Welcome to the Machine (Episode 3: Bring in the Gladiators)
History tells us that a monk named Saint Telemachus traveled to Rome in 391 (A.D.) and was martyred by stoning after trying to stop a gladiator fight in a Roman arena. The Christian Emperor Honorius was so affected by the monk’s martyrdom that he issued a permanent ban on all gladiator fights. The last known gladiator spectacle occurred in or around 404 A.D.
The story of Telemachus is found in the writings of Theodoret of Cyrus, Bishop of Cyrrhus, Syria, and is further mentioned in other accounts, noting that “St. Telemachus was put to death at Rome for boldly opposing the pagan rites that were practiced on the Octave of our Lord’s nativity.”
Theodoret’s account of St. Telemachus’ martyrdom is as follows:
“Honorius, who inherited the empire of Europe, put a stop to the gladiatorial combats which had long been held at Rome. The occasion of his doing so arose from the following circumstance. A certain man of the name of Telemachus had embraced the ascetic life. He had set out from the East and for this reason had repaired to Rome. There, when the abominable spectacle was being exhibited, he went himself into the stadium, and, stepping down into the arena, endeavored to stop the men who were wielding their weapons against one another. The spectators of the slaughter were indignant, and inspired by the mad fury of the demon who delights in those bloody deeds, stoned the peacemaker to death. When the admirable emperor was informed of this, he numbered Telemachus in the array of victorious martyrs, and put an end to that impious spectacle.”
There are other versions of the event, in which Telemachus stands up in the arena and tells the fans to stop worshiping idols and offering sacrifices to the gods. Upon hearing this statement, the prefect of the city orders the gladiators to kill Telemachus, and they promptly do so.
Other versions differ in certain details, though they don’t alter the general account of the incident. One claims that Telemachus was first stabbed to death by a gladiator, but that the sight of his death “turned the hearts of the people.” In the version told by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 at the National Prayer Breakfast, the entire crowd turned and walked out of the arena in silence.
Regardless of the way the event actually played out, the result of the incident was the Roman emperor banned the gladiator games. Permanently.
In the beginning, it had nothing to do with concussions, head trauma, or CTE. It had to do with the way there seemed to be no escape from it, nor any way to move beyond it. At times, it seemed that everywhere I turned, everywhere I went, there it was, either on the television, radio, inserted randomly with rude effect like a non-sequitur into a sports-free conversation, or tethered to my very own name, like some rusting shackle, until years later, the truth finally hit me.
The truth in its various forms did not arrive overnight. It took a long time. It came in bits and pieces over the years, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, where the image methodically and gradually becomes clearer and eventually into perfect focus.
And then, all of a sudden it seemed, former players started killing themselves. Terry Long. Andre Waters. Shane Dronett. Dave Duerson. Ray Easterling. Junior Seau. Jevon Belcher. Jason Hairston. Paul Oliver. These are just the ones who played in the NFL and it is not an exhaustive list. I won’t document the college and high school players here.
Except for one. Because I knew him. I’m not going to mention his name because there’s no reason to do so. The memory is painful enough without putting his name out in the media again. Those of us who were there when it happened know who I’m talking about.
In the early morning hours of October 13, 1993, one of my former teammates in college shot himself to death. I was still in Fayetteville, in my third year of law school. He had been one of the few true freshmen to letter on our 1989 championship team. We were teammates for my final two seasons. He was a good kid and a great football player.
The reasons people came up with in their effort to come to grips with and explain it were all over the place: His girlfriend had broken up with him. He had an alleged alcohol and prescription medication addiction. He had been through a few minor legal issues that he’d managed to extricate himself from. “He was depressed.” The problem with all this to me was, although he had been through some ups and downs, at the time he took his life he was a starting linebacker and the second-leading tackler on the team. None of what I was hearing added up to me; people didn’t kill themselves over any of these things, in isolation. There had to be something else we were missing.
Today if anyone even brings up the subject, people say, “He had some problems.” It’s a lazy and convenient way to legitimize what happened in their minds, and it keeps them from having to ponder the questions much, if at all. Sure, my college teammate had some problems, no doubt. But they weren’t that different from what other college football players and students go through at the same age. But his permanent solution, carried out at the age of 22, sent shock waves through our program and was way out of proportion when compared to the things people were speculating as his precipitating motivations; the result did not logically flow from the reasons people were offering. I always wondered why he did it. It took me years to come up with an answer, and the irony is the answer was sitting right in front of us in plain sight the entire time.
