On the Morality of the Super Bowl

This morning, I read Steve Almond’s “Is it immoral to watch the Super Bowl?” from The New York Times. It’s a well constructed, well articulated article. Almond argues that the health risks of football outweigh the value of the sport, and that we’re culturally irresponsible for continuing to passively support the enterprise.

I think he’s missing it.

Truthfully, I have no problem with a bunch of grown men deciding to ram themselves into each other until they’ve damaged their brains and internal organs. If an informed adult decides he’d rather make millions of dollars and live like a king for a while, then die a senile, miserable hero at age 50, this seems no more illogical than choosing to wile away in a cubicle for $45,000 a year to die alone, senile and miserable at the age of 90. We’re all sacrificing our lives one day at a time. There’s really no reasonable way to do it.

I agree with Almond that the NFL and the Super Bowl embody a disheartening aspect of American culture, but it has nothing to do with paying 300 pound me to learn to run faster so that they can collide with each other more effectively.

The problem is that one by one, we’re stripping away the things that were created as manifestations of healthy community. We’re refining out the honor and the good, and casting the worst elements into idols.

Football, I imagine, was created like all games are. A group of children with limited resources, namely a ball and a field, created a set of rules that would perpetuate play and incentivize excellence. An observant, creative and intuitive adult at some point formalized the rules and the field, so that the game could be used as a healthy outlet for other children to socialize, exercise and resolve underutilized emotional energy. This is the story of all sports, right?

The game grew in popularity, and some children demonstrated exceptionalism at this new, arbitrary skill set. So excellent were they that it superseded a group of unsupervised children doing God-knows and who cares what, to something that could actually be interesting and exciting to watch.

Over the course of time, the game evolved into a contest between schools, institutions and minor geographic regions, as a safe way to encourage excellence, healthy competition and as a non-violent way to resolve petty differences. The community would gather to watch and socialize, which cemented the game’s value in our society. This is still the story of virtually any team sport, right?

This is excellent. It’s an outlet for children that encourages the development of a lot of virtues, and on a larger scale, the sport becomes a central point of community life (ever been to a small town high school football game?), and the game is a responsible mechanism for healthy inter-community relations. In the case of football, there is a rugged, physical component of the game, and occasionally kids do get hurt, but it’s generally worth the risk and the societal benefit, and the benefit to a healthy local community and healthy kids far outweighs the incidental tragedy. Every good thing comes at a cost, after all.

Even though children get hurt, they’re not typically capable of inflicting the same kind of permanent damage that grown, hulking men are, and a child’s body is more resilient. They’re built for this kind of play.

But then something horrible happens. Technological capabilities increase, and now a game can be broadcast around the world live in high definition. You can see and experience more. The technology is so good, it’s actually better to watch the game at home than it is to go to the field. A player that was once important to a small community now has the capacity to be important to the entire world. The stakes are raised exponentially, and the rewards skyrocket with them. What was once a hobby now holds the promise of unimaginable riches, and boys who will become men are now incentivized to spend their lives getting bigger, stronger and faster. Most of these boys are chasing an unobtainable dream, to their own detriment.

No more does the community rally around their team. That takes second stage. No longer does the event draw the local community together at the nearest field. You can’t see the action well enough.

But football didn’t work because of the action. A group of ten-year-olds were killing time, and the game itself hasn’t moved beyond that. Football works because it brought people together.

Almond’s argument assumes that football was an activity intended for grown men, and that its intended value is for the entertainment of spectators.

Just like the 24-hour news cycle has exacerbated the worst traits of newscasting and turned our attention to trivial national affairs while we ignore the injustices outside of our back door, this obsession with national sports has stolen the very value of the game from our communities and indulged all of the negative side effects.

The answer is not to steal this tool from our communities and from our kids. Some of our kids need football, because it’s an activity and an outlet that suits them. Stealing this resource from our communities won’t solve the problem.

The answer is to turn off the TV. The answer is to apply a new standard. The answer is to create children who value people first. The answer is to create little people who want to play.

What if for every game we watched on TV, we watched one at the local high school? What if for every $100 NFL jersey we buy, we gave $10 to the local marching band? What if for every $80 Cincinnati Reds ticket, you took ten of your kid’s friends to a minor-league Columbus Clippers game?

We don’t need to be on the same team as ten million fans. But if we’re going to get better, we need real people around us that we can touch and feel and hope for.

We have to teach our kids to play again, and if that includes football, let them play.

Because you can’t play football alone.

But you can sure as hell watch the super bowl in the dark, in the silence of an empty room.