Penn State, concussions and some confusion over football

A couple of summers ago when I was newly pregnant with Evangeline, our friends E & E moved to our neighborhood.  They moved to our Appalachian/sort-of Southern sort-of Northern Midwest/East Coast city from Colorado, and were used to microbreweries, clean air and easy access to vegan cuisine.  They struggled adjusting to Pittsburgh, with our lack of sunshine (although that doesn’t apply this summer!), adoration of Yeungling on draft and preferences for incredibly fattening food.

“Pittsburghers,” the female E said at one point, “Are incredibly proud of their city without necessarily having much reason to be.”  She said this as we walked our dogs through our admittedly pretty shitty neighborhood park – it’s the kind of park that looks constantly hungover from the night before – no matter how much lawn-mowing and flower planting happens, the odd syringe or used condom are bound to show up. And your kid or your dog are usually the ones to find them.

“Furthermore, this city is obsessed- OBSESSED – with football! I don’t get it – I wouldn’t waste one minute of my life watching a football game.”

“I actually like football,” I admitted, guiding Skylar away from a mound of peanut shells obviously collected by an enterprising neighborhood squirrel.  This comment just set her off further.

“What,” she demanded, “Is so great about football? If you can name five good things about football right now I will possibly accept your argument but if you can’t then, well, I will remain convinced football is the dumbest sport in America.”

Her directness took me aback. I have never been great when on the spot but defending football took me into a territory I was particularly uncomfortable in – I would be no more succesful convincing her tempeh-loving heart of the merits of a beautifully marbled steak than I would be convincing her football had any merit.

fall crisp air marching bands cheerleaders friday night lights dances after games football players team colors team chants the wave loyalty my dad, my brother, many of my boyfriends

I grew up in a football-loving household.  I remember my parents telling me how much fun it would be to enter highschool and attend Friday night games with my friends, and they were right. Within a couple weeks of my freshman year, I had “my” spot in the bleachers, high enough to see my friends in the marching band as well as the game and as far away as possible from where my parents and younger brother sat.  When I received early acceptance to Michigan State University, the same college my parents, aunts, uncles and eventually cousins (and my brother) attended, my parents wasted no time in purchasing  season tickets for me because, in their minds, Saturdays spent at Spartan stadium are nothing short of nirvana.  Again, they were right.

Ultimately, I think I find the whole atmosphere surrounding football more seductive than the game itself. Football season begins in the heat of summer and concludes during the deepest chill of winter and in between the leaves change and fall from the trees, children dress up and celebrate Halloween, the days grow shorter, meals grow richer and we all seek light in the darkness.  Footballs games, whether high school games played under celebratory Friday night lights or college games played on gleaming Saturday afternoons or  the raucus of professional football All.Day.Sunday, are certainly one of our national ways to pass time. And, if you grow up with it, the way I did, football can be a thread throughout the ongoing narrative of your life.

Lately, though, both S. and I have been struggling over the ethics of whether or not to watch football. The lies and cover ups Penn State officials were willing to commit in order to protect their football program hovers on the unbelievable while also shedding some “there but for the grace of God go I” light – anyone who thinks their university wouldn’t do the same thing to protect the prestige and money a successful football program brings in hasn’t learned a thing from Penn State. S. and I have talked frequently about whether or not we should continue to watch college football in light of the Penn State scandal.

Then there’s professional football, which I never really enjoyed until moving to Pittsburgh but now I consider myself a decent Steelers fan and while I don’t catch every game I do tend to watch them more often than not.  With the exception of college basketball, I’ve never been such a passionate sports fan that I would rearrange other plans to watch a game, but when given the opportunity I’ll watch – avidly, even. The news of all of the concussion cover-ups and concessions in professional football, though, has left S. and I questioning whether we should still in any way support the NFL.  Sure, on the one hand the players are paid handsomely and it certainly seems they assume the risk of concussion simply by playing the game, but on the other hand it does seem as though the NFL took extraordinary measures to hide just how frequent and damaging the concussions could be.

