“Deflating Football” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – February 7, 2016
Call to Worship from Michael Mandelbaum, The Meaning of Sport
“The meaning of sports, the source of their powerful grip on the imagination of Americans, has deep… roots. These games respond to human needs that can be traced back to the earliest human communities, needs to which the dominant responses for most of human history came from organized religion. Sports and organized religion share several important functions . . . team sports provide three satisfactions to life to 21st century Americans that before the modern age only religion offered: a welcome relief from the routines of daily life, a model of coherence and clarity; and heroic examples to admire and emulate.”
Reading – from Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger – pg. 10-11
Today, I am going to ruin your day. I am going to ruin your day if you want an unimpeded journey to your couch where you will watch, along with millions of others two professional franchises who will attempt to defeat the other for the honor of taking home the laurels in the biggest game of the year. It is Super Bowl Sunday, when at least half of America will turn their gaze to a football game, consume copious amount of nachos, groan with both horror and awe when one young man tries to decapitate another, and root one team on to victory. Perhaps you watch with a tinge of regret that the local franchise, the Patriots are not participating with TB12 leading the troops into action.
I spent nine years of my life playing this game, and many more watching and analyzing it. As a boy I had an oil painting of Johnny Unitas, the quarterback of the Baltimore Colts, hanging on my wall. It was one of the worst paintings I have ever seen. My brother painted it with a skill level similar to the Paleolithic cave paintings in Spain. But the subject matter was our crew cut, golden-armed hero, who had defeated the New York (football) Giants in what came to be called the greatest game ever played, an overtime victory when Unitas handed off to his fullback who hit the line, and slithered in for a touchdown that gave the Colts the victory. The Giants were our home team then, before there were any Patriots to cheer for, but I was a traitor, and picked the Colts for my inspiration. In our backyard fantasy team my brother was Unitas, and I was his favorite receiver, Raymond Berry, and coincidently in high school, I became a tight end, and my brother was a quarterback. Yet there were too many years between us to have played together.
I grew up in a family where athletics were of ultimate importance. Baseball was our religion, and gave meaning to life. My father was an excellent athlete, and our back lawn became a baseball diamond. It was all sports all the time that captured our attention and interest – the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, as the wide world of television coverage announced. We played them all and watched them all, and for me my greatest athletic achievements came in football. I remember a sixty-yard sprint with a touchdown catch. I was fast then. I remember recovering two fumbles against Trinity College, and I vividly can see the Middlebury College quarterback as the target of my pass rush as I flattened him, and put him out of the game. I didn’t want to hurt him, but the goal of the game was crush, pulverize, and destroy your opponent. I was a defensive end in college, a starter on the varsity as a freshman. I succeeded with quickness, instinct and savvy, more than sheer brutality. The other defensive end played with a kind of unimpeded anger, and hit others viciously, whereas I used more finesse leading with my arms to tackle, and not my head.
Let me confess, I was captivated by sports, and still am. The skill, the artistry, the speed are all amazing to me. I love watching Serena Williams smash an ace with her tennis racket or Lebron James drive to the basket, or, yes, Wade Boggs (you remember him), hit a baseball with uncanny regularity. Yet if you hang around Unitarian Universalist churches very long you’ll notice no one talks about athletic achievement. When do you ever hear a parent talk about athletics in church? We hear about the child who can play the cello at age five, or get into a top notch college, but who talks about all star teams or championship trophies? Is it because it is a heady religion, or is it classism? Do we value what we consider true cultural achievements and not physical pastimes? The evangelicals pray before football games, not the sophisticated liberals. We just pray the evangelicals will go away. I know I felt some kind of anti-sport message in the air. When I was in seminary I was afraid to tell people that I was going over to the Oakland Coliseum to watch a ball game. I must have surmised that ministers aren’t supposed to love sports. I felt excluded from my own faith.
