Sunday, February 1, 2015

2015.02.01 It's a Feast Day! It's Sunday! It's SUPER Day!

Awaking this morning, I first thought: it’s Sunday. Then I thought: it’s the day of the parish Annual Meeting. Then I realized: NO, it’s Superbowl Sunday! This is a day, all hallowed for most Americans, coast to coast—the day we praise our national sport: Football. (Look Ma, not deflated!)
My heart sank, not because I have an outsized aversion to football as such, but because I felt a  familiar feeling: that of being left out—just like I felt when I was young and my mother and sisters would join in trimming the tree while my father dozed, and I fought back tears. Dad was left out, and I felt left out for him. I now understand that I felt love for him and sadness about his remove, and that there was nothing wrong with me. Still, that old feeling sometimes haunts. 

Today it made me think about me and football. When I was a young teen our family religiously went to the Yale/Harvard football games. Daddy was a Yalie. We could easily get to the Yale Bowl for home games. When football Saturday dawned, there was excitement in the air. THE GAME!

We got up early to help Mom pack a magnificent picnic lunch in a hamper:every good food each one of us had ordered for the feast, plus plenty of soda and beer—and something in a thermos that was not for kids. This was the Feast of the Tailgate—station wagons lining the stadium parking lot with their tailgates down and all the goodies displayed. Some people brought candelbra and set tables.

These days bring fond memories, not so much of football, which never seemed like a game, and which, despite many explanations, I could never understand, other than that a first down for our team was good, and our team was good. I did love the pudgy bull dog mascot and watching the male cheerleaders leap in the air, leading us in cheers and song: Boola, Boola, Eee-Lye-Yale. In short, it was a totally enjoyable ritual: all of us together and Dad happy.  I fell asleep in the car on the way home, happy myself. Thanks to football.

Recently, I attended a talk by Steve Almond, author of Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. Almond, a former Sports writer for the Boston Globe is one of my favorite writers. He’s honest—and blunt. I went because I was curious about football, having read all the hullabaloo about players winding up with concussive disabilities for life. I also went to come to  terms with my own distaste for the stupid violence of this non-sport-like sport everyone loved. I did not agree with the testosterone outlet rationales. Why the holy magic of football, so obviously a “game” that depended on collision?

Almond said that his truth landed when his mother suffered an “insult to the brain.” Learning about the brain, its beauty and its fragility, unearthed the dark side of his own, and the nation’s, fascination with football. He called it “a national addiction which fosters tolerance for violence, greed, racism and homophobia, and part of a larger tribal system.” 

A few key points:
    -We create fantasies that this “game” can be made safer, but there are harmful physiological consequences + physics problems: mass x acceleration = force. The average player weighs 300 pounds, exceeding NFL limits. They have to gain weight to keep their jobs. 
    -The accretion of sub-concussive events is alarming. Argument has been made that men who played pro-football had already had previous concussions, and somehow don't count?  Studies monitoring brain functioning in high school football players indicated that there was diminished brain functioning after play, even when there had been no concussive symptoms beforehand. Not one blow, but a series of hits, concussion or no, reduced brain function after playing.
    -Football is a cash cow, and we build moral rationales to adjust to it. We build stadiums, keep cheering our lungs out. The consumer market is well-reinforced. Too much hype and cheer creates irrational pressure and expectation for more and more and more, with little room for failure. (I thought of the presidential inauguration in 2012 when near-ecstatic (hysterical?), overflow crowds filled the D.C. mall to overflow. What kind of exalted expectation did all that praise create for the office, not to mention the man?)
    -Will take a famous player to confess his disability fully before Almond’s goal can be fulfilled: the disruption of the narrative of complacency we’ve built around our fervent consumption of what amounts to sanctioning conditions of war.  And what about our heroes after we’re done with consuming them briefly as entertainers? (I told you I liked his blunt speech.)

Are even Christian values satisfied when we see a wounded body fallen for a higher cause? In football, those values are greed, lust and violence. What are the values in our Christian faith? I wonder about the high priest Caiaphas, Roman-appointed High Priest of the Jerusalem Temple and a co-conspirator in Jesus’ death. Caiaphas, according to John’s gospel (11:49,18:14), advised the Temple authorities that it was better to have one man die than destroy a whole nation. I’m not saying that this story is fact; I am saying that it contains a moral sanction of scapegoating violence that has become a part of Christian belief and liturgy. (See Gil Bailey’s book, Violence Unveiled.)

Almond suggests ideas for the future: to press for weight limitations in national competitions, training for coaches, mandatory academic grade requirements for players to graduate, and a look at our own cultural values.

Many in Almond’s audience shared fond memories of family connections, especially with Dads. Which brings me back to where I began. I established connections with my dad as an adult that were far more satisfying than the bonds of football. I knew he wasn’t a fan either, except that he, like me, loved being part of the group.

When I learned to play touch football—for girls, they said, I made touchdowns without tackling anyone. doesn’t escape my notice that we don’t call God “super.” (The rock opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is mocking. The rest of the lyric is: “Do you think you’re what they say you are?”)

I’m of a mind to say that nothing/ no one should be called SUPER. We don’t call God SUPER, so what the blazes are we doing to humanity with our collective need for false heroes?