Dear Football, I love you. You have been the love of my life for as long as I can remember. Everything good that I am, everything good that I will ever be, in part I owe to you. You were there for me when I thought all was lost. You picked me up and loved me when no one else would. Now can you please sit down? I have some things I need to say.
I’ll start by apologizing for not spending as much time with you as I once did. I’m working hard to become a good writer; putting words on the page is way harder than it looks. But thanks to you, I understand the relationship between effort and reward better than most. I know that regardless of how good I am today, tomorrow I have a chance to be better. Thanks to you, I believe there isn’t a literary hill that I can’t climb. You remember I’d never played in an organized game until I was senior in high school. Five years later I was drafted by the Eagles. In order to achieve that I had to give my soul to you. Well, the same thing is happening again. I’ve given my soul to words.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t see the headlines. What on God’s green earth has happened to you?
* * *
Do you remember that innocent Sunday morning, the first time we met?
I was upstairs in my sister’s apartment with her boyfriend. He was in the Navy. He drank lots of Colt 45 Malt Liquor, smoked Kool menthols, and he loved you too. You remember him, right? That day I had a pocket full of marbles. I was heading outside for a game of pots. At the door, I heard the most beautiful sound imaginable, and I froze. It was as if Daniel the archangel had blown his horn. Forces stronger than me drew me back into the apartment. I sat down, mesmerized by the black-and-white TV screen.
I saw a band marching with pomp and pageantry that gave me an absolute thrill. And thousands and thousands of the happiest people I’d ever seen watched from seats in a stadium. Of course, I didn’t know it then, but the announcer who started to speak was the legendary Lindsey Nelson. With as much pomp as the band, he said, “Notre Dame, after an impressive victory over Wisconsin, hopes to make it two in a row …” Suddenly a hive of Gods came forth from the bowels of the stadium onto the field. They had numbers on their shirts. They wore pads on their shoulders and shiny hats with masks covering their faces.
My mouth fell open. My little heart was aflutter before the highlights even began.
Enthralled, I watched those Gods kick and throw you high into the air, fly like angels to catch you, and run, run, run, with you cradled in their arms. All these years later, I remember the moment when you reached down—like God did to Adam—and touched my five-year-old hand with your mighty finger. In the twinkling of an eye, I was changed. I knew who I was. I whispered to myself, “Yes, this is what I must do with my life.”
* * *
I am not pining for the good ole’ days. Because the good ole’ days actually weren’t all that goddam good, just different; the machine that oppresses my skin tone seems to be a master of shapeshifting. So perhaps it is just the difference that I miss. When we both were a bit more innocent.
Before I invited you to sit down, I did some Googling. What I read about you broke my heart. I had always been proud of loving you, but suddenly I felt shame. Reading headline after headline of bad news reminded me of a day I blindly defended you in one of my writing classes.
Writing classes are not bastions of masculinity. On the contrary, classes are mostly populated with liberal, progressive, feminist women. There are hardly ever any men. Let alone black men. And sure as hell there are no black men who love you like I do. I am always the lone representative of urban, black male culture and its accouterments. And so it was this day I recall. I don’t remember why your name came up. But boy-oh-boy did it devolve into an avalanche of nastiness. No matter that I stood before those white women as an example of what makes you worthy to be praised. In their minds, you are Satan. They said that you perpetuated misogyny and rape culture and all brands of violence against women.
“No, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong …” I tried to say.
One said, “Are you kidding me, Andre? There were fifty-two rapes by Baylor football players in four years. How do you explain that? And the coach knew about it.”
“He couldn’t have,” I said, remembering all the good men who coached me.
Another one said, “Rapes increase drastically on college game days. It’s proven. The study just came out.”
“Hold on now,” I countered. “That doesn’t even make sense.”
Then Helen, who was sitting next to me, looked carefully in my eyes. “And let’s not forget the NFL.” She expelled the letters with such disdain I thought she’d tasted something bitter. “They’ve had at least twenty players arrested for violence against women in the last two years. They don’t care about women, Andre and you know it. They care only about winning.”
I grew up fatherless, in a house with my momma and three older sisters. Early on I learned when to shut my mouth. That time had arrived. And what a shame.
I never got say that because of you I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. I wanted to tell them how good it felt buying my momma a brand new Lincoln with my signing bonus. I would have said that I raised my son with principles you taught me; integrity and honesty and determination and kindness. His name is Andre and he graduated from college, too.