The original intent of this sermon was to talk about football and brain injuries. Let me take you back forty-five years. I was playing in a game on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. My parents who attended most of my games, travelled all over New England to watch my team. They had just arrived in time to see the opening kick-off. I had been racing down the field to hone in on the returner and never saw the blocker who completely laid me out on the turf with a vicious hit. I think I went air borne. Semi-conscious I was prone on the ground. This was the first thing my parents saw. Then through the haze I remember the co-captain screaming in my face to “get up, get off the field, you’ll cost us a time out.” Fortunately, my closest friend, a reserve linebacker, came out and lifted me up from behind, and gingerly escorted me off the field, with wavering legs. While my head throbbed, and my body ached, I seemed to be okay, and only sat out one series of downs. There were no concussion tests or protocol then, only the assumption that if I could stand without wobbling, I could play. I started every game in college for three years, but then quit my senior year. Friends were angry that I deserted the team, but I had had enough. I wanted to focus on academics, but I had also had enough physically. I never had the killer instinct of many of my teammates. I was a fish out of water. Football seemed designed in many ways to inflict pain on the practitioners in the training, the practicing and the playing. I was done.
My direct relationship with the game was severed, but I continued to watch. As a fan it is an exciting game with lots of action. More than a century ago the forward pass was added to the game in the hope that it would lead to less violence, because there would be fewer rugby like scrums at the line. But this did not take into account the kind of hits to the head receivers would endure or that perpetrators would inflict today. The results for both can be devastating. In fact in recent years large numbers of former football players have been diagnosed with or have suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, including a talented player named Junior Seau, a Patriot briefly who ended his life with a shotgun blast to the chest.. A definitive diagnosis of CTE can only be made post-mortem. However, an increasing number of former players are reporting symptoms such as memory loss, aggression, depression or Parkinsonism, as we have all witnessed with the boxer Muhammad Ali, who suffered so many blows to the head, his once dancing rhetoric became muted and subdued. Yet it is the vicious hits that often seem to stimulate the fans to watch. “Did you see that?” they scream, like they are bloodthirsty for more. So slowly I have lost interest. This year I have watched a few minutes of games here and there, but today’s game, which I will watch, will be the first complete game I have seen all year. To me it seems too much like boxing, destroying men’s lives for the sake of our entertainment. And often these are black lives that DO MATTER. I know they make that choice, and they are paid the big bucks, but I feel more steps need to be taken to make a safer game. It almost feels like the exploitation in pornography, and we are voyeurs of these men who entertain us at the expense of sacrificing their bodies.
The Super Bowl as you all know is the ultimate in media hype and pageantry, and commercialism. It reputedly has the most creative commercials for Bud Light and Doritos and every other product that fuels the economy. This year it has Lady Gaga singing the National Anthem, and the usual big half time show. It is party day. It is drinking day. It is also domestic abuse day. The players wear pink shows one week to show their support for breast cancer awareness, and the next week they are using the shoes to beat their wives or partners. There is lots of hypocrisy and a tendency to cover up problems. I know many people are bothered by the myth that sports are crucial to the economy. We pay homage to overpaid narcissists, and think colleges cannot survive without this support, cities without this revenue, and television without this advertising. Then there is the merchandise. Why football even owns a day of the week, Sunday, with its fans often more loyal and fanatical than they are to their religion. This is, in fact, a true religion.
The commercialism is not a deal breaker for me, or else I would eschew all love for professional sports, as each day finds me scouring the sports page for news to satisfy my craving for baseball trivia. I suspect there is a deep ambivalence in me. America’s love for professional sports began more than 100 years ago, and it corresponds with a time in our history when American culture and religion were both beginning to be preoccupied with physical health and well being. President Theodore Roosevelt was a hunter and a hiker, who said we needed a strenuous religion for a strenuous life. There was an imperialistic side to this philosophy, but there was also a realization that people were weak and unhealthy because of lack of physical exertion.
A movement known as Muscular Christianity encouraged individuals to be strong and healthy. The YMCA grew from this idea. This is where I go to sweat today. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the Unitarian minister, who is often called the father of this “muscular” movement, said Protestant churches encouraged people to be weak and flabby, and had depicted artificial exercise as an immoral waste of time. Higginson took this personally because he felt that ministers were usually sickly and weak. He wanted them to be manly and bold. He became an amateur boxer, and later a soldier. To a certain extent, this ethos was sexist, but there was also a side to it that began to encourage women to become more physically adept, and the fruits of this philosophy were belatedly seen in the approval of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex bringing women’s sports some measure of equality.