But the following Saturday, the machine moved on. Arkansas played Mississippi in Jackson and lost. After all, this was the Southeastern Conference. Nobody was going to postpone a football game because one of the players had killed himself three days prior. And even though Arkansas had moved from the Southwest Conference to the SEC in 1992, the old Southwest Conference was one of the few conferences that played their full schedule of games the day after President John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, Texas. The show must go on; the machine must keep moving. I know, because my father played in one of those games in 1963 that none of the players wanted to play.
But enough about my former teammate. He killed himself one night in October, 1993. We were all stunned. None of us who knew him understood why he did it. And we eventually all went on with our lives. Because nobody back then knew that football, with its repetitive head traumas and concussive and sub-concussive hits, can actually cause permanent brain damage over time, even in high school-age players, and can lead to the very types of behavior he was manifesting in the months leading up to his death. If ever there were a player who was a tough as nails hard-hitter — right out of central casting for a linebacker — the one position other than offensive and defensive linemen who probably strike their heads on every play, it was him. When I finally made my own connection between what he did in 1993 and what we have now learned about repetitive head trauma and CTE, and considered all the other suicides I mentioned above, the answer I mentioned above made total sense to me.
Of course, I am not a doctor. But I think my theory has a lot of traction. I think it makes a lot of sense. And I suspect when my former teammates read this, they’ll agree with me. They’ve probably already figured it out themselves. Because some of them have issues of their own.
Today, I wonder how many men like him have ended their lives because of what happened to their brains as the result of playing football. We will obviously never know.
But the show must go on. And most people keep watching, just like everyone did back in October, 1993.
As all these events took place over the years, the final conflict for me was watching my own father — at first, almost imperceptibly — deteriorate over the last years of his life, until he took a very steep nosedive in his last months. My mother bore the overwhelming majority of this.
His last weeks were a nightmare for our family — in and out of one medical care facility to another, then back to another emergency room and hospital stay, and back and forth in between — except for his final week, where he somehow hung on under sedation for an entire eight days in hospice after his food and water had been stopped, as we all waited for the end that finally, blessedly, and I confess, thankfully, arrived on February 1, 2019.
You see, there is no cure for these insidious neurological afflictions. About the only positive is that unlike other terminal patients who are quite aware of the condition they are in, people like my father just pass away, totally unaware of what’s happening, although I admit that watching the human body fight off an oncoming, inevitable death is one of the most excruciating things to which you will ever bear witness. If I had any enemies, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst.
As stated, I am a former football player. The last time I put on pads was in November, 1990, almost twenty-nine (30) years ago. I played full-contact — that is, full-collision — football from age 8 through 23. I played on the 5A level in high school in the state of Texas (back when that was the highest level), then four years on the Division One level at two different schools in the old Southwest Conference. I have a Southwest Conference championship ring (1989), and I played in the Cotton Bowl. I am also a military veteran with 22 years of service, having served in Iraq and elsewhere during the Global War on Terrorism.
I am also the son of a former NFL All-Pro player who was an All-American lineman in college, member of his school’s only National Championship team in 1964, and who played eight seasons in the National Football League. He was All-Pro twice. Several years ago, he was diagnosed with advanced dementia with probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) the latter of which cannot be conclusively diagnosed until the brain is analyzed post-mortem. We still await the results of his brain analysis from Boston University. His treating physicians concluded his neurological disease was the result of his football career.
My experience as a player and as the son of one and my military service will all become relevant in different places as this moves forward.
It would be enough to say my disillusionment with football is wholly based on what happened to my father, the way his last years and days played out, and the impact it had — and still has — on our family. But that wouldn’t be the truth. That would be dishonest. The fact is what happened to him at the end of his life was just official confirmation of everything I already intuitively knew long before his symptoms started manifesting themselves so many years ago.
