Ode to Football: A Sport I Kind of Can't Stand

I revere football because it provides an opportunity in pop culture to wrestle with the complexity of identity. It is often through football, for instance, that TV'sconfronts gender, sexuality, and marginality.
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I won't be watching the Super Bowl matchup this weekend between -- pause for Google check -- the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. I just don't care about the football game at all. Truth be told, football makes me queasy. It's just too physically brutal for me. I find it simultaneously boring, hard to follow, and nauseating to watch.

Yet, I consume a lot of football these days. And, I've developed a reverence for the game because it is central and symbolically important to so many of the things that fill my head and my heart as I walk through my days.

I revere football because the college gridiron was so vital to the race politics of higher education, especially in the 1960s and in the South. In one of countless examples, sports writer Don Yaeger's book, Turning of the Tide, chronicles the impact of one fall 1970 game between the all-white University of Alabama Crimson Tide and the desegregated USC Trojans. The Trojans trounced the Tide on their home field, in what many believe was the definitive illustration that racial exclusion was harming Alabama's beloved football. Yaeger writes of a former Alabama assistant coach who was reported to have said that the standout in the game, the Trojan's African American fullback, Sam Cunningham, "did more for integration in the South in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years."

I revere football because it provides an opportunity in pop culture to wrestle with the complexity of identity. It is often through football, for instance, that TV's Glee confronts gender, sexuality, and marginality. Early in the show's run, the archetypal bully was a varsity letter jacket-wearing football player, Dave Karofsky, a boisterous homophobe who eventually began to come out and then professed his love for the boy he had relentlessly victimized, Kurt Hummel. He is currently reincarnated as a lovable bear who is dating Kurt's ex, Blaine Anderson. This season, the new kid on McKinley High's football team seems to throw the term "homo" around as an epithet but feels justified in doing so because he identifies as "postmodern gay" himself. Also this season, the football team's Coach Beiste has begun to come out to the McKinley community as a transgender man, presenting the show with its second trans storyline.

I revere football because it put that kiss between then-new (now former) St. Louis Ram defensive end Michael Sam, the first openly-gay player to be drafted in the NFL, and his then-boyfriend, now fiancé, Vito Cammisano, on ESPN for all sports-fandom to see. It also (along with basketball and Jason Collins' public coming out) put the topic of gay male inclusion on high-profile pro teams on my son's sports talk radio as he fell asleep each night.

I revere football because it became one of many important outlets for the anger and sadness so many of us felt after the grand jury failed to indict officer Darren Wilson in the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In recognition of the powerful symbolism of suiting up for protest and of the platform they have as professional athletes, five Rams players raised their hands in a "hands up, don't shoot" expression of solidarity with protesters as they took the field in a game against the Oakland Raiders this past November.

I revere football because it is at the center of one of my favorite TV series of all time, Friday Night Lights, giving me fallible but undeniably effective and lovable models of parenting, mentoring, and teaching in Coach and Tami Taylor. It is no coincidence that football is the emotional and moral core of this incredible show. Coach Taylor's pre-game mantra of "clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose" reminds us that in football, as in life, we should live with eyes wide open, with integrity, and with love in our hearts.

I revere football because a number of incredibly eloquent and compelling advocates for marriage equality and for LGBTQ social justice are former football players. These include straight allies Scott Fujita, Brendon Ayanbadejo, and Chris Kluwe. Their visibility gives them the ability to speak to a wide audience. Former Baltimore Raven Ayanbadejo, who had been active in marriage equality efforts for years, worked explicitly to leverage his participation in the Super Bowl two years ago for the cause of marriage equality. So, too, former pro player, Wade Davis, has been working for years as an advocate and educator for LGBTQ youth. Once he came out publicly in 2012 (as a football player to his activist colleagues, as gay to the sports world), he began to use his platform to raise awareness about the LGBTQ social justice issues that have been at the center of his post-football career.

These are just some of the reasons why a game I can't really stand is worthy of my reverence. But many that are involved in the game don't seem to revere their sport. Years of sickening cover-ups and examples of implicit and explicit acceptance of sexual assault, hazing, and bullying perpetrated by football coaches and players reveal that high school and college coaches are not aware of their power. At the pro level, too, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell shows little reverence for his game. I, like many others, was disgusted by the NFL's response to running back Ray Rice's arrest and indictment for an assault -- caught on a graphic video that became public -- of his then-fiancée, now wife. So, too, the NFL's continued use and defense of the name of the Washington, DC football team is inexcusable, embarrassing, and just plain racist. If I had been a football fan, this would have been the year that the NFL lost me.

I don't expect professional football to be something that it isn't. I say this not to absolve football of its sins but to recognize the reality of the endeavor. The NFL is a business. It is not a social justice non-profit organization. It converts passion for the game into capital. It exists to put eyes on the screen, fans in the seats, and consumers in Tom Brady jerseys. It does not exist to change the world. I don't expect this of it, just as I don't expect Hollywood executives to make creative or casting decisions that will harm their bottom line. I don't expect them to be something they are not, to exist for reasons they do not -- even reasons that fans and consumers crave, and even when it is very nice when they do take risks in the service of social change.

But, I do think that football can do a lot better and stop taking shortcuts on the path to integrity. As the desegregation of southern college football -- to choose just one of many examples -- showed us, ethical choices are good for the game of football and for its bottom line. As we end this season, I hope that players, coaches, and team and league executives gain a reverence for the social, cultural, and political centrality of a sport that millions of people love and imbue with so much meaning. I hope they heed the wisdom of my favorite football coach: clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.

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