Letter to My Son: Reflections on Religion, Brain Damage, Football, and My Life

By Scott Merrill, Ph.D.

Is it a coincidence that America is the strongest, richest and most vibrant society and also the sole country whose national sport is gridiron football?

Greg Easterbrook, The King of Sports

Football can be called a sociological practice of the folk religion….that often includes ritual expressions of patriotism. Prayers prior to football games alongside the national anthem fit this image perfectly.

Michael Austin, Football and Philosophy: Going Deep

 

Dear Son,

Today I’m going to share some of my thoughts about football and why I truly hope you decided to follow through with those piano lessons. By the time you read this I may not be able to be a source of guidance any longer, so I hope you are reading with your brain still in-tact. I mean this literally and as a way of saying, I hope you’re thinking for yourself.

Lately I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions about a number of choices I’ve made. I’m 44 years old and I’ve had enough time, I would hope, to be able to offer you some wisdom. The other day I sat down to write a blog for a pop culture and theology site and what follows is a reflection on some questions I’ve been asking about the game of football. How did this game, a game you’re already quite familiar with at the age of seven, come to capture the hearts and imaginations of American popular culture in ways that resemble religious fanaticism? And why, despite the science and first-hand experience that continues to demonstrate the inherent dangers associated with playing, does it remain what The Atlantic contributor and Tuesday Morning Quarterback creator, Greg Easterbrook calls, ‘The King of Sports?’

These are questions that I find myself asking more and more, thinking about you and whether I’ve lost my mind or someday will, like your grandfather Oz who strapped on a helmet in the 1940’s. I ask them because I began playing at age 12, which, according to a 2017 study at Boston University, is the cutoff age, for avoiding behavioral and cognitive problems later in life (Belson, 2017). I’m asking because football was important to me; playing the game helped shape who I am, and I sometimes see you wearing a Gronkowski jersey and worshiping Tom Brady with your grandfather and I secretly cringe. I worry when I see such things that you will want to play this game which I defined who I was for a long time. That it will become, like my relationship with my father, a source of how you identify yourself to other people.

These questions are also personal for me as a professor of social science and philosophy. Is it ethical to risk your physical and emotional wellbeing by allowing you to play football just because it’s a popular game? Just because a lot of parents continue to sacrifice the bodies of their kids because they’re too proud or too ignorant to say no. Some of these people, like climate change deniers, have told me there’s no “conclusive” evidence about the danger of brain and spinal injuries connected with football. And even the American Academy of Pediatrics has gone soft on this one recently calling for more supervision of young players but not endorsing any real discussion about what constitutes tolerable risk; and this, after eleven high school players were killed playing the sport in 2015 (Kahler and Greene, 2015).

I can sympathize with parents today who are deciding whether to let their kids play a game they should by now know could cause irreversible brain damage. I also know how absurd that sounds given the words irreversible, and brain, and damage.

Hollywood films, as you likely know by now, like Concussion, 2015, which tells the story of Dr. Bennett Omalu, a forensic pathologist played by Will Smith, are everywhere. This film, if you haven’t seen it, details Omalu’s struggles with the NFL which suppresses his findings about CTE Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Other documentaries like Head Games, and countless medical articles, exposes, and blogs, should be enough to make it clear that “technological imperatives,” (better helmets) or “supervisory imperatives,” (more oversight) by coaches and parents) is not enough to keep the sport safe. It’s the same Elon Musk, technology can save us, or the public health world’s, better laws can save us mentality. Yes, I know how absurd it sounds to have sympathy for parents who allow their kids to play, but I’m thinking about the feelings I enjoyed playing the game. I’m thinking about the friends I made and the transcendence I experienced on the field. These sentiments can only take me so far though. I’m conflicted. I know too much. I have to ask myself: if I were offered an NFL team for free on the condition that you were required to play football before the age of 12 would I do it? The power and money would be tempting and the answer is likely yes, with the condition that you only play one game. After that it’s wrestling and piano and some old fashioned baseball. Unlike poor Isaac, you don’t have a kingdom to inherit yet and this could be your ticket.

But what would owning an NFL team really be like? I imagine sitting up there in my box above my workers sipping martinis while they toil on the field. Or, as Malcolm Gladwell portrayed it in his New Yorker article after the Michael Vic dog fighting scandal, I imagine looking down on a group of men as disposable as those dogs that fought to their deaths or were killed when they could no longer fight.