Although I had been a good player in high school and a moderately successful one in college, the truth is I was never a good fan or spectator of football, and there are numerous, sometimes complex, reasons for this. I had played for completely different, personal reasons. When I was a kid growing up in Texas, I played because it was fun. I played in high school because I wanted to follow my father and get a scholarship to a Division One school, and I reached that goal. But by the end of my college career, it had become nothing more than a means to an end; any joy I’d gotten from playing the game had totally evaporated, and it had become a job — an obligation.
Unlike Pat Conroy, who wrote in My Losing Season about how he cried uncontrollably after his final college basketball game at The Citadel when it struck him that his basketball career was over, I was secretly relieved when my own career ended on a late-November day in the fall of 1990. Sure, I was filled with a slight trepidation when I wondered what might come next, but that feeling was outweighed by a feeling of anticipation of a life without the game and its culture, and what new things I would experience.
But as I went on with my life after college and began to feel myself slipping more distantly away from football, I pondered my inability to be a good fan or spectator. My family and friends reacted surprised when they asked if I had watched the alma mater on TV the previous Saturday or a certain NFL contest on Sunday and I told them no. I considered the question over many years until the stark reality suddenly struck me one day: I just didn’t care about football anymore; it was a feeling of simple indifference. When I figured that out, I was able to answer all the “why” questions pretty easily. And I remained indifferent for many years, until one day indifference turned into something else.
To explain the evolution of my disillusionment with football, culminating in fully leaving it behind, it is necessary to begin at the end. Over the past decade, football’s previously hallowed status has slowly but surely begun to slip. Some of this has to do with the recent controversy of players protesting by kneeling during the national anthem, high-profile cases of domestic violence against wives and girlfriends, players having repeated involvement with law enforcement, and substance abuse.
These problems — combined with an increasing public awareness of the impact of concussions and CTE — are driving people slowly, but certainly away from football. As I wrote and predicted before last football season, football is slowly fading from the bottom up, as more and more parents remove their sons from youth football and encourage them to take up other sports that don’t place young brains and promising futures at risk.
As doctors and researchers learn more about the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma — especially on youth football players — greater numbers of people will find the sport anathema and unpalatable on the college and professional level.
Ultimately, however, the concussion crisis is not the only reason football is waning. On the professional level, players are grown adults, and it’s understandable that an individual has the freedom of choice to sacrifice his health for fame and money. After all, the kind of money that NFL players make these days — if managed effectively — can set up their families for generations.
Yes, football’s recent spate of self-defeating problems is well-known, but the main reason to turn away from football is that it is no more than a 21st-century version of what Saint Telemachus effectively ended 1,600 years ago; it is an unholy Industry, a golden calf, an altar at which people worship every Saturday and Sunday in the fall, as football players — like the gladiators of ancient times — sacrifice their bodies, minds, and life expectancies for the entertainment and pleasure of the worshippers. Fans loudly cheer while players slowly die.
There is a compelling need to disengage from the football matrix, to escape the sometimes unholy cult of football and drive out the spellbinding grip it has held over football fans for most of their lives. I as much as anyone know how difficult the prospect of doing this is for people. But the truth is, actually doing it is not as difficult as one might think.
What does it tell us, for example, when a man puts on “his” team’s colors — perhaps on the extreme side of things takes off his shirt and paints his bare chest and face — and spends hours in freezing weather eating and imbibing in a parking lot before games, and then enters an arena to scream at football players for hours? Is there something tribal in this; the clothing, the colors, the paint? Does it tell us anything revealing? Or is it just harmless?
What does it tell us when people are so emotionally tied up with the win-loss record of their team that they engage in “reflected glory,” a psychological term describing why fans use the term “we” after a victory by their team as opposed to using the term “they” when their team loses — a practice called cutting off “reflective failure?”
The team wins and everyone celebrates, at times partying as if they’re welcoming home a conquering army. The team loses, and people are in various ways, sad, disheartened and angry, and children cry, like the army lost the battle.
What does it tell us when one cannot enter a public house, a school, or even a church during the months of August through January without inevitably hearing a loud conversation about all the above?
Strangely, the fan does this from a position of supremacy; after all, he pays money for the players to entertain him. And while some college players will make it to the professional level and play much longer than the average two-year career, becoming rich and famous, the overwhelming number of them will have broken bodies and apathy from the fans.
This pattern is as old as the Roman gladiator “games,” but the sociological disparity between fan and gladiator/player — in modern times disguised with a facade of intimacy due to social media platforms like Twitter that put the masses on equal footing with the players — gives all of this a bizarre new quality.
