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Football: Bastion of the Republic by John Wilson

Football: Bastion of the Republic

footballI came across this the other day, from theWashington TimesKids flee football in light of NFL violence, Pop Warner participationplummeting.

The author is Nathan Fenno, and I hasten to say that I am the last man in the world to wish to kill the messenger. His article is on the whole fair, although the subject itself leans to the feminization of our culture. The gist is this:  Football is violent and dangerous, lots of boys and men get concussions which have bad consequences, and therefore many parents, including those who have come from a football culture, want to protect their sons from football’s consequences, at least until they are in high school.

The latest round of anti-football picks up again on the original complaint. Young men get killed being gladiators. John J. Miller’s wonderful book, The Big Scrum, tells the first part of this story, how Teddy Roosevelt saved football just over a hundred years ago, the subtext saying,how football was saved from itself. It is true that people, mostly young men, die from doing dangerous things. Thank God.

Please allow me to regress for a moment. It is reported that 243 young men died from football injuries in the years 1990-2010. That’s not good. But the last time I looked at another statistic, there had been 292 murders in south Chicago this year alone. Are people fleeing Chicago, or is the population plummeting? About the same number of young men play football as live in south Chicago. Have we seen calls for reform comparable to the number of concerns expressed about football’s concussions?

Mr. Fenno rightly points out that many people who understand football are concerned that very young boys are not being taught to play the game very well, that they are taught only to turn themselves into human torpedoes that strike from the head. When I was a boy there was noPop Warner football, thank the Lord, and therefore we played without pads and helmets and learned early how not to be stupid. When William Wallace returned to his home town inBraveheart, he and his old pal threw stones at each other’s heads, but knew very well what the limits were. They had more serious things to do later, and would not lead with their helmets.

Young men must learn war. When they do is a matter of culture, and how they do it is part of the quality of that culture. Joe Paterno, one of my great heroes, knew that football and Virgil’s epic poem built civilizations. A true republic cannot survive without football, or something very much like it.

Let us take one larger step. The ancient Greeks praised their athletes, and the Olympics defined their culture as much as their theater, poetry, and philosophy. In fact, as their games declined, so did the rest of the culture. Is it an accident that the United States achieved their greatest prosperity and happiness as their sports began to define them? Zane Grey is well known as a writer of the American west, a creator of tales that help us to remember our shared qualities of self-government and courage and loyalty. His best books, I submit, are about baseball, which add to the western novels the virtues of community, of humility, of being willing to be obedient to a larger purpose than mere individualism, or mere democracy.

Mr. Fenno’s proper concern should not be about safety, but about character. Men protect their families because they learn in various ways (especially in Genesis) that there is something more important than themselves. The Romans, of course, took their games too far, and their gladiatorial slaughters became a sign of their decline rather than their robust health. Mr. Fenno and others are probably correct to warn us about that same tendency. We must remember, however, that sports in general, and football in particular, in how they grew and what they mean, are bastions of the republic.

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