If the mythology of American football and its cultural veneration were viewed as a sacred text (and I see no reason why it can’t be given the amount of enthusiasm, money, and “ultimate concern”[1]it generates) there are a number of symbols, themes, and motifs, surrounding the game that provide insight into the ways American popular culture shapes and reflects our emotional lives and ethical sensibilities.

Football, as I mentioned the other day to you when I was trying to explain why Brian (yes Brian) Gronkowski’s recent outbursts have led me to believe he is not worthy of worship and your mother told me I was forgetting that not all players are bad, is a strange and intoxicating game.

In 1975 the anthropologist, William Arens, wrote about American Football as an apt symbol and ritual for American life. He imagines an alien anthropologist from another planet discovering this game for the first time. This person would be struck, Arens writes, “with the glee and romantic intoxication anthropologists normally reserve for the exotic rituals of a newly discovered tribe” (Arens, 1975).

 Emile Durkheim, (have you heard of him? he’s pretty good), theorized that religion, in all forms of collective worship, was at the core of every society because it solidified social values and taboos. Today, over forty years after Aren’s article, football is an even more intoxicating spectacle of ritualistic frenzy enhanced and expanded by technology and the need that all societies have for myths and emotional displays that reinforce beliefs about what is sacred and what is profane. Football has become, one could argue, synonymous with celebrity, worship, money, power, masculinity, violence, risk, and excess. In other words: football is a very American game. Is this still true in your world? What year is this now anyway?

 In case you need some background the game of football emerged from a long mythological history connected to military exploits and tribal play. It begins with the English victory over a Viking settlement where English soldiers entered the burial ground of the conquered and began kicking their dead enemy’s skulls around. Later, in the middle ages a pig bladder is inflated and used by English peasants in neighboring towns. The goal was to kick the ball into the opposing team’s green for a score. This was banned by Henry the II in the 12th century because it was a distraction from the practice of the long bow. Later on, after the long bow became obsolete these games were reinstated. Next was the emergence of Rugby in England, which, after modifications that included the forward pass, the center snap and the line of scrimmage, ultimately becomes American football (Arens, 1975).

Millions of boys and men stand to honor the flag and to pray in what Austin calls a folk religion before playing football as you’ve likely noticed by now. Football brings together the American collective consciousness which ends each winter in that orgasmic spectacle of consumerism, patriotism, celebrity and religious fervor known as the Super Bowl. Is this still being played? I suspect it is. What rule changes have they made? Did you know you used to be able to use your head to tackle?

Football is tightly woven with popular culture through numerous films and shows dating back to the 1930’s Horse Feathers with Groucho Marx and the film Knute Rockne or the “Gipper,” played by Ronald Regan in 1940. Examples from my time include Friday Night Lights, Rudy, Brian’s Song, All the Right Moves, The Blind Side, Invincible, We Are Marshall, Remember the Titans, Jerry McGuire, Wildcats, and Esquire’s Friday Night Tykes, to name just a small number from a long list. Today, as I write, football is in your own home in the form of lamps, hats, posters, streaming highlights, news, and it is on the shelves of Dunkin Donuts for $14.99 in the form of travel mugs. It looms in front of folks while they stand in line for their bagels in the form of large cardboard cut outs of a smiling “Gronk,” aka, the Patriots Tight End, Brian Gronkowski, which seems to be saying, if old Gronk can down that egg and cheese croissant I surely can. It’s also in your elementary school cafeteria. I recently noticed advertising propaganda for the American Dairy Association. “Got Milk,” a large poster of a smiling milk moustached Tom Brady reads. Do you remember that? I remember things like that from my elementary school days. For me it was Lauren Bacall or Bill Cosby. Michael Jordan.

The images are there in men such as Nadamuka Suh, the 6 4’, 300 lb defensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins selling American made Chrysler cars, Brett Favre, America’s bearded everyman, selling Wrangler Jeans and in the form of Peyton Manning, always a safe bet, selling insurance. It is on the backs of grown men and young children, including you, across the country, who wear the jerseys of their favorite players. And finally, it is in those fighter jet aerial displays over artificial turf stadiums from the U.S. Military who contributed over 6 million dollars in “patriotic advertising” to the NFL from 2012-2015.