The media only stokes these issues. Most football sportswriters are also apologists for the entire football industry, and this is imminently understandable because it’s literally their livelihood. So they position football in various ways as something deeper than what it really is. They use it as a backdrop for politics (see the “Anthem Kneeling Controversy” for example, and the fallout for Colin Kaepernick.) Writing inflated puff pieces like this is an effort to level the playing field between sports and other lofty, Pulitizeresque topics like politics; the sports writer is not just a sports writer; he’s a sports journalist. In the end it’s really just beat reporters writing about players.
Rarely, if ever, do we read or hear anything from most “sports journalists” advancing a theory that there is something intrinsically corrupt about this fan-player “relationship.” In this analysis, the paid professional player is a kind of circus animal, a highly-paid entertainer who puts his physical and mental health at risk for fans who will curse and ridicule him if he throws an interception, fumbles the ball away, or misses a field goal.
On the college level, the player is no less an entertainer, he is just rewarded differently, with a “scholarship” rather than actual compensation, since we must disingenuously cling to the fiction that college sports are “pure,” and the college player a “student-athlete.”
All of this leads to a situation in which the fan simultaneously idolizes and derogates the football player. It’s easy to do this with most players because the helmets and masks worn by football players — just as those worn by the gladiators of ancient times — obscure the face and thus the identity of the player. Consider it for a moment; unless he’s the quarterback or some other “skilled” position player, would you really know who the football player was if he had no number or name on his jersey?
Be honest. Unless the player is one of the notables on offense or defense, the only time you really know who he is when he gets knocked out, unconscious and immobile, and the game is halted and everyone on the field kneels for a few minutes while the ambulance or stretcher are brought out and fans perhaps get the invasive opportunity to see the look on his frightened mother’s face up in the stands.
The announcers give us his name. We might learn where he went to high school and where he’s from. But as soon as he’s removed from the field of play, the game continues. The show goes on. And within five minutes we’ve forgotten about the kid who was knocked unconscious. And by the end of the game we don’t even remember him anymore until we see the play again on SportsCenter that night with one of the reporters describing it as a “scary moment,” or until we read about it in the newspaper the following day. “Sure hope the kid’s OK,” we say to ourselves right before we proceed to start reading about the prognostications for next weekend’s game.
Does any of this tell us anything?
Now say the same exact thing happens out on the street, and some kid knocks another kid unconscious. Most people would be screaming for the perpetrator to be arrested and prosecuted and thrown in prison. But because the first incident happened in a “sports contest” everyone accepts it; they don’t even question or think about it.
Does any of this tell us anything?
What if, on the other hand, we hear about a former NFL player who has serious physical or neurological health issues later in life, and all of his doctors say it’s directly related to football. His family — since he himself is usually in no condition to make such decisions — puts in a claim for long-term care and payment of medical bills pursuant to the “settlement” with the NFL. And the Richmond, Virginia-based firm that manages the claims denies it. The man’s condition was directly related to playing professional football. But he’s denied care or medical treatment for it. And your typical fan says something like, “Well it’s football. He knew it was a dangerous game and he knew what he was getting into. And he made his money,” as if any of this is relevant.
Change the facts a little bit, and now we’re talking about a soldier who was seriously injured in Iraq or Afghanistan and the soldier needs care or treatment for the physical or neurological condition that is directly related to his or her military service, but let’s say the VA or some other health care entity denies the claim and says, “Well, you knew what you were getting into when you joined the military.”
That would offend nearly everyone.
Does it tell us anything that people are offended when the former soldier’s claim is denied but not when the former football player’s claim is denied?
All of this places a significant distance between fans and football players. And in a very real sense, this distance fans have from players allows the fan to see the player as a sort of pack animal, a product to be bought, sold, traded, bet on, lauded or derided, depending on the circumstances. Just like prized steers at an auction, the best 16 to 18 year-old high school football players are paraded and reduced to 5-star, 4-star, 3-star and so on by a multitude of recruiting websites that cash in on them before they’ve even played a down by charging a subscription fee from the fans who are salivating over the prospect of the kid playing for their team.
