Karl Lindholm: Habits of right living — whither football?
This week, I’m not-watching football because… I’m done. The cognitive dissonance it requires to pretend that it’s fun to watch awful people having awful things done to their bodies to enrich other awful people is just too much to bear.
That’s a comment made recently by a Facebook friend.
His disgust came shortly after the release of the video of Baltimore Ravens’ player Ray Rice assaulting his fiancé. Rice’s behavior was seen as just the latest in a series of violent episodes by American football players against women.
Football has always been a game of physical aggression, even brutality. We understand now that it is a downright dangerous game, with the prospect of permanent brain damage a reality, especially for those who play it professionally.
My dad, however, would have been dismayed by that Facebook sentiment, and rejected it. He was a firm believer in football as an ennobling experience that contributed to forming young men of character and quality.
He was a football player himself, and proud of it, though a long time ago indeed. For him, the son of Swedish immigrants, football was a means of assimilation to America.
He was a good enough player to be inducted into the Waltham (Mass.) High School Hall of Fame. At Bates College in the Depression, he played on the legendary team that tied Yale, 0-0 in 1932, and captained the Bobcat team in his senior year. His first job was football coach at Maine Central Institute.
He loved football. The physical risks and consequences were worth it. He lived most of his life with chronic back pain and knee instability, the result of his play.
He played at a time when “you gotta be a football hero if you want to get along with the beautiful girls,” as the lyrics of a popular ditty went. The beautiful girl at Bates who fell for the football hero was my mom.
My dad, Milt or “Lindy,” earned three degrees from Bates, a B.A., a M. Ed., and an Honorary Doctorate in 2004. When he died in 2010, I found among his effects his senior thesis in religion, titled “Character Through Competitive Sports.”
With appropriate research and citations, he made the argument for the profound benefit of competitive play, acknowledging that “most of the discussion in this thesis concerns football.”
He celebrates “the habits of right living” that football develops. The “hard work” that football entails “teaches a boy to do the best he can at work or play.”
Boys and young men who play football form “friendships of everlasting duration, … because they have worked together as part of one unit, and rubbed shoulders together on the gridiron.”
His thesis ends with a prayer:
Dear Lord, in the battle which goes on in life,
I ask but a field that is fair,
The chance that is equal with all in the strife,
The chance but to do and dare.
And if I should win may I win by the code,
With my faith and my courage held high,
And if I should fail may I stand by the road,
And cheer as the winners go by.
My dad couldn’t tolerate the term “jock” to describe athletes and wouldn’t let me use it. He felt it a crude metaphor, disparaging of athletes, who he believed held themselves to a higher standard than others because of lessons learned on the playing field.
My dad was a 180-pound center, playing right in the middle of the line. In his day, the center had to deliver the ball to running backs dashing here and there, as there were no motion penalties. I was a center in football in high school, like my dad, though I didn’t choose it. I was just placed there between Leo and Big Jim.
I couldn’t long snap. I just basically handed the ball back between my legs to the quarterback. My dad often took me out in the back yard to show me how to center the ball. At 50, he could still get down in that bent-over center’s crouch and fire tight spirals through his legs the length of the yard, a good 15-20 yards.
By comparison, my long snaps were dying quails, and I moved from center to guard on 4th downs, and Louie Albert came in to center the ball to the kicker.
Though I may have been a better player than I claim, I didn’t really respond to the essential hurly-burly of the game as my dad did, and didn’t play after high school. I played football because it was in the fall and I was an athlete. I preferred basketball and baseball.
My dad couldn’t teach me to long snap, but he did teach me the value of sports, done right.
I started out to write a column about football and “cognitive dissonance” — the disconnect between what we know of football’s very real risks and our passion for its spectacle.
And I ended up writing about my father. Funny how that happens.
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