For those of you who might be inclined to pretend not to know, that guy up there is Cam Newton. Cam is rich, famous, young and most importantly of all he is free. Or as free as a man can be if his professional performance directly impacts the livelihoods of thousands of other people. Cam got all of that by playing the game of football and playing it at an exceptional level. Legions of us love the game of football but only a fraction of us knows what it feels like for the game to love us back. Cam knows. And because God also blessed him with a handsome profile and a charismatic persona, he has more than doubled the fortune that the game made possible for him earn. So it is not a mystery why so many American men love the game and are emotionally invested in it. It is a bright and shining representation of what full self-actualization looks like for a young man in our country. That is why we herd our sons into it and they begin to love it before they even understand it. Were we more evolved and self-aware as a culture we would recognize the obvious fact that what the boys really love is the abundant attention and adoration that we pay them for playing the game- but we’ll tackle that in greater detail in a separate piece. For now it is sufficient to point out that it would be prudent for us to find another method of building our early self-image and self-esteem, no matter what holes in our character we may be trying to fill.
Before continuing my analysis I have to make a confession: I am as guilty as any other man in America. I love that game. It is even fair to say that my love for playing the game during my formative years helped shape me into who I am today- for better or worse. And my affinity for this guy in particular is more personal: He is a black quarterback and a couple decades ago, I was a black quarterback. He played his high school football at the same metro-Atlanta high school that I played at when he was just a twinkle in his mother’s eye. He has a personality that tends to make people either love him or hate him- which always says more about them than it says about him. Regular readers of my work will attest that I can certainly relate to that dynamic. For all of these reasons, I enjoy witnessing his success and the consternation it creates in his critics. All of this is clear evidence of how politically and socially charged this sport can be and why we take it so personally that it almost plays a defining role in our identities. We have made it into more than just a game and we have done so to our peril.
The point of the piece is this: like it or not, human beings have physically evolved beyond the game of football and the cultural evolution has to catch up soon or we will see things that will haunt us forever. It is a game- a very violent one- but still just a game. It is not the Roman Colosseum where gladiators fought to the death for entertainment. But based on all of the intel and evidence that is out there now the size and speed that human beings are capable of has us on a dangerous path with the game we love. The advances we are making in biotechnology and nutrition will continue to increase the size and speed of young men until we reach the point where we see an instant death on a football field from a violent collision. And even if a young man doesn’t die in that dramatic fashion, the evidence of slow brain deterioration abounds and that is enough for me. Anytime Bo Jackson says that he would “smack his kid in the mouth” if he wanted to play football, that should get our attention. Bo is, for all practical purposes, the closest thing to Superman that we have ever seen in real life. If he sees that despite his freakish strength and speed that he would have been exposing himself to early brain death then we all should see it.
I understand that the undying affection for the game is also buttressed by the obscene amounts of money being made off of it- mostly by old white men in ties who never played a down for a dollar in their lives. And that is a combination that may be impossible to overcome. But at least we can start by being aware and thinking about moving on ourselves. I can teach “heads-up-tackling” to my son’s 8th grade football team all I want but that will go right out the window the instant some kid takes the wrong angle on a 245 lb. fullback sprinting full speed for the goal-line line. I’m not interested in being on the field when that kid hits the turf and doesn’t ever get up. The likelihood that we will see that happen is not great, but it is too great for my taste. As for me and mine, I have already started trying to nudge my son in another direction. He’s been watching me lose my shit every year when Michigan blows whatever big game we are in and watching me gloat every time Tom Brady wins another one because Maize and Blue Nation claims those wins too. But if I have my way (and I assure you I will) I’ll get my healthy and strong young son to stay that way by reminding him that Michael Phelps is a Maize and Blue sports god too. In reality, he’s got as much chance of following that path to success as he does becoming the next Cam or Tom- with virtually no chance of becoming brain damaged or dying in the process.