On the other hand, and despite all of this, when the player performs up to expectations, the fan views the player as a hero and a near-unattainable specimen of manliness, an almost Olympian superhuman.
This type of self-contradiction by fans is dangerous. And just beneath the surface-level mutual admiration between players and fans is a deep measure of animosity, and the line between adulation and scorn can be thin indeed. For instance, get yourself on the police blotter with an arrest, and depending on your offense, you can expect to go overnight from being the hero to the object of vilification; players are kicked off the college team or released from the NFL team — unless they’re one of the truly important ones. Coaches and organizations make examples of third team-reserves, and they coddle and enable top starters and money-generators.
The reasons some players fall from the aforementioned grace are numerous. Part of the problem is the impact of playing the game for decades: The examples are legion of former professional players who have been diagnosed post-mortem with CTE, which is caused by repeated trauma to the brain over time. Even more frightening are the players who have ended their lives at very young ages and been found to have had CTE. Former Patriot Aaron Hernandez’s brain was ravaged by CTE before he killed himself in prison at age 27, and former Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski, who committed suicide, had CTE in his brain as well. He was just 21.
But in most cases, the incidents we read about in the news regarding NFL players are simply the easily-foreseeable consequences of employing young men who — due to their athletic prowess — have been allowed to go through life to this point with little expectation other than their performance on a playing field and then suddenly handing them huge sums of money.
Some of these athletes have never been required to really make passing grades all the way back to grade school, many others were passed through high school, and still others were carried by teams of tutors and counselors in college — indeed at every stage — in order to achieve one goal: Keeping them eligible to play on Friday nights and Saturdays.
A college degree? That’s a collateral side-product the player gets if he really wants to get it. Many have never been held accountable for anything, and there is a lack of guidance on how to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood. While all the other students are getting an education and learning how to live free and independent from their parents — including learning how to budget and manage money, pay bills, attend classes and be self-disciplined — football “student-athletes” spend the overwhelming part of their day on football. If they’re inclined, they study for 2–4 hours and sleep maybe 6.
Their formative years are spent entertaining the football masses until they can’t do it anymore. Then they’re sent out into the world with none of the experience, training, and practice for “life” that everyone else gets during the same period of their lives. And people wonder why so many have personal and financial issues after they “graduate” from playing.
This lack of any real adult development is the same reason that many NFL players go bankrupt only a few years after leaving the league, despite their current comically high-paying salaries. It’s the inevitable result of giving young and impressionable athletes media exaltation, money, power, resources, without the fear of real consequences if they cross a line.
On the college level, things aren’t much better. College football is part of the overall trend of universities going from what used to be relatively affordable institutions of learning where teachers taught, opinions were diverse, and discussions were free and open to bloated, revenue-generating leviathans that charge obscene tuition, inculcate students in the prevailing “opinion” of the day, close off open debate of the issues, and now reap millions from college football home games and television contracts. All of this makes a sham of formerly vaunted “research institutions” and “colleges of the liberal arts” that placed academics before sports. The genie is now out of the bottle, and it’s never going back in.
And then there’s the trite, insulting, and dangerous way football is analogized to military service — something that cheapens and belittles our veterans and citizens in uniform and the commitment and sacrifices they and their families have made for our nation. Coaches are field generals. Players are the foot soldiers. And so on and so forth, and it doesn’t end there. The traditional football coach is an archetypal throwback of the old-school military-authority figure, a man wearing a shell of armor that conceals a heart of gold, who will do anything for his boys (as long as they follow orders and give 100 percent effort). Indeed, for those who never serve in the military, a football coach can take the place of the military veteran’s favorite and most beloved Commanding Officer or Staff NCO. (Hold the thought).
In reality, many coaches at the professional and college level are closer to being a cross between headmasters and babysitters, holding a carrot in one hand to feed and a stick in the other to punish (the latter of which they are all too quick to use if any of their “student-athletes” dare get cited for something like public intoxication and make the school look bad — unless you’re a Heisman candidate and future NFL player and thus NOT expendable); smart enough to understand the complexities of modern offenses and defenses, but seemingly oblivious to incongruity of their profession.
