50 is here, and in this case it’s not so pretty. The 50th Super Bowl will be held in the Bay Area this Sunday amid pomp, ceremony, and controversy. A longtime 49er fan myself, the event stirs mixed feelings. Both of our local teams sucked bilgewater, and the clueless rookie 49er coach was fired five minutes after the losing season ended. I enjoy the game, especially debating the merits of players and games with friends, but there’s always been a dark side to that enjoyment that’s grown darker in the last few years.
The NFL has been grappling with an increase in incidents of player violence – domestic violence in particular – over the past few years. In late 2014, there had been 48 players involved in incidents, with 88 percent receiving no or minimal suspension. At the beginning of the 2015 season, there were 27 active players who had been arrested for domestic violence, DUIs, or other infractions. There’s also a correlation between an increase in domestic violence and games in general, with one study showing across multiple cities following a loss, violence in the home increased 10%.
Football isn’t the cause of the violence, but seems to provide the excuse and create the cultural petri dish that allows hideous behavior to surface. The rise in player incidents is also partly due to the NFL’s – and the NCAA college system feeding into it – lax discipline and punishment. A redeeming light here is that the wider spotlight fed from social media has brought better attention to the topic and may be turning the tide. Public awareness and player awareness is no substitute, but it is a start. When the NFL started the No More campaign in 2014, there was a lot of media concern that it was only an attempt to whitewash over its ineffectual actions. But many civic groups and corporations partnered with the NFL, and as of today the campaign is still in bloom. The week of March 6th 2016, in fact, will be a national week of action – sponsored not by the NFL but by Mary Kay – to keep the conversation live and present in hearts and minds. Let’s all mark that on our calendars; that’s a good thing.
Still, there are other controversies, many tied to the huge flow of money involved. The corruption of college athletes – whether paid under the table or not paid at all when earning money for their football programs. The use of college money to pay ridiculous salaries to coaches ($5-$7 million) while professor tenured positions have been squeezed out. The extortion to cities to build monolithic stadiums populated primarily by corporate attendees. The Oakland Raiders ownership is playing that game, Pay Me or I Walk. Unfortunately, their city is still paying off the bonds from the previous loan shark arrangement to lure the team back from their previous sojourn. There are weekly threats for them to move elsewhere, San Antonio, Las Vegas – wouldn’t the gamblers love that? What must it be like to try to play for teams in that kind of environment?
Football doesn’t have a monopoly on players cheating, unsavory off the field antics, inappropriate violence, or overpriced tickets and stadiums. (Barry Bonds, Kobe Bryant, Lance Armstrong, the East German swimming team…) We should hold the NFL accountable for its unwillingness to enforce appropriate standards of conduct, and tell our civic leaders not to pay another dime for public financing. We should criticize our colleges that put the sport ahead of academics and compel them to hold athletics programs to stricter codes of behavior. And then we should go watch the game.
Football is about the great catch — a player, one handed, toes slightly inside the boundary line, pulling in the ball while a hand is in his face or grabbing at his shirt.
Because…Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Adrian Peterson.
It’s running away from the bullies. It’s the little guy escaping from the mob to break free. It’s called Run to Daylight for a reason. (And, yeah, it does depend on key blocking from the offensive line but not entirely!)
Because…Joe Montana, Fran Tarkenton, Peyton Manning, Cam Newton.
If you’ve ever played backyard touch football, you know how hard it is to throw or catch a pass when being guarded by your sister or brother-in-law. Imagine trying to do that while looking over twenty linemen bigger than you. Maybe being chased yourself, maybe being tackled. This year’s Big Game even has the greatest of all human sports drama – the old man and the up-and-comer. It’s what makes the Olympics so great; there’s always a veteran and the hottest kid in town.
Because… the Immaculate Reception, the Hail Mary, The Play.
As entertainment, football provides some of the most interesting moments. In the first play of Denver’s previous Super Bowl, the center hiked the ball over Peyton Manning’s head. Don’t you think he’s been waiting two years for a Do Over? Wouldn’t a play with five laterals, the clock expiring, and a touchdown through the trombone section be something you’d never forget? (Hint: I was there and yep it was.) There’s something about this game that seems to pull viewers together – it certainly seems to invoke more praying and religious imagery than others.
It’s an entertainment that shares really well, like the OJ Trial or the Moon landing. Even the half time shows have become more interesting, whether you appreciate Prince’s rippin’ guitar solos or the Wardrobe Malfunction. If you really don’t care for the game, the museums and the movie theaters would be empty – but then you miss the national conversation and maybe some great guacamole. (Oh, did I mention that the average calories consumed in our obese nation is 2400… I’ll have to save that for another blog.) Go, team, go and rah, rah, rah, and if your team loses, let’s all just be civilized about it.