If you watch TV, you know that there have been more than a few teenage football deaths this year. Eight and counting. One kid collapsed after scoring a touchdown, two died of heatstroke in practice. Some parents seem to accept the game as a sacred rite of passage, and one fatalistic coach guessed football was still safer than high school drivers. But this much is for sure – across the nation, for white and black people, football has totemic status. And of course there’s huge money involved. When those black Missouri players revolted against repeated racial slurs by going on strike, they got the president of the University fired. Quick. The next game was worth a million dollars, give or take.
I loved football. I was a slow, overweight, interior lineman and benchwarmer, but my proudest high school moment was bursting into the opposing backfield and running head-on into the other team’s halfback, a big guy with a full head of steam. I didn’t know spit from Shinola after that play and was taken out, probably cross-eyed, but everyone was real pleased with me. Their halfback stayed in but he wasn’t himself, and it was noted. Respect at last, and boy, did I crave it.
Sport is primal species behavior, hugely cross cultural. It ignores all kinds of boundaries because it’s rooted deep in our instincts. We think about ancient Greece as the cradle of democracy and European culture – great playwrights, brilliant science, source of modern philosophy, Homer, unforgettable sculpture, etc. But those brilliant precursors of western thought were frosting on the cake of Greek culture. A greater hero was Phidippides dropping dead after his twenty-six mile run to tell of victory over the Persian hordes. REJOICE, WE CONQUER!
Sport (and war) was at the very center of Greek culture, and the Olympics were an apotheosis. As important as football is to us, the Games were more important to the Greeks, religious events, recognized as such. We love the idea of those Olympics without knowing much about them: no-slaves-allowed, gender chauvinism, you-name-it sexuality, and near-absolute brutality. Strangling, choking and finger-breaking were part of wrestling, and boxing could go to the death if a guy wouldn’t quit. The champions were revered more than Tom Brady and Larry Bird in Boston. Olympic victors had ultimate status and respect, beyond Sophocles, Socrates, Aristotle and anyone else. Win your event and retire – live on the state, do as you will, young boys, whatever. You’d never find Joe Louis working as a casino greeter.
One big difference: the Greeks didn’t have today’s big-money sports, and what comes with them. Any serious teen athlete knows what’s going on. PEDs trickled down to college, and then to high school. Teen athletes know all about them, and where to get them. And because they feel incomplete without victory, quite a few kids will die from drugs – slowly from long-term effects, and suddenly, as with these eight dead boys. Because training and drugs change everything big time. When I ran head-on into that flying halfback at sixteen, I was a slow, overweight and untrained, a true amateur. That same collision between drugged-up kids who work out every day is way faster and harder and much more dangerous.
I don’t have to think about it anymore, but if I did, I’d discourage my son from playing football. Getting my head knocked half off and saving a touchdown is a great memory, but if it happened enough times I might not have much memory at all, just an ongoing depressed suicidal bad mood that would poison my life and the lives of those close to me.