The most successful college coaches possess the personality types of modern American politicians; they conceal the burning desire to win at all costs underneath the guise of going with the current social tides; they nod sagely and feign interest in the opinions of the media and fans, while behind the scenes bowing to the powerful members of their schools’ booster clubs. Despite the lofty pedestals fans and media set them upon, many football coaches are never real leaders; certainly not in the sense of a military leader.
So although the military-football analogy is a myth, it still survives for some mysterious reason. It is thus not surprising that pro football has tried to wrap itself up with the military, which, like football, is something that most people from all sides of the political and social spectrum support. Countless times, we’ve seen the now predictable, overused ritual of the “surprised” military family being escorted out onto the field — ostensibly without any knowledge of why they’re out there — to be greeted by their loved one returning home from abroad. The vast majority of these reunions — which to most military families are held as an intimate, near-sacred moment — happen privately at an airport or a military base, outside the media lens. But for some reason, someone decided it was a good idea to play the event out in public before sports fans.
Now, almost two decades into military operations after 9/11, these “reunions” sometimes reach the peak of absurdity. And the NFL shows no signs of abandoning this strange and — to many people who have served — disturbing practice.
Why is the NFL using these people? Does this tell us anything?
The NFL doesn’t do this out of the kindness of its heart; for nearly two decades now, it has been able to preserve a continuous sense that America is fighting a war, in which going to football games is almost a show of patriotism. This, in turn, affords fans another way to engage in “patriotism on the cheap,” a condition in which people show their proffered allegiance to the flag and the troops by perpetually flying the flag every day at home, pasting “I support the troops!” stickers on their vehicles, and engaging in similar surface-level activities that require little to no effort, but not doing anything that really supports or actually helps the troops.
Indeed, regardless of what flyover took place before the kickoff or what surprise “reunion” happened between the third and fourth quarters, by the time the final seconds tick away, the troops are all but forgotten. But in sideline interviews football coaches keep saying things like, “We need to keep fighting,” “We need to battle,” and “We gotta attack ‘em,” and similar military-infused ramblings. And the fans lap it up.
We might consider how all this appetite and inclination toward manliness, military battle, and tribalism might be channeled if watching football weren’t the convenient American outlet for it. After all, football and its various apologists claim it to be the manliest of all sports, the best one at turning boys into young men and young men into adults, with its repetitive head-to-head hits, sometimes brutal injuries, and players knocked unconscious at times, all for the fans’ and spectators’ fun and entertainment. “It builds toughness and overcoming adversity,” the apologists intone, as if getting physically knocked to the ground, knocked out, and sustaining concussions or dishing these things out to others are a normal part of everyday adult life around the office.
Being a fan and spectator of football clearly appeals to a sense of manliness in some people. And unlike playing video games, watching art films or PBS documentaries, watching football doesn’t carry any unmanly implications. But it’s a false god, a facade; this feeling of toughness from watching football is precisely why watching it is so self-defeating and ironically, unmanly.
To be certain, watching football offers a kind of pseudo-manliness. And pseudo-manliness underlies the entire endeavor of attending or watching: Men watch, but they don’t play. This is but a carry-over from childhood into adulthood; when most men are boys, they want to be soldiers, police officers, or firemen, to name a few “tough” occupations. Obviously though, they’re kids; they aren’t real soldiers, or police officers, or firemen, so they play soldier — they play war. And this innate desire to be tough, to be part of a tough profession, carries into adulthood in various ways and manifests itself in some healthy and sometimes unhealthy ways.
Consciously or unconsciously, some men still want to be that soldier they longed to be when they played war as a child, but — just as when they were children — they aren’t soldiers, so they channel these feelings into football. This is not a trivial thing to consider. After all, every single American military engagement — save the Revolutionary War and the Civil War — has been fought on foreign soil.
Consider the question: Why are Americans the only ones to make this twisted analogy between war and sports? Do the British, Europeans, or Asians engage in these silly comparisons between sports and war? No. They’ve had more than enough of war, death, and destruction, enough in the 20th century alone to last them the rest of the proverbial life of their nation. Wars played out in their own backyards and they lost entire generations of young men. But this has never happened here in America, and this fact helps to perpetuate the romantic mythology of being a soldier in war, and it feeds this affliction.
