You get the idea. This isn’t a tailgate with below-zero bare chests and sloppy fistfights. But it’s still very much a Football Party and a celebration of The Game. In the mix will be lifelong Patriots fans, some front-running minors rooting for the Seahawks, and grown-up, committed haters of the Pats rooting for the Seahawks by default.
A few of the men, all fathers, were college athletes, but are employed far from that world—a lawyer, an editor, a film director, a banker, etc. The women, all mothers, have careers just as varied—a designer and artist, a writer, a culinary instructor, to name a handful. My husband is a magazine editor, and he’s a sensitive, sweet, gentle person. He also loves the insensitive, unsweet, brutal game of football very much. Very much.
He juxtaposes boiling disdain for the owner of his favorite team, the Redskins, for refusing to change their horrible, racist name, with silly behaviors like yelling at the television when “the Washington football team,” as he now refers to them, fumbles. His mood is…affected when they lose. But not deeply enough that anyone would notice and mock him for it. (Anyone = me.)
All the men, and some of the women, like football. I grew up with it in my house, and it’s a game my own incredibly gentle father has enjoyed all of his life. Still does. Rather, as a Jets fan, he enjoys it as much as he can. To me, the best part has always been the sound. When it’s on in our house now, with my husband and the two boys, ages 9 and 10, on the couch unable to look away, I can still admit to feeling lulled by the sound of Cris Collinsworth’s voice, the ref’s echoing mic, the hum of the stadium. As a kid, John Madden’s voice practically returned me to the womb.
What most guests at the party will have in common, including those who don’t like watching football, is that they won’t allow their own kid to play the game. Of course they wouldn’t do that! Sure, there’s flag football for the boys who don’t like soccer and are looking for something to do during the fall. But flag football has as much in common with tackle as it does with curling. It seems like a game where the fast and lithe succeed by simply outrunning flag-pullers—not a game where size and strength are beneficial. Soccer and basketball are actually rougher games with more collisions.
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Most of the young boys who will be there, rabidly watching the Super Bowl and eating chips and talking stats in a repetitive loop that staggers the mind, will never be allowed to set one cleat on an actual football field for an actual football game. They will remain spectators. And if they’ve played any tackle football, it’s likely they stopped upon reaching an age when there was a risk of real physical danger. This is due to a combination of factors—regionalism (my state is a beautiful shade of blue with no lights on Friday nights), organic disinterest in the sport, but most of all, lack of parental consent. Mothers were once primarily responsible for this, but in recent years fathers have increasingly taken it off the table as an option for their sons.
So much has been revealed and written during the last year about the NFL. Even my highly evolved, sports-obsessed husband just edited a news-making profile about Roger Goodell that posed questions about the future popularity of the game. Ray Rice happened. Adrian Peterson happened. It seemed that suddenly everyone acknowledged that the brutality and culture of violence within football was leading us to terrible places—and that those places, according to a new study, might be worse for players who start tackling before age 12. Concussions, dementia, domestic violence, depression, suicide. All of the possible outcomes when one’s brain is tossed like a bowling ball against the pins, traumatized repeatedly.
From my vantage point, though, it seems the game hasn’t taken a significant hit—the money, the attention, the ticket sales, the sheer power wielded by the NFL all seem to be steady. But perhaps something slower and sneakier is eroding the future of the sport as America’s ‘ain true love. Consider this: a Bloomberg Politics poll revealed that HALF of Americans said they would not let their sons play football.
I’ll be thinking about this on Sunday, as will lots of other people. I’ll try not to politicize my friend’s Super Bowl party—Debbie Downer with a scowl over by the stockpile of pigs in a blanket. But the temptation will lurk. I’ll be tempted to point out that none of the boys at the gathering are going to play the game, the one their fathers love but are finding harder to defend in its current form.
How long will it remain comfortable to know everything we know about the sport, acknowledge that it’s become a game only for other people’s sons, while devouring it with the same hunger? I won’t bring up how money and disregard for people’s health—and the facts about who benefits long-term from the insanely lucrative industry—always remind me of who populates our military and who does not. I don’t have to say any of that. Everyone who will be there knows already.