Greeting the start of football season with excitement … and ambivalence
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I love football.
The start of the NFL season is a thrilling time, bringing weekly battles between teams whose colors and helmets and cities we all know, with violence (we Americans love us some violence!), and the sleight-of-hand easing of us Northerners from summer into fall, then winter.
But like many fans these days, I feel a strange uneasiness as Opening Day arrives.
Even the beloved Bears against the wondrously antagonistic, historic Packers at Lambeau Field can’t calm this feeling of quiet discord.
Call it football ambivalence.
We have been hammered with the knowledge that blows to the head can mentally cripple former players, cause suicides, ruin families, reduce once-proud men to diapered babies.
The former, vicious “Jacked Up!’’ segment on ESPN has morphed into endless squiggles on a whiteboard showing pass routes, defensive shifts and other snore-inducing stuff. As if eggheaded analysis changes what we really like about the game of blocking and tackling.
Football is a tough, victim-swarmed sport. Everybody knows that. It’s also a grand, entrancing show.
But how do you root for a big hit when that same blow might be crippling not just to a foe’s shoulder socket but his very essence?
We can reason that every player in the NFL knows what he signed up for.
When I see the thick-necked kids trot out on stage on draft day in their ill-fitting suits, beaming and weeping, so joyous that they’ve been picked so high and are going to make so much money — Mama, here comes that new house! — I wonder if they will have a fraction of that joy 10 years later.
There isn’t a strong, athletic 22-year-old alive who can envision — deep down — what it’s like to be 60.
The Bears have a purported once-in-a-generation pass rusher in newly acquired Khalil Mack, and what we want him to do is what he is programmed to do: annihilate quarterbacks.
So if he demolishes the Packers All-Pro Aaron Rodgers on a blindside hit, do we care if Rodgers doesn’t get up? Hey, the dude’s the highest-paid player in the league — he gets a guaranteed $67-million this year alone. Eat him up!
But then, Mack is the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history. Corporation vs. corporation.
Yet I don’t ever want to see Rodgers hurt. His beauty as a quarterback is much of what makes football so watchable. Correction: It’s that beauty and the threat that it might be destroyed in an instant that sets the tone.
Little boys watch football and thrill to it. But mothers more and more are steering sons into other sports that have less chance of injury and brain trauma. If I were a kid now, my whole life might be different. Football was the sport of sports in my world.
If I hadn’t been allowed to play, then what?
It’s a lot different watching a game that only other people play, that is done by the marginalized and the mercenary, not the normals. It can seem more like voyeurism than fun.
This comes with an odd twist: what if, through rules changes and technological advances, the game becomes so safe that it loses its primitive — read: caveman — appeal? Do we really want to see men hugged to the ground?
Like everybody else, I have no idea how the new helmet rule will affect play. I don’t even know what it means. Walter Payton got half his yards after lowering his head and battering tacklers. Mike Singletary’s helmet was basically a lump in his shoulder pads. Is that all ancient history?
Wait until a key game is decided by a dubious helmet-lowering call. Talk about fan revolt.
I can’t help having empathy for the regular, non-superstar player. Former NFL cornerback Domonique Foxworth wrote in the recent ESPN Magazine about the disorienting world a player enters when he’s cut, because he’s prepared for so little outside the game.
“If your goal is to be a Supreme Court justice, the things you must learn on that journey are valued in countless fields. Even if you never come close to the bench, the longer you stay on that highway, the more potential exit ramps there are. For a football player, the opposite is true.’’
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And then we have former kneeling quarterback Colin Kaepernick becoming the face of Nike’s revived “Just Do It’’ campaign. What do we make of this?
Nike is the NFL’s biggest outfitter. The NFL wants nothing to do with Kaepernick, who has sued it for allegedly blackballing him. Our own president despises Kaepernick. And many NFL players despise Trump.
Good old days never come back. Maybe football ambivalence is here to stay.