Football is no longer the brutal game that led Theodor Roosevelt to call for reforms in 1905 you might be saying if you’ve read some history. In that year at least 18 people died and more than 150 were seriously injured. According to the Washington Post at least 45 players were killed between 1900 and 1905 from internal injuries, broken necks, concussions or broken backs. It was these types of injuries, as well as the fact that Roosevelt had a son playing in college, which led him to call for reforms such as the forward pass and a line of scrimmage, which spaced players out, thus preventing some of the vicious mob tackling and kicking to the head that took place (Zizima, 2014).

While watching The Steelers vs. Bengals game this past year I wondered whether those rule changes in 1905 had altered much. Fewer people are dying today but the injuries and pain remain, often long term. In this game we witnessed Steeler’s 230lb linebacker Ryan Shazier fall slowly to the ground, reduced to a pile of fear. He reached for his back and desperately raised his hand for help, as though he had been shot on a battlefield. He was later carted away and diagnosed with a spinal injury that required surgery. I asked myself, as James Hillman asked in his book A Terrible Love of War, taking his cue from George C. Scott in Patton, where the general speaks of his love of war: why do people love it so? What kind of “ethical gymnastics,” as Bryan Armen Graham asked in a recent Guardian article after the Steelers Bengals game, must take place for me and millions of others to watch this stuff? To let their children play? My answer to Graham would be that ethics probably doesn’t factor very much for most people. Personally, I watched the violent hits in that game and I have to admit I was excited. That’s just football, I said to my friend I was watching it with. That’s ritualized violence. It’s the spectacle and the taste for sacrifice that makes most people watch.

Football’s appeal, (lets not sugar coat this), is largely about the violent physical contact represented symbolically as a ritualized form of sacrifice in American culture. Sacrifice, after all, is violence and that violence can be both symbolic and real. If, as René Girard says, it is true that, “only violence can put an end to violence,” just what is it that we are symbolically and literally sacrificing on these many fields across America week after week? I’m sure you have some answers because I imagine you’re smart. I don’t have answers to these questions but I suspect we are in some way appeasing our desire to imagine that if we play by the rules the myths of freedom, liberty and prosperity are really possible. But a price must be paid for this and football, perhaps, better than any other sport today because of its complex strategies and violent collisions, makes it clear that in order to have our dreams, sacrifices and illusions must be created. Football, in short, symbolizes the fulfillment or hope for power and control and to maintain these things in our country bodies often have to fall, land must be transformed into sacred stadiums and parking lots; lines must be drawn between us and them, and sometimes today, brains must be injured and blood spilled. Are you following?

The definition of sacrifice is to “make sacred,” to be set apart, “to make holy,” to dedicate and to venerate. Football, for me, was a sort of universe of the holy, a ritualized space that created an “as if” environment until my Junior year in college. It was as if I was omnipotent and adored, and as if my teammates and coaches in this universe were my lovers, brothers, and friends. As if I could endure the pain so long as it was in the service of something beyond me. And I could look at my teammate’s bodies adoringly and with envy at times. Dean Grant could massage my thigh without being a “fag,” a term we still used in the early 1990’s. You don’t say that do you?

Sacrifice, as Joseph Campbell explains in The Power of Myth, requires the possibility of death and resurrection. It is connected to the symbol of the heroic warrior who confronts impossible challenges with violent and just action. It is the warrior, whose erotic vitality is threatened and sometimes destroyed, that allows the community to feel the power of immortality and rebirth. “Life is always on the edge of death, always,” Campbell says, “and one should lack fear and have the courage of life. That’s the principle initiation of all of the heroic stories.”

The warrior is often depicted as one who sacrifices himself for his country and his fellow soldiers or neighbors. He is a Christ-like figure who suffers for others. As the falsified stories of NFL football player turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman and PFC Jessica Lynch demonstrated during the Iraq war, the heroic warrior myth is also fragile at times. These soldiers’ heroic deeds were manufactured to give credibility and support for the unpopular wars they fought in. And now the NFL has its own history of cover-ups regarding MTBI (mild traumatic brain injury) documented extensively in the PBS Frontline program League of Denial.

As a player I recall the cringeworthy moment before taking the field when coach Mac, holding a golden football which was the symbol of success he often used in pre-game speeches, informed us that we were like those 300 Spartans confronting the Persians, before making our way out of the locker room. To paint our situation as David fighting Goliath didn’t seem strange at the time. We were prepared, yet on paper they were bigger, stronger and faster. It had been a long summer of ritualized training as a team and this was now our “do or die” moment of reckoning.

