Not a Promising Future

There are plenty of people who have said smart, thoughtful things about CNN’s talking-head commentary on the Steubenville verdict, many of them right here. Read them. They cover everything I would have thought to say about those public effects of rape culture and more than I could manage right now. Me? I’d like to say a few words about football.

We really, really need to face the fact that football–along with other competitive sports but perhaps more so than any of them–is not a promising future. Football is an industry that chews up and spits out a huge number of our male children for the benefit of schools and team owners and a population that has been trained to find its own worth in other people’s efforts.

Very few players see much benefit from playing football. Some of them may get scholarships, but no one prepares them for learning, and their schoolwork follows a distant second after the gladiatorial work they are hired to perform. A very few of them may get professional contracts, but no one helps them understand that the money ends with injury, that their bodies and sometimes their brains will wear out, leaving them used up and alone at far too young an age.

That doesn’t stop the promises, though. “Perform for me, and be treated like a king. Take the rewards you want and be untouchable.” It’s a lie, as hard as many coaches and sports towns and schools try to make it happen. It isn’t easy to get the attention of the world outside the sport, but when it happens, as it did, eventually, in Steubenville, those kids find that their immunity doesn’t always carry.

If these kids were studying their history instead of how to hit each other, this wouldn’t surprise them. Gladiators were generally slaves. The women provided to them were slaves too. Citizens weren’t part of the deal.

We’ve dressed things up a bit more these days, now that straightforward slavery is off the table. We’ve managed to hide the servitude better, call it status. Still, the lucky ones get out early. They have other choices. As the sport moves from children’s play to a business, they have other interests, other rewards that take up their time. They learn. They create. They interact with people who like them as people. They find rewards that aren’t contingent on helping others feel like winners or sell tickets.

The ones in the middle don’t fare as well. Better than the ones with multiple concussions and no knees to speak of, but not well. They’ve learned to like the treatment and the promises. When those evaporate as these kids don’t make one cut or another, they don’t have much left. They’ve always been disposable, and they find this out when they get disposed of. They’re not pampered. They’re not celebrated. They’re not protected when they misbehave. Their day is done, and they haven’t made themselves another.

This “promising future” business? Not only is it part of the cultural nonsense that says it’s all cool to treat some people as though they have all the rights and others as though they have none. It’s also a lie. It’s really time we stop telling it.

Not a Promising Future

16 thoughts on “Not a Promising Future

  1. 1

    What’s just as bad are the legions of middle and high school kids who are put onto the dream of a bright football future to the detriment of preparing for actual college coursework. The percentage of kids who are good enough to actually make a major college team is tiny, never mind those who make it on a football scholarship. And, of course, only a tiny number of those will make it on to a professional team.

    I’ve seen friends with kids who put all of their eggs in high school into the football dream, only to not be prepared for anything else when they find out they didn’t make the cut when the college recruiters came out to watch them. These are kids who thought they didn’t need to take math because they were going to be football players. They skated through classes (often with inflated grades to help them stay on the team) with no intention of learning anything beyond the next playbook.

    These are kids which aren’t prepared for much beyond simple minimum wage jobs. They don’t even get the chance for some wealth in exchange for brain damage and other injuries.

  2. 2

    One article I read mentioned that among those being questioned in this case were the high school’s 27 football coaches.


    But apparently no one to teach them simple ethics.

  3. 3

    As a linebacker my sophomore year in high school, I showed promise. It’s hard to say how good I really was, but I was certainly good enough to win the starting job away from a senior who’d started the prior two years. A couple of college scouts told my coach I showed promise, but of course I was just a sophomore so we’d have to wait and see how I developed. Still, I was probably good enough to go on to play in college, though in retrospect I probably never would have achieved a skill level necessary to get me to a major college program.

    I never found out though. Six games into the season, the senior who’s place I’d taken decided he was going to take it back. He hit me from the side in practice, shoulder pad to knee. I was done. Eventually I’d require reconstructive knee surgery, and today, 35 years later, my knee is still a mess.

    The senior didn’t get his spot back though. Everyone was willing to believe it was accident, until he bragged about taking me out in earshot of the wrong people. The coach probably would have let him get away with it, but not the vice principal. So he was done too.

    The silver lining for me was instead of going to college and majoring in Keeping My Football Eligibility, I got an actual education. And I’m glad. I studied writing and history and lots of other interesting things. I was challenged, and as a result there is occasional evidence I have a semi-functional brain.

    But I also have to admit, I loved playing football. I’ve always missed it on some level, even if for the most part I knew it was a dead-end. I now have a weird relationship with football, definitely a love/hate thing. I hate the culture of football, because it makes things like Steubenville possible, but inevitable. I hate the extravagant religiosity of so many big name players, and the double-standards, and the destructive economic effect it has on communities and colleges.

    And yet I love the game. I understand why players are willing to risk so much to play. I would play today if I thought I could. I’m not going to pretend like I think it’s healthy attitude. It’s not. But I do think if you’re going to address the larger problems which come with the culture of football, you have to acknowledge that people love the game, and not just because they’re violence junkies.

  4. 4

    @bcmystery #3

    I hope it would be possible to save the playing of sports, along with the love of play, while ditching the damaging school sports culture.

    As for football, however, the physical damage is probably something we should strive to protect kids from. When protective gear can’t prevent a steady stream of likely injuries, we need to have a serious rethink about that sport in schools.