Yet football often seems to remain more of a male preserve. The boys and men are encouraged to conquer, destroy, beat up, hurt, take out, or do whatever is necessary to defeat their opponents. The girls and women are visible as scantily clad cheerleaders. Those cheerleaders play a prominent role in the book and subsequent successful TV series “Friday Night Lights” The show has become an addiction of mine and Andrea’s, maybe a football replacement for me, but it is superbly acted, and depicts more teenage aspirations and angst than any show I have ever seen. Here one can see how a small dead end town subject to economic booms and busts can find hope and inspiration through its high school football team. In the reading the player Ivory Christian gives us some sense of the strange hold the game has on him. It brings back memories for me of the pain of practices, the humiliation of screaming coaches, and the pressure to succeed, but it also conjures up the feeling of being part of a team with strong friendships, of striving to be good at something, of testing your body’s strength and speed, and finally the positive affirmation one feels for achievement. The book and the show remind us of a deeper meaning to the game that may not be as apparent to us. There are the religious rituals and superstitions of following the same routines in prescribed patterns. In the TV show we watch the Dillon Panthers players each touch the team’s symbol as they leave the locker room for the field, shouting the litany, “Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.” They live for the way people feel when they beat the other team, and find solidarity as a community. In a way it is living in a myth of struggle where anyone can be a hero, and hard work brings success. Working time stops for this ritualized event, and the uniforms and pageantry, and plans are all formulated and executed, so the forces of good defeat the other team, the forces of evil. All sports replay this timeless myth. If you are knocked down, you can get up again. There is always hope.
This may sound downright silly to you, but it gives you some clue as to the commercial success of professional sports in America. It gives us heroic acts, mythic struggles, and hope in the midst of despair. The great writer George Orwell once said, “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words, it is war minus the shooting.” All that violence and all that pettiness may be tied up with how we view opponents, and the cheers emanating after a vicious hit may well be an outlet for all that anger and jealousy that is so human, but does not have acceptable outlets. Friday Nights Lights has a character who is a star quarterback who, because of a severe tackle is paralyzed. All the protective pads will not shield young people from terrible injuries in a sport such as this, but as an editorial in The New Yorker pointed out, too often we scream for banning such sports, but end up saying, not yet, I enjoy it too much. I am honestly telling you today that my enjoyment has waned. It was partly CTE, and partly this year’s ridiculous deflating scandal, which took up hours of airtime, while children died in Syria.
But that’s part of it isn’t it. The world is a scary place, and we are all overwhelmed sometimes by the terrible things that happen. And then we worry about our daily lives or see then as mundane and empty. The world is full of contradictions. So we turn to sport for simple answers. to see what the human species is capable of, and it seems sometimes like they can leap tall buildings in a single bound, and grab victory from the jaws of defeat. I know when I first learned to run properly, it gave me all the confidence in the world. It was more than any book could provide. It was not the answer to everything, but sports gave me patience and discipline and assurance that I had some talent for something.
The great football star Mike Ditka says he will not let his son play. When my son Joel wanted to play Pop Warner football, I said no. Later my son played for Watertown High, taking his Tylenol before practice to ward off predictable headaches. Why do we push our bodies? We may still feel it, not in football anymore, but in running or biking, or even walking miles and miles. We want to test our physical limits. We want to be strong and healthy. The other night I bowled a spare, and felt elation. Then, a gutter ball resulted in despair. For me long ago, there was something of the challenges of life. I saw how mean people could be – an opponent hitting me to hurt me, a captain yelling in my face. But I also learned that I had skills, and in a team, with others, I could achieve even more, and feel a sense of belonging – I found guys who would pick me up. But today I am deflating football, so to speak. It is money. It is brain injury, and there is the larger question of what we do to body and soul to achieve recognition and acceptance.
Back in high school I thought the cool guys played football. But that coolness had little to do with developing my character or my soul. As a teenager it was a place to fit in and build relationships. Men, especially struggle with how to build relationships, and we once and forever tend to do it in physical settings. It is a way to recognize how much we need others because we have trouble saying it. It is not easy to question the morality of a national sport, because admit it or not, these games elicit devotion akin to religion, and these players become gods. Mostly I worship at other altars now. But the allure of sport still stirs my heart. I can’t deny it. Spring training begins in a couple of weeks. Summer will be in the air, and hope still seems possible amidst the tragedy of life. For a few hours I can set aside my troubles, and once again hear the crack of the bat, and feel a flutter of passion in my heart.
Closing words – from “The Descent” by William Carlos Wlliams
No defeat is made up entirely of defeat—since
the world it opens is always a place
beckons to new places.