Love Of Football May Kick America Down The Path Of Ruination

By Frank Deford

January 16, 2013

This may sound far-fetched, but football reminds me of Venice. Both are so tremendously popular, but it's the very things that made them so that could sow the seeds of their ruin.

Venice, of course, is so special because of its unique island geography, which, as the world's ecosystem changes, is precisely what now puts it at risk. And as it is the violent nature of football that makes it so attractive, the understanding of how that brutality can damage those who play the game is what may threaten it, even as now the sport climbs to ever new heights of popularity.

Boxing, another latently cruel sport, has lost most of its standing, so it is often cited as the example of how football too must eventually be doomed in our more refined, civilized society.

However, the comparisons between boxing and football don't fly because there is a huge difference between individual and team sports.

Football teams represent cities and colleges and schools. The people have built great stadiums, and the game is culturally intertwined with our calendar. We don't go back to college for the college. We go back for a football game, and, yes, we even call that "homecoming." It would take some unimagined cataclysmic event to take football from us. Concussions for young men are the price of our love for football, as broken hearts are what we pay for young love.

Indeed, part of boxing's decline may well be because football has exceeded its display for blood lust. When George Bellows was painting those graphically gruesome boxing paintings a century ago, he noted that the "atmosphere" around the ring was "more immoral" than the brutality within it.

The thrill of watching football is not that players perform with such incredible precision, but that they do so even as they dance in the shadow of collision. Enthusiasm for sport can be a convenient cover to excuse the worst in us.

Of course, the difference between the Venice of Italy and the football here is that everybody loves Venice, but only Americans care about our gridiron.

Football is, and always has been, sport on the edge of that immorality that Bellows saw when he painted men cheering pain; but then, football is also, and always has been, the presumed proof of American manliness — the sport that was the beau ideal of what was called "muscular Christianity."

Way back in 1896, after the president of Harvard University wanted to ban a sport he called "more brutal than cock-fighting or bull-fighting," Henry Cabot Lodge, senator from Massachusetts, responded by declaring that "the injuries incurred on the playing field are the price which the English-speaking race has paid for being world conquerors."

Have no fear. Football is still our own indecent joy. The fighter jets will long fly over the Super Bowl.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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