September 18, 2014

CHIUSANO | A Dog Eat Dog World: The Brutal Nature of the NFL

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Obviously, it’s been a rough week for the NFL. Whatever way you spin the stories that have been circulating, domestic abuse is atrocious and it has no place in any home, no matter the perpetrator. But I don’t really want to get into that, because I don’t feel well enough equipped to do it, and because I think the NFL has greater problems to deal with on a macrocosmic level, problems that they are sweeping under the rug.

In the midst of all the Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, Ray Rice hullabaloo, a far down ESPN headline yesterday afternoon read “Longhorns’ David Ash won’t return.” Ash, the quarterback for Texas, decided to end his football career after struggling with concussion-related symptoms for the past year. Ash is 22 years old; he is giving up the game that has likely consumed most of his adolescent and young adult life, which is certainly no easy task for someone his age. But the real question here, I think, remains is Ash too late?

I’ve written about concussions in the NFL before, and I want to return to the topic because I believe it relates to everything that has happened this week, and I think all of these events are pointing to an NFL future that is cloudy, uncertain, and in my opinion, altogether doomed. The league has always been a perpetuator of a kind of Darwinian, survival of the fittest nature that has been accepted because, on a micro level, it’s fun to watch people get hit. But somehow it’s more than that. Take Richard Sherman’s comment on Wednesday about not being worried about something “two little Chargers” said to him. It was a relatively harmless comment that made ESPN headlines because anything Sherman said is now considered gospel, but it also speaks to the nature of the NFL. It’s a cruel food chain where the “little” guys have no place and if they do, they are quickly swallowed up by larger, more “masculine” personalities.

This isn’t to say that David Ash was one of the little guys, or even to say that the game of football overwhelmed him. Ash made a decision that could have a direct effect on his mental health in the future, a decision that many other college and NFL players are foregoing because the stigma of the game tells them they can tough it out.

Something Mark Waller, the NFL’s chief marketing officer, said this week in the aftermath of these domestic abuse charges really resonated with me, probably not for the reasons Waller intended.

“The matriarch of the family predetermines an awful lot that goes on, from what sport you play to what media you watch to what products get bought,” Waller said. “The role of the female in the household is huge. On the emotional side, the role that the female builds that a family can gather around is fundamental. That sort of communal aspect, which is such a part of the game in America.”

If we cut most of the bull shit away, what Waller was trying to do with that statement (in a typical marketing officer move) was to get women to rally around an NFL that hasn’t taken a firm stance on domestic abuse, rather than spurn it (which they most certainly should be doing).

But I’m more focused on the first part of that quote, because I do agree that the mother of the family is the one who shapes the household. When I was growing up, my mom refused to sign me up for football. Instead I played soccer, and when my youth baseball coach (who was also the football coach) told me I was too big to be playing soccer, that soccer was a “girly” sport, that I looked like a damn good offensive lineman, my mom didn’t cave. Instead, she became my soccer coach, keeping me at arm’s length from the game that consumed so many of my friends growing up. But because of her guidance (although I didn’t turn into much of a soccer player), I stayed away from football.

Sure, I could be an anomaly — a kid who did nothing but play sports growing up and never got into football. But how long is it going to take before more mothers across the country take the same kind of stand my mom did? How many more times does a mother have to watch her son get brutally tackled with head to head contact before she realizes it’s time to find another sport? The soccer league I played for when I was growing up usually boomed with signups. On Saturday and Sunday mornings in the local park, the fields were full of soccer games, sometimes six or seven games going on at a time. When I go home to visit now, attendance is down, there are at most two games happening, and the crowds now congregate around youth football games instead. Pop Warner football has taken over youth sports culture, and the negative effects are gradually becoming apparent.

The problem with football is that it has infiltrated not just American culture in general, but also the culture of individual households across the country. In an article in the New York Times about the recent events in the league, a woman from Chicago ruminated on what it would take for her to stop watching the NFL:

“Something would have to happen with the Bears,” she said. “If Jay Cutler did what Ray Rice did, I would stop watching.”

Professional sports should not be taken personally. We are outsiders looking in on a world that is exceedingly fraternal and closed off. If there’s an issue, we need to take a stand. What should be taken personally is the way the game is hurting young men, and if anyone has the ability to stand in the way, it’s their mothers.