American Football is quintessentially…American. Unlike soccer (what the rest of the world calls “football”), where participants can’t use their hands as part of the “beautiful game”, Football requires full-body participation in repeated outbursts of violent energy. Also unlike soccer, Football is a game of testosterone; women and young children can neither play it well, nor with the requisite emotion and camaraderie…
American Football is men, combining their individual might, speed, guile, bludgeoning, and force of will with that of other men, as a committed unit to physically complete against another group of men. It is simultaneously the height of rugged individualism and the ultimate expression of team. Football models achieving the American Dream: personal sacrifice and perseverance, teamwork, a hero’s rise, the breakthrough moment, full commitment, win or lose, in pursuit of an unwilling objective. Football elevates some and humiliates others, yet remains egalitarian; it exposes every man’s weaknesses – and that man will either be made better, or be made to go away, by the revelation.
However, Football is losing its place in the country that invented it (After all, how long can you support a professional expression of hyper-masculinity in a culture concerned with a “war on women”?). This teacher of basic truths struggles in an American society increasingly comfortable with complex lies. Unless that changes, this politically incorrect game will die.
The National Football League (NFL) began as the American Professional Football Association (APFA) in 1920, with four Ohio teams, in a Canton automobile showroom. By 1927, after franchise fits and starts, the NFL trimmed 22 clubs to 12, cutting financial dead weight and shifting its center from the Midwest to the East Coast. A de facto ban on black players in 1933 was overcome after World War II. In 1946, the NFL headed West, with the Cleveland Rams relocating to Los Angeles.
In 1960, Texas oilmen, kept from NFL franchises, launched the American Football League (AFL), sparking a competition that led to Super Bowl I in 1967 and an explosion in player salaries. Along the way, Football replaced baseball as America’s favorite sport. The two leagues merged, in 1970, into the modern NFL.
Today, the NFL’s 32 teams span the country. A sport once ignored after the Midwestern Fall now rivets the nation’s attention year round. Yet Football is both under attack and in decline, with few realizing the situation, though the signs are visible.
Before the NFL, Football brought glory and built character, but no one played for any real money. Football was a vehicle to launch young men’s careers; it was not itself a valid career choice. The professional league did not immediately change even the best players’ minds on that. The 1935 Heisman Award winner was the first player chosen in the NFL’s 1936 inaugural draft. But Jay Berwanger never played in the NFL, opting instead for a manufacturing career.
And the young NFL was not immediately a big money career. In the NFL’s early decades, most players had jobs or businesses. Football players had to WORK, not just work out, during the off-season. However, that prepared them for life after Football, even as they played, integrating them, socially and economically, into their communities. But the big money, which began with the AFL-NFL competition for players, brought big changes.
Big salaries isolated Football, creating players who are much larger, and richer, than the people among whom they live, leaving them with little physically, economically, or socially in common with their communities.
The source of Football salaries created another form of isolation. Most people generate their incomes from their local economies. Football players…not so much. Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans’ economy, cutting off local jobs and incomes. Yet Saints’ players still got their checks, without interruption…because the NFL, not the cities, pays most of player salaries.
Another, and worse, form of isolation is of players from education. Before the NFL, Football was an education vehicle; players left the game in their twenties to compete in the fields of business, education, and politics. Even after the game went pro, early NFL players were likely to be college graduates. However, by 1989, only 1 in 3 NFL players had college degrees. By 2004, the number rose to 46%, however the damage was already done.
Large NFL contracts isolated players from college degrees, lessening their marketable skills once their playing careers ended. When an All-Pro defensive lineman admits he was functionally illiterate in college, yet was an upperclassmen; when the Number 1 pick in the 2006 NFL draft files for bankruptcy protection in 2014, that is not integrating men into society. That is destroying men within society.
Now, there is “chicken little” talk of concussions and players safety; some surmise it may end football, as parents, including NFL players, grow wary of seeing their sons play Football, though the science is not settled. And the NFL wants to head off the issue with a monetary settlement, which is stalled in court.
However, in truth, concussions and CTE will likely be the feather that knocks over a weakened sport. The real damage to Football began long before people showed concern for how many times a player “got his bell rung”.
When American Football went professional, it began turning from a game that integrated young men into society as educated, aggressive, and disciplined leaders, and into a sideshow of well-paid, large-bodied characters who are likely uneducated or undisciplined entertainers.
Without the NFL, this outburst:
is harmless exuberance from a 20-year-old kid. Instead, it is from a 25-year-old kid (big difference, right?), who makes a half million per year, and causes a national uproar. Seriously?
Without the NFL, this foolishness:
is unconscionable, along with the support of the group that led to this idea in the first place.
If there were no “next level”, which paid folks to play, then a free education, and the connections that come with it, would be appreciated, rather than sniffed at. Football players as college employees? Do they wish to pay taxes on those scholarships and stipends?
Football no longer has giving men with uncommon drive a path to societal greatness as its primary function. Too often, it simply prepares a small minority (there are less than 2000 active NFL roster spots each year) to play a game for pay, extending their adolescence well into their 20’s and 30’s, and leaving them unmarketable and broke when done.
If Football provides nothing more than money, while crippling those who play it, then who could blame a reasonable society for turning away from such an enterprise.
It is time to return Football to what it did well, before a great game goes away.