Watching RGIII this weekend was painful. Everyone with eyes saw clearly that this kid did not belong on that torn up football field. Everyone who has ever played a down of football understood why the kid didn’t pull himself out, but Nate Jackson really dissected it well over on Deadspin:
“Greatness is not given,” Robert Griffin III says in his national Gatorade spot. “Greatness is taken, when the weak and distracted are resting on their reputations.”
What that means is anyone’s guess. The football industry comes wrapped in so much epigrammatic tough-guy rhetoric that you never really stop to think whether any of it makes sense.
And then later:
The health of an athlete belongs to everyone but the athlete himself. It belongs to his team, his fans, the media who cover him; it belongs to the realm of myth. What’s the difference between a leg broken in front of millions of people and a leg broken in an empty sandlot? Only the former gets valorized by NFL Films. It’s the perception, real or not, that each game is of monumental importance that keeps these men sacrificing life and limb. Glory! Pride! Manhood! That’s the brilliant NFL hype machine at work. It sells the product. It brings in money hand over fist.
The problem is that the product permanently injures those who play it. Their lives are shorter for having played it. But the funny thing is that the players don’t give a shit. They’ll play anyway because that’s all they know.
I think what’s worse is that this doesn’t start in the NFL. It doesn’t even start in college (where Griffin finished the half in a game where he tore his knee up the first time). It starts in high school and younger. It’s beaten into a player since youth. If RGIII (or any other NFL player) is willing to trade mobility in old age for millions of dollars I don’t really have a problem with it. You can live a pretty good life with the $20 million or so that he’s already taken to the bank. I have a problem with that kind of mindset being instilled at the Pee Wee or High School levels where 99% of the kids have no chance of playing the game after they turn 18.
My high school football team hadn’t won a game in 4 years. Our varsity offensive line probably weighed less than 700 pounds soaking wet. We regularly ended games early on account of the slaughter rule because our defenses couldn’t have stopped this girl on most Friday nights. Yet my coaches acted like we were playing NFL games. This was serious shit. Maybe that’s how you have to act as a football coach. Maybe that’s how you teach kids to run down the field at top speed on kickoffs and crash into other kids. (Tore my tricep on one of those sophomore year.) I don’t know. They finally moved my high school team down a few divisions and now they win all the time, but they still haven’t sent any kids on to the pros or made anyone a millionaire and I wonder if any of it is worth it.
I played football because I moved to town after soccer tryouts my freshman year. The year before I played traveling soccer and was a starter on a team that took second place at state. I played with several kids who were on the Olympic development team and later played college or pro ball. I went to the coaches office and asked the soccer coach if I could try out. He told me they already had tryouts and definitely had enough keepers that year. I was devastated. Pretty much near tears. I think the football coach at the time – a really great guy named Mike Ellberg – explained that the soccer coach was an asshole and he’d love to have me come play football. Sadly, the next season Ellberg was gone and they brought in a new coach. Still, I’d bought in to football at that point. All my new friends played football. That’s where sports, especially at the youth level, have an extra dimension in psychologically controlling players. You aren’t playing with just teammates. These are your friends. So when your coach insinuates that you’re letting down your team in the back of your mind you think, “I’m letting down my friends.” Peer pressure reinforces the mindset to play through the pain.
Now, football is pain. To play it you definitely have to play through some pain. From an aerial view it’s elegant and smooth, but it requires a tougher mindset and tougher physical mettle than most other sports to play. Maybe it’s necessary to instill this mindset young. But is it worth it? I never had a headache as a kid or teenager, but suffered a concussion senior year and had 5 years of migraines and still get them occasionally. I was really fuzzy mentally for a week, but back on the football field in 5 days. I had a bunch of knee contusions and found out in my mid-twenties that my cartilage had died. Two knee surgeries and some experimental stem cell magic (and $100K+ in medical bills) later I managed to avoid a knee replacement at or before 30, but was it worth it?
I remember peeing blood from a badly bruised kidney that I suffered on the last day of summer practice. On the last play of scrimmage against the scout defense I caught a touchdown pass. A scout defender speared me in the back after the catch. I went home and peed tomato soup and then went to the hospital. I sat out the first game and was told by various coaches that I was a “pussy” and a “wimp”. Some teammates reiterated that sentiment parroting the message sent by the adults in the room. I never started or logged much playing time in a game again. I got Alex Smith’d. That’s the kind of mentality these Neanderthal coaches have even on perpetually losing high school teams.
I was also the punter. In the next game after my kidney injury the special teams coach explained that he wasn’t going to let me punt in the game even though I’d been cleared to play. He reiterated that “maybe I shouldn’t be such a pussy next time”. Man, I felt like shit. Lower than shit. Dog shit.
Fun aside: karma is a bitch. That punting decision worked out real well. By some miracle we had won our first game (against a varsity team at a new school that was filled with Juniors and Sophomores because they didn’t have a Senior class that year). Our second game was a non-conference game against a school as traditionally horrible at football as we were. We jumped to a 20-0 lead in the game and were en route to our first 2-0 start! Things were looking good! Then, on our first punt of the game the second string punter punted the ball backwards over his head and the other team ran it in for a touchdown. I asked the coach to let me punt. No dice. The next punt the punter forgot to count players on the field and with no personal protector had his punt blocked for a touchdown. He was replaced by the 3rd string punter who punted his first punt backwards over his head resulting in another touchdown. We lost 21-20. At least I got my starting punting job back. I should have told them to screw off.
I love the NFL. I love watching football. I love going to NFL and college games with my family and friends. I love going back and watching high school games. My kids will absolutely never touch a football. Ever. They just won’t. I won’t sign a consent form. I will gently push them to play any other sport. My parents finally gave in when I begged them to play. I love them for that because I was a little dick about it until they said yes. They’d never played the game. I have. I love the sport, but everything about it and its psychology is fucked and it’s not worth the physical toll.