When this conversation segues into what kind of example we want to set for Evangeline and any other children we have, it gets particularly tricky. S. is adamant that our children will not play football because of the concussion risk, but as a friend of mine pointed out, where does that stop? Will you allow your child to swim, but not become a diver? Play soccer, but not use his or her head? Practice ballet as long as he or she isn’t lifted, play hockey until checking is allowed? It’s an exhausting discussion and unwinnable at that.  Some people will site the violence in football as a trump card, a reason not to watch or support the game, but they do not want to be reminded of the crush incidents that happen across the world at soccer matches, or reminded in any way about the existence of rugby.

A lot of this pondering is actually moot, anyway – last night I found S. in front of the living room television, completely ensconsed in a pre-season Steelers game.  For now we’ve agreed to keep watching football without allowing it to dominate our lives – no turning down plans or opportunities for Evangeline just because a certain game is on, but no quitting cold turkey, either.  I’m not sure if or when we’ll become a football-free house but for now, at least, the sounds of the Michigan State University fight song and the roar of the televised crowd at Heinz Field will again provide part of the sound track to our autumn, and I find myself breathing a deep, contented sigh with that decision.

This entry was posted in Hopelessly Indulgent Reflection, I heart Americana, things I love about Pittsburgh, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Penn State, concussions and some confusion over football

  1. shoreacres says:

    I stopped right at your friend’s question to see if I could name five good things about football before reading your answers. Here they are: watching Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers with my dad, waving my 100% authentic Terrible Towel during the Super Bowl, watching games in the autumn air (crisp in the north, less humid and cooler in the south), tail-gating, the MOB (Rice University’s Marching Owl Band). That’s five.

    As for the Penn State scandal – the individuals involved were desperately wrong. The school administration apparently is implicated. It may be that everyone in town knew – but that still wouldn’t stop me from watching football. One of my favorite writers, Jason Lehrer, just had his latest book pulled and was fired from The New Yorker Magazine for plagiarism and inventing quotations. Should I stop reading because of his unethical behavior?

    As for the concussion business, I think you know where I come down. A fully lived life is risky. Sit at home in the sofa and you may be killed when a storm drops a tree on your roof. The suggestion that we can cocoon ourselves and avoid all risk is pure fantasy. Making smart choices is the key. I wear a seatbelt, but I don’t wear a bicycle helmet around the neighborhood. I sail offshore, but I never talk on my cell phone while driving. I travel across country by myself, but there are certain Houston neighborhoods I’d never enter, for any reason.

    And I try to eat healthy foods, but when a game’s on? Bring on the queso, the chips, the sliders and the beer. 😉

  2. katyranklev says:

    For me, the real tragedy of professional football (and basketball, largely) is that the players come from college programs where they are NOT college students. They are not allowed to be because of their intense workout and game schedules and yet they are expected to be. These are (again, for the most part) young men culled largely from impoverished neighborhoods who spend their entire lives in terrible school programs or else never told their minds are a thing of value–only their athletic ability. From the time they begin pony league!

    I spent my graduate school career tutoring the athletes in these major revenue sports and more than a few of them are not functionally literate. Through no fault of their own, mind you. I can’t let myself watch these sports because in the end, I find them to be too exploitative of the players.

    • Katy, I agree with you for the most part, but I do think a lot of this comes down to our developed value system as well. Perhaps the players are being exploited, but at the same time at least college athletics offers them opportunity, and a chance to move beyond terrible schools and impoverished neighborhoods. They offer hope…and where would some of the players be if they weren’t playing college ball? I understand it’s incredibly frustrating as someone who values academics and a rigorous education (as you and I do) that these players receive free or reduced education without being prepared for it, but I’m not in full agreement that the system is exploitive (although, of course, everything that happened at Penn State contradicts that).

  3. katyranklev says:

    I also take issue with the concussion issues in football specifically. Yes, there are concussion risks in many other sports. I played rugby for 12 years, for heaven’s sake! But with football specifically, the modern game is designed to have players’ heads colliding with hard pads, other helmets, or other bodies. You cannot play modern football without multiple concussions, which is not true of other sports. There’s not a “risk” that you’ll get a concussion playing football–it is a certainty unless you suck at football. And then you’ll be encouraged to shake it off and keep playing.

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