As a result, people must bring the “war” or the “battle” home by finding a substitute outlet. But the substitute is just a game on the big screen, not the real thing. Many men regret not having ever served in the military. Whether this regret is justified or not, (I think most military veterans — myself included — will tell you it is not), it is nevertheless an affliction that obviously persists. Football and all its on field “combat” provides a make-believe, vicarious outlet.
Living vicariously through others is not just some figure of speech or social metaphor. The brain is literally “wired” such that we can experience things vicariously. Certain types of neurons fire both when a person acts and when the same person observes the same action performed by another. These neurons internalize, reflect, and can even clone the behavior of the other person as though the observer were acting or experiencing the event himself. This experience permits the spectator or fan to feel connected to players without the need to actually communicate with the player or directly participate in the bone-jarring hit the player just delivered or received himself.
This concept is indeed important; on one hand, the ability to empathize with others and experience things vicariously prevents us from becoming sociopaths. A well-written novel or movie puts us directly into the shoes of the characters on the page or the screen. But obsessively fixating on a sports game is akin to what psychologists have termed hyperreality, similar to playing first-person shooter video games. Simply put, hyperreality is the inability to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality.
Left unchecked or taken to extremes, this type of living vicariously through others can have disturbing consequences. The dehumanization I mentioned previously can manifest itself in menacing ways. One notable and surprising way this is on display is in the “Twittersphere,” where youth football apologists — in their zeal to defend youth football from ever-dwindling participation — resort to attacks and harassment. Some of these people hide behind fake screen names and troll parents who have lost kids to brain injury and suicide, which the parents attribute to head trauma sustained in football games. I’ve seen these posts and they are unbelievably vicious.
What is it about a person that makes them feel compelled to attack the parents of dead children on social media? Such conduct is not only decidedly unmanly, it is despicable and cowardly. And it’s a window into the highly disturbed minds of some football apologists. These people are zealots, and they’re zealots in pursuit of one thing: Living vicariously through children playing football. They’re neither manly nor tough. Ultimately, since their only “action” or “participation” is limited to social media, they are — in the final analysis — impotent and weak; they are the ultimate watchers.
The positive aspects of sports come not from watching others play it, but from directly participating in it. So if you want to actually be tough and manly, then play football. And I’m not talking about touch. That’s right; full pads, full-contact, full-collision football, just like the football you watch in the stadium or on television. Join an adult league, put on the pads and play. There are adult leagues in every town. Subject your body to the same chance of catastrophic injury as you want youth players to do. Risk your brain with repeated blows to your head like you expect the players on your college team to do. Place yourself at a higher risk of dying earlier — by insidious neurological disease or suicide — like you expect NFL players to. Do that, and you can rightly call yourself tough and manly.
Am I directing these sentiments to everyone? Of course not. But to the extent that you derive a feeling of toughness or manliness from watching football, you are the target audience. Don’t watch, don’t pretend or live vicariously; take part. Don’t spectate; do.
But the Industry of football doesn’t want you out there actually doing anything; it just wants you to attend, to spectate, to gawk; it just wants your money. It doesn’t want you to build anything; it just wants you to sit on your couch. Its only desire is for you to purchase and gorge yourself on the billion-dollar product that professional and college football have become. All real action and involvement must be minimized, all association with one another reduced not to looking at and interacting with each other, but looking and yelling at a football field or a television screen, like mindless automatons incapable of thinking or acting for themselves.
“When you get a different vantage point, it changes your perspective. It allows us to see things that maybe we should have seen a long time ago, but just haven’t been able to until now.” — Neil Armstrong
Our actual mission is to look at these things from a different vantage point, to obtain a new perspective. We must create a new way of living. We must look at ourselves in the mirror and decide who we really are. The only way to begin this journey is to stop watching and start doing. This means not staring at a TV, computer, or iPhone screen all the time, but turning them off and looking at each other, interacting with family and friends, exercising, strengthening our bodies, minds, and spirits, taking part in our neighborhoods and communities, and constructing teams and organizations.
But in order to accomplish any of this — like the Romans in the arena when Saint Telemachus took his stand — we must decide how we’re going to react; do we throw stones, attack the messenger, and continue on watching and screaming, or do we turn around and walk out of the arena? I myself did the latter a long time ago.
“Wife had questions about subtype of dementia/cognitive impairment. Reviewed results from Dr. (name redacted) from 2014. Findings support dementia syndrome, subcortical , consistent with CTE.”