If I had room, I would have talked about the men of good character I met along the way. Like coach Dick Maninni and my benefactor Ken Hoffman. Ronnie Lott is one of the nicest human beings you’d ever meet, I would have said. Or what about Frank Vandervort who’s been my friend for thirty years. He’s as solid as they come and loves his kids more than anything in the world. I could have told them I sat next to Joe Montana during training camp and he treated me like I was somebody when I wasn’t. Or that I went to Steve Largent’s office when he was in Congress, and Steve is a damn good man. I never got to tell them that Dwight Clark sings Aretha Franklin songs during training camp. I surely would have told them about Ray Ellis if they’d let me. Ray played for Woody Hayes, Pete Carroll, Jeff Fischer, Nick Sabin and Marty Schottenheimer. He told me all those men were good and honest. Ray told me that Woody Hayes even came to his house, looked his momma in the eye and promised he’d take care of him at Ohio State. And Woody Hayes kept his word. I would have fingered off: Herman Edwards, Ron Jaworski, Chuck Knox, Bill Cower, Andre Waters (RIP Dre), Bill Walsh, George Seifert, Billy Matthews, Marion Campbell, Gary Torretta, Joey Brooks, Tracy Collins, Kevin Will and heavyweight champion Archie Moore’s son, Hardy (RIP Byrd).
Because they hate you so much, I never got a chance.
* * *
I know this is hard news for you, Dear Football. But please, please hear me out.
Let’s admit that there is something wrong. Too many of the boys and men who love you are behaving badly. The phycology behind their behavior is well beyond my pay grade. On the other hand, I am a trained observer who knows you well. And this is what I see.
Let’s look at the Texas town with a population of 32,000. Their school board approved a video board for its high school stadium that cost half a million dollars. Head scratcher, right? Or what about the high school that spent $62.8 million on their stadium and bragged about how much it cost. They were proud because it cost a little bit more than their rival’s $62.5 million dollar stadium. The spending on stadiums and scoreboards is happening while art and music programs are dismantled. College football has grown into a big business with revenues topping $3.4 billion way back in 2013. And the National Football League? They raked in $14 billion in 2017.
Dear Football, I have to ask, have you sold your soul for money?
It seems like instead of character being the most important attribute by which kids are measured, character gets usurped somewhere in grade school by 40-yard dash times, vertical leaps, star power, and the ability to win games. It is no great surprise that little boys who are attracted to you confuse manhood with athletic prowess, conquest, and economic success. From Pop Warner to the National Football League you reward and reinforce their behavior.
Dr. Thomas Sowell, renowned social theorist, political philosopher and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University wrote, “It is not hard to see why those who star in sports that are prominent in educational institutions—football and basketball being classic examples—can start having the rules bent in their favor as early as high school. In ways large and small, star athletes learn early in life the cynical message that rules apply to other people. This special treatment can be found even in the Ivy League, where sports are not supposed to be as a big deal.” Dr. Sowell went on to say, “Everyone wants a winning team, and bending a few rules for those who can make that happen may seem like a small price to pay.”
* * *
Dear Football, you have forgotten your greatness.
Do you remember that 1961 Miami night when Paul Brown, coach of the Cleveland Browns, was told by a racist hotel manager that his black players were not allowed to stay? “I’ll tell you what then,” Coach Brown said. “We’ll just get on a plane and go back home.” And just like that Miami hotels were integrated. How about when Tex Schramm, General Manager of the Dallas Cowboys, took on the Dallas Citizen Council in 1959. He stood tall and knocked down the racial discrimination policies of Dallas area hotels. Do you remember when Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi told his team, “If I hear nigger or dago or kike or anything like that around here, regardless of who you are, you’re through with me… You can’t play for me if you have any kind of prejudice.”
You see? You have always been a mighty force for social justice and change. Once again it is time for you to take the lead, because the paradigm of manhood needs to change. I don’t have all the answers but consider this:
Last year there were approximately 1.2 million youth who played tackle football, 1.1 million who played flag, and more than one million high school players. College football has approximately fifty thousand players, the NFL nearly two thousand. Throw in all the parents, coaches, athletic trainers, hard-core fans, weekend fans, fantasy fans and right there is your army for change.
There are people much smarter than me who would love to help you figure out a plan of attack. For what it’s worth, my first suggestion would be to stop demanding that little boys suck it up and be men. As former NFL great Joe Ehrmann said at TEDxBaltimore, the words, “Be A Man,” are the scariest words every little boy receives in his lifetime. This phrase inspires the separation of heart and mind, the repression of the very thing that makes a human.
If you can become a fortress, a crucible where boys also learn to strengthen their emotional intelligence, you will have changed the course of history for the better.
I’ll bet those white women in my writing classes would love to hear that.