that many the next season. Owners make billions of dollars and pay players multi-million dollar signing bonuses. Players without guaranteed contract who eventually tear an ACL or break their bones could be stacked up like the Persian infantry was by the Spartans in the movie 300. It’s as much a sad tale of fulfilling one’s dream only to have it snatched away in one tragic moment for many a player, including the ones who experience success in the NFL. It makes it hard for me to watch it the way in which I did when I was thirteen or twenty-three.
What has also made it harder for me to enjoy the NFL has been the not-so-subtle sense of conservatism that permeates the league’s personnel and its ownership. In the case of owners, conservative political perspectives should be expected. Affluence and the desire to maintain a status quo that protects that socioeconomic status is as old as civilization. What’s different, at least from my point of view, is that the only current and former players who tend to sound off politically or ideologically speaking are conservatives. Elway, Kurt Warner, Matt Hasselbeck and his wife, among players I’ve rooted for in the past. Of course, these former and current players can support any political perspective they choose. The difference over the past couple of decades is that there isn’t a counterbalance. It seems that political and ideological apathy is the alternative to supporting a conservative agenda.
Why should anyone give a hoot about my perspective on this perception? After all, these players are starters who’ve become millionaires and as such would only want to protect their hard-earned dollars from so-called tax and spend liberals. But I would argue that this isn’t just about money. These players weren’t always rich, and in some cases, come from impoverished beginnings. In some cases, they embraced a politically conservative philosophy long before become millionaires with gigantic signing bonuses. For some players, like Warner I presume, it’s as much about religion and evangelical, post-millennial Christianity as it is about money (I have my mother watching the 700 Club to thank for some knowledge of Warner’s religious views). For others, I’m sure that the violence of the game can help them relate well to the typical conservative’s hawkish mentality about projecting the power of America’s military around the world.
I would also argue that it goes deeper than that. Unlike most professional American sports, golf, tennis NASCAR, and baseball included, professional football requires an unusual combination of discipline and conformity. It takes discipline to work out as many times a day or week as a good NFL player does, to play throw pain and injuries, to eat food that most of us would throw away first. It takes a mind that is trained to conform to play football, to follow the rules that make most NFL players anonymous and trained to perform a specific task a certain number of ways depending on down and distance. Years of training that allows for a high level of brutality and low levels of flexibility or rebellion relates well to being in the military. It also is consistent with a conservative agenda of unquestioning patriotism, inflexible spirituality, and status-quo-politics.
Again, reasonable people can adhere to whatever political beliefs they choose. That’s not the point here. However, having a league full of conservatives and apathetic players doesn’t lend itself well to changes that balance the needs of players, fans and owners. It’s why retired NFL players are suffering from lack of health care and insufficient pensions. It’s why there aren’t any guaranteed contracts in the NFL, even though the average player leaves the league battered physically or psychologically at the ripe old age of twenty-seven. It’s why the NFL Players Union is as weak as it is. It’s hard to represent folks whose political philosophy makes them somewhat anti-union or apathetic toward unions.
Beyond that, the NFL is in many ways a microcosm of American society. That a sizable portion of Americans believe that the rules by which we play American football are applicable to Wall Street and our economy, to America’s foreign policy agenda and statesmanship, to climate change and energy, even to education, is disheartening. Not every problem is as simple as lining up in a three-point stance to tackle the quarterback or throwing a post-pattern to a wide open tight end because two receivers managed to pull a safety to the other side of the field. I’ve learned over the years that there are other, better metaphors than football for overcoming situations that run from challenging to nearly impossible. We need to do the same in our thinking around policies and politics.