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The Best and Worst of Us

It's still possible that in the not-too-distant future, football will head over the cliff and begin its slow descent. Like empires and powerful civilizations, no industry or professional sport is immune from the vagaries of excess and overreach.
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Like many Americans, I have a love-hate relationship with professional football.

When it's played well and has heightened drama, like the 4th quarter of Super Bowl XLIX, there is no more thrilling spectacle than the gladiators jousting for the NFL crown. It is not only a game of intense physicality, with balletic twists by receivers often followed by bone-crushing hits by linebackers, but also a battle of wits and strategic warfare.

But as we were all too often reminded this year, professional football can also bring out the worst in people -- with the heart-wrenching scene of domestic abuse by former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice caught on camera for the world to see. When the violent culture first bred by high school and college football leads to heightened violence perpetrated by NFL players, we must take a step back and acknowledge that there is a significant downside to America's favorite spectator sport.

And it's not just inside the home (or nightclubs) where this macho and violent game leads to unnecessary harm -- it's also inside the skulls of long-time players, who suffer repeated concussions and head injuries that lead to long-term brain damage. How many ex-NFL players do we have to see succumb to dementia or self-inflicted injury before we realize that there is an epidemic of brain injuries that is too high a price to pay for the mere viewing and rooting pleasure of millions of Americans?

When this football season started last fall there was a drumbeat of bad news that thundered down on the NFL: scientific studies that proved a high percentage of ex-players suffer from brain injuries followed by the Ray Rice video and the league's bungling of his punishment. I stopped watching Sunday games for a while (and since my two favorite teams, the Jets and Giants, were abysmal this helped fuel my righteous indignation).

Like some well-meaning pundits, I was ready to write football's premature obituary. To paraphrase Mark Twain: "Reports of [football's] death are greatly exaggerated." I would tell friends and colleagues that watching football in 2015 reminded me of watching professional boxing in the 1980s. When that sport's most iconic figure, Muhammad Ali, started slurring his words and walking around like he was, boxing started its slow fade. Today it has been relegated to minor sport status.

Could that be the fate of professional football, I thought, a multi-billion dollar industry that would be toppled, like tobacco, because the metaphorical surgeon general's warning was finally being heeded?

It's still possible that in the not-too-distant future, football will head over the cliff and begin its slow descent. Like empires and powerful civilizations, no industry or professional sport is immune from the vagaries of excess and overreach.

But after watching Sunday night's Super Bowl, which included two star-studded teams that I have only a casual interest in, I am reminded by the powerful hold that professional football has on America's collective psyche. For one night, a large chunk of our country congregates around a big screen, all at the same time, and we watch these larger than life figures go toe-to-toe for 60 minutes in a winner-take-all death match.

In an era where so much of life is fragmented and nuanced and exists in the gray zone, it is nice and comforting to have one night where everything is on the line and will be decided definitively. There will be a championship team, a most valuable player and a ceremony to hoist an award for one lucky team -- and one lucky city (or in the case of New England, a region).

And for the next 48 hours, there is endless chatter in the Twittersphere and on Facebook and on sports radio shows picking apart the coaches decisions, analyzing the key plays and making historical comparisons to Super Bowls past. There is a unifying aspect to this collective discussion; for once, red states and blue states recede; black and white and brown and yellow fans vehemently argue for their favorite team or favorite player. The dysfunction of Congress, the sluggishness of the economy, the growing inequality in our society -- it all fades into the background as people of all races and classes talk about "The Game" or "The Pass" or "That Coach's Awful Last-Minute Decision."

Professional football, the closest thing that modern society has to the Roman Coliseum, is our metaphorical civil war, our fight to the death, our gladiators fighting ferociously for the coveted gold prize. It allows millions of us to at once express and sublimate our violent and hostile emotions in a controlled and socially acceptable way.

In short, football is both metaphor and the bluntest expression of American violence and rugged individualism. It is as purely American a pastime as anything that still exists; we don't see the Chinese or the Russians adopting football as their own and it's not likely that this unique game will spread globally in the same way that basketball has in recent decades. It is ours and we get to keep it all to ourselves.

But I still wish they could manufacture helmets that make concussions obsolete. Penalties for hitting players above the neck should be much more severe.

Since we're in the 21st century, maybe cheerleaders could be co-ed? And perhaps high school and college players could be required to learn feminism and gender studies so they will become less testosterone-fueled and more progesterone sympathetic.

That would be a real game changer.

Tom Allon, the president of City & State, NY, played quarterback in touch football games in Riverside Park in New York City as a teenager and thankfully never suffered a concussion.

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