Some Reflections on Football…

lon1 10-18-07
by Lon Marshall
I am a football fan. I have been most of my life. I remember first playing “Young America” football in my hometown during the fall of 4th grade. Our team was the Sharks. It was tackle football, full pads. I would ride to practice on my banana seat, high handle bars bicycle in full regalia. The seventies were a special time. Those were the years of the Steel CurtainTom Landry in a suit and hat and Woody Hayes punching opposing players.My teams are the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Denver Broncos.
I married into Hawkeye Nation. I’ve been to more Iowa football games over the last 25 years than I can count. There is nothing like gameday in Iowa City. And, nothing like being with 70,000 fans at historic Kinnick stadium.  My love of the Broncos started in 1977 with the Orange Crush’s first Super Bowl season. I have fond memories of riding my bike to Bronco training camp at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. I sat through 4 Super Bowl loses. Then on January 25th, 1998, my 33rd birthday, I watched Super Bowl XXXII in the basement of my home with my parents. When Denver finally won, we cried tears of joy, or relief. I’m not sure which.My first year of high school I went out for football after a hiatus since 4th grade.
My first love was baseball. I have no idea why I went out for the team. I was adamant about it though. I quickly learned this was a different culture. You had to be tough. Tough to survive two-a-days. Tough to make it from one water break to another. Tough to live through hazing the seniors did to the rookies. We had a training camp drill called “The Pit.” Players were pitted against each other to see which was strongest and most technically sound at hitting his opponent. My name was barked out, along with the starting, senior tight-end. The whistle kept blowing and I kept beating him. I have a body made for this; broad shoulders, strong thick legs and back. For the rest of the year I was punched, tripped, urinated upon; on the field, in the hallway, in the shower. The entire senior class of football players took part in this. I had broken an unspoken rule. I had shamed him. To regain respect, he recruited his comrades (and his younger brother I might add) to beat me into submission. I survived, and told no one. I didn’t tell this story for years. In fact, I think I was 35 before I put the training camp drill together with the bullying.
I became a good enough high school football player to get a scholarship to play in college. I played for 2 years before I quit to get serious about my studies. The football culture was very similar in college. I remember the seniors putting Ben Gay in my jock strap. Pranks, or bullying like this seemed to always involve genitals, urine or excrement. Violence was also part of the culture. My coaches in high school gave awards to the players who had the hardest hits! I still have a t-shirt I earned as a senior with the words “slobber knocker” on it. In both high school and college we received skull and crossbones stickers for violence dished out. We put these on our helmets. I was not surprised to hear NFL coaches were paying their players to hurt their opponents.
These last 2-3 years I have had a growing discontent about football. It doesn’t hold my attention like it used to. When I do watch it I sense something about it is wrong. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but whatever it is, it is growing. Maybe it is the money being spent. Money spent for tickets, team gear, stadiums, or player contracts. It seems grotesquely out of proportion; to what, I can’t say. Maybe it is the health concerns going unaddressed and the early deaths and suicides of athletes. There is overwhelming evidence of concussion damage. There seems to be an obsession with players getting stronger, bigger, and faster, and starting strength and conditioning programs at earlier and earlier ages.
It could be the intense nationalism and militarism exhibited more in football since 9/11. We have always honored our country in sports, but since 2001 that escalation in this experience is unmistakable. I was at the Super Bowl in New Orleans after that fateful September. They changed the entire motif from Marti Gras to a patriotic theme. Getting into the super dome was crazy. I still have a bobble head figurine with the Marti Gras theme that was left over and sold cheap. Just recently, Northwestern University upped the anti for Veteran’s Day and wore special commemorative uniforms. You can see the blood spattered in the design. The designers defended the design as honoring our veterans for giving their blood. I thought it was over the top. Walter Brueggemann, a Old Testament Scholar says, “Football is the liturgy of Empire.” That has stuck with me. It keeps nagging at me from the back of my mind. Catching Fire, the second of the Hunger Games films is out. I plan to see it. It’s remarkable how much in common the Hunger Games, Ancient Rome’s Gladiators, and America’s game have in common. Notably, “bread and circuses.”

So, as you can see there are a lot of ethical issues here that I’ve been thinking about. And, I haven’t decided what I’m going to do. I really do like watching football, but I can’t get around the idea that I’m participating in a system that has some major problems. The thing that gnaws at me the most is this thought that football fanaticism is a type of religion in America. From this perspective, football stadiums are the most attended places of worship on Sundays in the nation. If that’s the case, then I’ve got an allegiance problem. Because I’ve decided to follow Jesus. And like an 80 some year old friend of mine said recently after listening to our group’s discussion about this topic, “It does’t sound much like Jesus, does it?”

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