In Defense of Football


I grew up in the kind of neighborhood where I could walk with my football to the field near my house, kick the ball around a few times, and — within minutes — my friends would be pouring out of their homes ready to play for hours on end. Those were some of the greatest times of my life. On that field, a skinny, nerdy kid who was more comfortable with graph paper and 12- and 20-sided dice could learn how to take a hit and — just as important — how to deliver one. I gained confidence, I was humbled (more than once), and I fell in love with America’s new athletic pastime.  

However, there are some on the left who want to deny kids those kinds of days, to turn America against its favorite sport. To them, football is just too male, too martial, and too darn American. They’ve argued that football breeds disrespect for women, that it’s too violent, and that its culture is too religious. Yet none of those criticisms have made an impact. People kept watching football, and — crucially — they kept letting their kids run outside, join the games in the field or at school, and level their friends on the crossing route.

But now there’s a new attack — one that precisely tracks the timid tenor of our times. Sure we knew football was violent, but now we know it’s dangerous — so dangerous that it’s immoral to watch.

And, yes, it is modestly dangerous. Kids who play football tend to get injured more than kids who player other sports, and — yes — they have a greater likelihood of suffering from concussions. Repeated concussions can and do cause brain damage, and for those who play football for a living, there are sad stories of retired NFL players who have suffered severe and even deadly damage to body and mind.

When children are denied the opportunity to take risks, they often approach the world with a fear and timidity that can haunt them for life.

This is the worst possible news for today’s parents, who often seek above all to guarantee the physical and psychological safety of their children. Children are being raised as if they’re fragile, in need of constant protection. For these (often upper-middle-class) parents, new information about football’s dangers makes their decision easy. Johnny can play basketball or soccer, but he can’t play football. Indeed, in just one year’s time, the percentage of Americans who said they wouldn’t let their children play football jumped nine points, from 22 percent to 31 percent.

Yet this mindset advances the great error of modern parenting — the belief that we should protect our kids from as much harm as we can. This short-sighted, fearful attitude ultimately damages the very children we so desperately safeguard. By taking risks, children learn other virtues, and when children are denied the opportunity to take risks, they often approach the world with a fear and timidity that can haunt them for life. What if my parents had kept me from the field near our house, protecting me from those many blows — endured without a helmet or shoulder pads or protection of any kind? Would I be the same person that I am today? Or would I perhaps be a bit more fearful, uncertain of my own physical courage and toughness?

#share#Football, moreover, channels natural and desirable male risk-taking and aggression into a game bound by rules and governed by a code of conduct. In football, as in many sports, you learn self-sacrifice, including how to deny yourself and risk yourself for the benefit of your teammates. One doesn’t have to play football to learn those lessons, and playing football is not necessary to turn boys into young men, but the fear that motivates parents to reject football can indeed keep boys from growing into men.

To deny a young man the opportunity to test himself is to deny and diminish his very essence.

Since the dawn of time, boys have courted danger and tested the limits of their own endurance. To deny a young man the opportunity to test himself is to deny and diminish his very essence. Not all young men are aggressive, but young men with aggressive instincts will attempt to find outlets for their innate sense of adventure. This puts them in direct conflict with the fearful spirit of the age. Parents, schools, and maternalistic government officials who try to deny those outlets or strip the masculine aggression and valor from boys do far more harm than good. They crush the spirits of the young men they seek to protect.

When I watch the NFL, I don’t see victims. I see men who have known their entire lives that football can be dangerous. These men have injuries, and they’ve suffered their own pain, but they play on. They do it for the thrill of competition, for the love of their teammates, and — yes — for the fame and money their athletic prowess provides. At the end of the day, however, the courage they show on the football field is central to their very identity. Long before there were stadiums full of cheering fans, each one of those players pursued his own lonely, self-sacrificial quest for greatness. It is not immoral to applaud their achievements, to appreciate their sacrifice, and to enjoy the sheer spectacle of the sport they love.

Every football player, when he steps onto the gridiron, demonstrates a degree of bravery that directly rebukes our increasingly bubble-wrapped culture. Our nation needs bravery far more than it needs safety, but in the cultural struggles ahead I believe that fear may prevail. And if fear does prevail, it will do more than destroy a great sport, it will rip the valor and purpose right out of the hearts of men.


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