Epilogue: From Where I Now Stand.
I was born the year after my father‘s rookie season in 1966. He continued to play in the NFL and retired when I was seven. But I still remember what it was like when he would come home from an NFL game.
There wasn’t much interaction after home games. As I recall, he usually went into his bedroom, closed the door and didn’t come out very much.
Road games weren’t much different. He wouldn’t get home until after we kids were asleep. But whether it was a home or road game, we would sneak into his room on Monday morning, and he would take the bait and wrestle and tickle with us. But when he eventually was able to pull himself up out of the bed, I bore witness: huge bruises on his arms and legs. I distinctly remember bruises the size of baseballs, sometimes bigger. And he was still a very young man. This would’ve all been before he was 30 years old.
In my little seven-year-old brain at the time, I figured this was normal, I guess.
In hindsight, my father was beaten and battered every Sunday in the fall. He was in pain on those Monday mornings. He never let on how much it was affecting him. Or maybe I just thought he was a real-life Superman who could take anything, and I wasn’t paying much attention.
And yet, I still played.
But for a long time now, I have gone through the motions of being interested in the sport of football. After all, I grew up in Texas, came from a “football family,” and as stated, played the game myself.
There’s a very strong social and peer pressure that comes with football, and as I’ve written before, in some places, if you don’t go along, you’re viewed as an outlier, a non-conformist, someone not to be trusted, someone to be eyed with suspicion. The funny thing is, for a long time now, I’ve felt like a stranger in a strange land.
But now, I can no longer feign interest or affection for it. For many years, my interest has consistently and increasingly waned, and the way my late father and our family were treated when we submitted his well-supported and documented claim for settlement proceeds (all the families were told it was settled) to fund his care and treatment during what we thought would be his final years — care and treatment for conditions that were thoroughly diagnosed by several board-certified doctors — has simply extinguished any lingering vestiges of interest I might have had in football.
To many of the families in our shoes, it’s no longer a sport, but an unholy Industry. Instead of doing what they agreed to do and doing the right thing, the league plays what I call the slow-down game; they nitpick tiny things like the words and phrases the doctors use in reports, and they reject everything. The first answer is always no. And to make matters worse, they don’t tell you with any clarity or precision how to fix the claim such that it will be approved. Instead, they engage in legalese and nonsensical jargon that not even most treating doctors or attorneys can decipher. Other observers have rightly called this “settlement” a “hellscape,” intentionally designed to make it almost impossible to recover even the smallest amount for care of the men who built the NFL.
And if you want to “appeal” the denial of the claim for something they say is settled, you have to pay a $1,000 “appeal fee.” This is all done by design; they want to slow everything down and run out the clock. They hope the player dies before they will have to pay a cent. And our family aren’t the only ones. This is just one more reason to jettison the “game” once and for all, to put it behind us for good. Permanently.
I understand everyone else’s continued interest. After all, you cannot be expected to change what you’ve been your entire life when nothing has happened personally to you or your loved ones to alter your course. Football — especially on the college level — affords a sense of community, pride, and being part of something larger than yourself; it appeals to a sort of tribalism. And I get that. But from where I now stand, it’s just not something I want to have anything to do with.
Consuming football — being a fan or spectator — in light of all the disturbing truths that are now known, the way my father suffered, and the personal anguish my family and I have experienced, would turn me into a callous source of revenue for people and institutions who don’t care about the well-being of the men who sacrificed their brains and bodies to build the Industry. Even if I could attend for free, it would be utterly irresponsible of me to do so, and I would be placing my imprimatur on something I’ve frankly come to loathe. And in practical terms, it would steal precious time away from the family and friends I love and care about, the people in whom I invest and whom invest in me. Honestly, my time is much better spent on other things.
As for this endeavor, however — this personal mission — I will continue to speak the truth. I will be patient. I will be relentless. Some will pay heed; some will listen. I will not back down. I will not let go.
This is what I owe to us.
This is what I owe to them.
And this is what I owe to him.
Glen Hines is the author of the Anthology Trilogy of books — Document, Cloudbreak, and Crossroads — and the highly regarded Bring in the Gladiators, Observations From a Former College Football Player Who Was Never Able to Become a Fan, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. His writing has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.