Saying Goodbye to Football

football.jpgI am, and always have been, a huge Boston sports fan. I have to qualify it with that word “Boston,” because if there isn’t a Boston connection, I am not interested. My boys–both very good basketball players–have taught me to appreciate elements of basketball that I would have never learned on my own. I can watch at least part of a college basketball game with them, or an NBA game that doesn’t involve the Celtics.

People wax philosophically about how a love for sports passes from father to son.I think I did that with my boys, though they chose their own paths. My true loves growing up were the Red Sox–often the alpha and the omega of my sports world–then the Bruins, then the Celtics, and then the Patriots a distant fourth. My boys have their own order–the Patriots, Celtics, Red Sox, and Bruins. The Bruins are truly an afterthought for my younger son; my older son has recently become a bit of a fan through his girlfriend. Girlfriends will do that to you.

I think our own loves come, in part, from how sports are imprinted on us at the right ages. When I was eight, it was 1967 and the Red Sox improbably won the pennant. They were the cardiac kids, winning one comeback game after another with late-inning heroics, usually involving Carl Yastrzemski. Yaz had an MVP season, won baseball’s triple crown, and played the best defensive outfield I have ever seen.

If you’re doing your math, the Celtics were still in their glory days. They were finishing a 13-year run of winning 11 championships, finishing with two more in 1968 and 1969. Somehow, though, they were on the edge of my sports consciousness. I am guessing they weren’t on TV as much as the Red Sox. Maybe I somehow knew they were on the descent. I do remember when Russell retired after the 1968-1969 season and the Celtics were left with Hank Finkel as their center. Finkel was a decent player, but what he truly represented was that he wasn’t Bill Russell, but then again who is.

In 1970, the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, and Bobby Orr took over Boston sports. He was, to this day, the most exciting athlete I have ever seen. He truly transformed the game of hockey, and every boy in greater Boston wanted to be #4. Rinks sprang up everywhere as youth hockey exploded. I joined a team at 11, and played until I was 18. I was not a very good player, but I loved it.

The Bruins faded after winning one more Stanley Cup in 1972, the and the Celtics emerged with the team that remains my favorite Celtics team–two championships in 1974 and 1976, led by Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, Jo Jo White, and Paul Silas. Tommy Heinsohn coached them to play at full-speed at all moments. Today people know Heinsohn as the shameless “homer” announcer for the Celtics, but he was a great coach, and a great player before that. He’s one of four people who are in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.

And the Patriots? Throughout my childhood and adolescence, they barely existed in my mind. At one point there was some neighborhood pride in how many of the Patriots stars were Italian (quarterback Babe Parilli, kicker and wide receiver Gino Cappelletti, and linebacker Nick Buoniconti). But they were, as a New York Times article aptly said, “a comical traveling side show,” that practiced at a high school field and used some combination of Fenway Park and fields at Harvard, Boston College, and Boston University to play their games. I didn’t watch them for decades, and even their Super Bowl appearance in 1986 barely registered for me. The Larry Bird Celtics were about to win their third championship, and the Red Sox would go to the World Series that year (though we all know how that ended).

The Patriots only started to count for me when they counted for my  boys. They were eight and ten when the Patriots won their first of what would become four Super Bowl wins in 14 years. They have gone 182-54 in that time (compared to 280-327-9 in their other years). In addition to the four Super Bowl wins, they made it to the Super Bowl two more times, and made it to, but lost, four other conference championship games. In other words, in a span of 15 seasons, they were among the four best teams 10 times.

What Boston-area, sports-loving kid wouldn’t love this team?

I’ve never come out and said this to my boys, but I have been along for the ride, and not always happily. To me, as much as I like the Patriots and love that my boys have them to root for, I loathe the National Football League, and I don’t use that term lightly. They embody all the negatives in American sports–the insane amounts of money that could be put to far better use, their role as a vehicle for money from the lower- and middle-classes to pour into the hands of the very rich, their tolerance for criminal behavior, and–most importantly–their dishonesty and callous disregard for the health of the men who play the game.

The concussion scandal alone should have done it years ago. I was reading about the problem as early as 2008, and the news has only gotten worse.The statistics alone should horrify you: of 79 autopsies recently done on NFL players who had exhibited brain problems, 76 were confirmed to have significant brain disease, And if statistics don’t convince you, read about some of the saddest stories. I have to confront it:these were men playing a game–a game–and billionaires were getting rich off them, from money I was helping to put in their hands.

There’s more to it. There are so many NFL players who have been arrested that there are even databases for it.I am enraged at the way public lets the NFL play them for suckers, spending public funds for private gain when the money could be spent in a thousand better ways. I wonder, too, if the billionaires just laugh or also light up cigars at the fact that 80% of NFL players retire broke. Of course these young men could have managed their money better, but they also should have been paid many times more, and they shouldn’t be the products of college “educations” that more often than not only prepare them for professional sports and nothing more. The recent astonishing sports scandal at the University of North Carolina garnered a few headlines and promptly disappeared.

Just what are we up to here? We’ve created an industry that pours men, like gladiators, into stadiums. We watch them risk their health for our pleasure. We live with the fact that many of them are doomed–again a word I don’t use lightly–to a life of poor health, or even devastatingly bad health–mental illness, cognitive loss, substance abuse, and sometimes violence or suicide.

Two weeks ago I read a very good article about the concussion problem in the New York Review of Books. It showed I am not alone in my feelings. There are books about the NFL’s problems now-serious books–and at least one excellent documentary. They suggest the NFL is about to go into decline over these problems. I have no idea whether this is true or not. I hope it is. I hope for the sake of these men, and for the kids down to the age of five and as small as 35 pounds who are out there right now in uniforms and helmets, learning how to tackle and block.

I can’t solve the problem. If a few people are reading this, I doubt that I can even convince you. I only know what I can do, and I am out.

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