  5. 5

    the physical damage is probably something we should strive to protect kids from

    You can’t take head-hits like that without some risk of brain injury. Football is not appropriate for high school students (or adults, for that matter!) and parents who care about their kids should consider soccer, tennis, fencing, anything where getting smacked on the head isn’t an important part of the ritual (boxing or MMA cage fights probably also not so good..)

  6. 6

    @Marcus Ranum:

    Boxing is worse for brain injuries than MMA is, since fewer fights go to knockout. Both are worse than football. But high-school American football is about twice as bad as other common American high school sports, both in terms of the rate of concussions/other head injuries and the overall injury rate. For head injuries, it is followed by lacrosse. For overall injuries, it is followed by soccer/real football and wrestling.

    I consider the rate of injuries from American football to be unacceptably high, and the glorification of MMA and boxing to be outrageous.

    I reference CDC survey numbers from 2006 for the high-school sports injury rates:

  7. 7

    The biggest problem with NFL in regards to physical injuries is the incorporation of body armour into the contact techniques. The predominant Australian football codes (AFL and the two types of rugby) have, since the 80s, been reducing the overtly dangerous tackles and hits from the games. Head high, spear, grapple tackles, etc are all becoming history due to lengthy suspensions, and the games are better and more skillful because of it, imho. By reducing the cheap shots and dirty tactics, skilled players have longer and more productive careers while still playing a contact sport.

    As long as NFL players are wearing helmets, I don’t see that the NFL will be motivated enough to protect players’ heads via laws that discourage head high hits. This means the source of player concussions is being allowed to continue unabated. The fact that all players learn from an early age to incorporate helmets into their playing techniques means that removing the hard shell helmets will be resisted by all players, coaches etc.

    Of course, this only deals with contact injuries – soft tissue injuries and knee/ankle problems due to awkward landings etc are a part of any athletic activity where bodies are pushed to their limit.

  8. 9

    No, Stephanie. Or rather, I was thinking about a lot of things for which football can be justly criticized, not only your post, and the violence junkie idea came along for the ride.

    And as long as my comment got, I didn’t quite finish my thoughts because I had to get back to the stove if I didn’t want the bacon to vulcanize. I fear I left the salad here when I went off to finish dinner.

    I should have been briefer, and more on point.

    The place I never reached was that for all my internal conflict about football, I’m with you on this. I had this notion I’d share a little personal experience as well as how my own conflict burbles around inside my nitwit head. I thought it might be one example how intractable the allure of the game can be.

    I mean, bloody hell. Steubenville, head injuries, Penn State, Notre Dame, Ray Lewis and Tim Tebow and a host of football god-botherers, all of college football, Jerry Jones, 27 freaking coaches for a high school team and on and on and on.

    It’s indefensible. And yet at nearly 50, if I could get into a game, I’d play.

    I’m an idiot. But I’m an idiot who agrees with you.

    (And I did it again. Word salad for breakfast. I’ll shut up now.)

  9. 10

    Cheerleading is also way up there on the list of dangerous and damaging activities for high school students… also with a cultural football connection too. But I think it often isn’t classed as “sport” though I’m cynical that’s simply because girls often are doing it.

  10. 11

    Very few players see much benefit from playing football.

    I don’t know think that this is a claim you’d want to stand by. Many people find sports personally rewarding and enjoyable, some learn skills from a team environment that are transferable into other parts of life, and so on. Something not providing monetary remuneration for an activity doesn’t mean that they’re not seeing benefit from it.

    Are there cultural and physical problems with football? Sure, absolutely, and talking about them is important. That doesn’t mean that we can simply handwave away the joy that people have taken from the sport.

  11. 12

    I have a real love/hate relationship with sports. I love watching them (especially baseball and hockey) and spending endless hours poring over advanced stats and scouting reports and all that dorky minutiae. But I hate the role sports has taken in our society. The way players are able to get away with whatever they want, the uber-macho culture it engenders, the way teams hold cities ransom to get millions of dollars in tax breaks and brand new stadiums, etc. There’s got to be a happy medium somewhere. I just really hope we can find it soon.

  12. 13

    How much of this applies to almost any professional sport, though? Traditional sports that are popular, make big $$$, are probably the worst, although maybe baseball and some other mostly non-contact sports at least don’t (usually) have lasting physical effects on the retired players. Now throw in motorsports (my personal favorite) and it’s very similar in a lot of ways. Not sure if the sports culture is the same or similar in many of those, though.

  13. 14

    Pretty much the only time I’ve only felt passionately about sports was when my daughter was on a soccer team. I understand the lure of playing sports (teamwork and so forth), and if I knew someone personally who was on a team, I’d cheer them on.

    But I don’t understand the lure of cheering for a team whose only connection to me personally is that, although they all came from different geographical regions than mine, and are hired by a millionaire with no particular connection to my geographical region, they have been paid to represent a distant city that I rarely visit. Could someone explain the allure of the “fan” mentality?

  14. 15

    How much of this applies to almost any professional sport, though?

    Professionals are getting their brain-damage and torn cartilage in return for money, whereas highschool and college athletes are getting theirs instead of an education.

    There’s a reason why minors can’t sign contracts – the very reason why high school football (and cheerleading, boxing or MMA cage matches) are a problem.

  15. 16

    #10 I saw a documentary about Cheerleading and the reluctance to label it a sport, despite the inclusion of gymnastics flips and tosses being common, was money based. Some corp who supplies the majority of uniforms and supplies would not have a monopoly any more for some reason if it was a recognized sport. . It was a while ago. don’t remember what it was called but it dealt with the “Title IX” rules. Sorry I’m so vague but I watch a lot of stuff.

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