Viewing football players as eroticized warriors is an apt description as I believe. Their uniforms give off the impression of exaggerated physical power and strength. The equipment extenuates the shoulders, groin, head and thighs, and makes the collision of bodies possible. Today cameras capture the details of these collisions focusing on various body parts and with an auditory intensity that at one time was only heard if you were actually on the field or listening to Nick Kalas’s dramatic play by play of epic battles, as I did with excitement as a kid, on HBO’s Inside the NFL. Today we hear the quarterback clearly yelling each syllable of his cadence to his players, hear the wind being knocked from a man’s body before his teammates help him off the ground and back to the huddle. We see the sideline emotions. We witness the bezerk silent mouthed expletives of a Tom Brady yelling at his offensive coordinator. But there is little open rejoicing of the violence or the hard bodies. Much like religion, there are, it seems, limits to what we can speak of. Some things must remain in the realm of the symbolic or risk exposing our true animal-human selves. The folklorist, Alan Dundes, who wrote about football as a ritualized form of “homosexual rape,” has said he drew far more hostility for this than he ever did for references to the naked suffering Jesus as “merely” a mythological figure.

Allan Guttman points out an irony when tracing the taboo against a conflation of eroticism and sports to a number of factors over the past two centuries. He contrasts ancient pagan games and their emphasis and embrace of the erotic body to the Protestant ethic of capitalism that has been attached to games in America today. Guttman approvingly quotes Alphonso Lingus, who wrote that late capitalism, “depends on bodies whose cupidity is heated up by advertising to serve as the pyres on which an excess production of industrial commodities is destroyed” (Guttman, 1996).

Football creates celebratory moods. It brings people together around strongly held beliefs in much the same way that religious believers gather ritualistically around their sacred totems.

During the crucial moments of the game, especially a game that is perceived to be particularly important and is closely contested, players and spectators are as one; the individual gives way to the collective. Hundreds or thousands of voices become as one. Almost simultaneously, many individuals may experience ecstasy, that is, an altered state of consciousness, a tremendous natural high (Geertz, 1959).

If football wasn’t ritualized sacrifice it would just be criminal behavior. Sacrifice, always violent, transforms the profane into the sacred. It creates a mixture of civilization and civil disobedience that can exist together side by side. The violence that plays out each fall at the time I’m writing this serves a purpose: it allows individuals to pour out their emotions in ways they cannot during their everyday lives of work and responsibility. For these popular sacrifices to continue, however, the line between insiders and outsiders has to be maintained and protected. The players and their stories which are recounted in our films and in our news resemble average Americans enough to be our sacrificial objects but they are also our outliers: bigger, stronger, faster, crazier perhaps than the average American. And when these men display humanity in the form of protesting our unjust wars or that dark and seemingly endless stain of racism, as Colin Kapernick and many others this past year have, they are referred to by our president as disrespectful employees. They must remain, it seems, like children in a liminal state of being, still uninitiated, objects that are like us but not quite full members of our society, in order to qualify for our sacrifices.

I hope you will forgive me for imagining you as a sacrifice. It could be brain damage. But there’s life without football. BTW, do libraries still exist in your time? I hope we made that trip to West Virginia.

With Love,

Your father

Scott Merrill, Ph.D., is a lecturer in Philosophy and Social Science and Campus Ministry C/3 Program Coordinator at Plymouth State University.

References

Belson, K. (2017, Sept. 19). Playing Tackle Football Before 12 is Tied to Brain Problems Later. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/19/sports/football/tackle-football-brain-youth.html.

Kahler, K. and Greene, D. (2015, Nov. 24). The Game’s Tragic Toll. Retrieved from https://www.si.com/mmqb/2015/11/24/high-school-football-deaths-2015.

Arens, William. (1975). Professional Football: An American Symbol and Ritual, Anthropology of the Familiar and the Strange, 92-97.

Zizima, K. (2014, May 24). How Teddy Roosevelt Helped Save Football. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2014/05/29/teddy-roosevelt-helped-save-football-with-a-white-house-meeting-in-1905/?utm_term=.daf025216d27.

Guttman, Allen. (1996) The Erotic in Sports. New York, NY, Columbia University Press.

Geertz, Clifford. (1959). Notes on a Balinese Cockfight. Retrieved from http://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/~rfrey/PDF/410/Geertz72.pdf.

Endnotes

[1] Paul Tillich, in Dynamics of Faith, describes faith as a “state of being ultimately concerned.”

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