Football is king. Basketball is a pretender.
Thirty years ago I recall a number of sports journalists and cultural voyeurs telling me basketball would soon supplant football in popularity. I’ve heard football called the most popular spectator sport my entire life. It’s not a clear description. NASCAR has a case for No. 1 but what it defines as a team isn’t historically the same as other contenders. Baseball draws in the millions, but with 10 times as many games a season.
During the 1980s basketball rose because of hype. There were two great teams and each had a dominant star. Then the pair of players retired and the teams faded. Basketball didn’t have a back-up marketing plan. We were also coming to the end of the old network TV era of dominance. Growing up we had three television choices. Sports was dominated mostly by ABC on non-football Sunday afternoons. The network relentlessly promoted a handful of heavyweight boxers and a motorcycle daredevil.
By the late 1980s a cable giant emerged in sports and then an explosion of niche options. Even hockey found its own permanent home on cable. Today I can turn on my television late on a Saturday morning in September. College football is available on dozens of stations and many of the big conferences have launched their own networks. I don’t believe I ever saw a Golden Gophers football game when I was a kid. Now I can see the club’s garish uniforms every week. And then there’s Sunday.
Before he passed away, John Paul II warned Roman Catholics the Sabbath was for God and the Lord shouldn’t be replaced by football. I’m not sure if he meant what Europeans call football or what English speaking North America calls football. The criticism was likely aimed at Christians who’ve lapsed and replaced church altogether with tailgating and ballgames. So I go to Mass early. Then often go immediately to a place with chicken wings and multiple choices for television. Last year we heard professional football saw a drop in viewership but recently corrected ratings dispute the suggestion. The game remains a constant through demographic, political and economic upheaval.
I played organized football for six years, and like most American boys wasn’t good enough to survive the winnowing process and become a star at the college and professional levels. Admittedly my work ethic on the football field also wasn’t strong enough. Many of us were there for fun and hadn’t really considered it a career. And still, in my few short years as an amateur my knees got banged up, knuckles displaced and I got “my bell rung.” The latter is what we called a hit to the head which left you briefly like the guy in cartoons seeing bluebirds flying in circles.
Last week a columnist at a newspaper in Spokane polled friends. A large percentage won’t allow their boys to play football because of the concussion threat. I’m reminded of the time my mother barred us from playing hockey. This was following a stick to the head and the loss of a small portion of my right ear. Mom had a job. Bless her soul. She worked decades in a factory. While she was at the job we played hockey on a frozen canal a block from where she worked. The woman eventually relented when she realized we could’ve spent our time with other boys smoking cigarettes on the steps of the pizza shop. The games kept us away from other hazards. We also played football year round, often on the surface of an old railroad parking lot. Without pads. Tackle football among cinders, stones and scattered shards of coal.
Unless you lock your children in an attic until they reach majority, how do you propose to keep them away from football?
Driving home last Sunday from Mass I was listening to a sports talk show. A host explained in his early days on the radio he interviewed the legendary Rosey Grier. The retired ballplayer is a clergyman and when asked about the dangers of the game responded that it prepares you for life. Bob Timberlake played football at Michigan and briefly in the NFL before going into the ministry. “There’s nothing really wrong with good, clean violence,” he once told reporters when asked about the game. “Good Clean Violence” became the title of a book detailing the history of college football. I bought a copy at a discount store not long after I learned how to read. The book is still on my shelf!
Football teaches young people how to deal with adversity. One of my early coaches stressed we had to learn to play with pain. Later in life there are myriad challenges, but when the alarm clock rings I’m still expected to climb out of bed and go to work. Nobody is guaranteed a pain-free life. The schoolmarms looking to ban football are the same people in ivory towers whining about privilege and gender identity. The game will be here long after their fads pass. I’m reminded of the efforts of European lords to ban what we call soccer in the sports developmental days. Today the game is watched and played by billions. And those feudal nannies had some nasty punishments for rule breakers. A lot worse than anything I ever experienced on a kick return. Game on. Football is king.
During the 1980s basketball rose because of hype. There were two great teams and each had a dominant star. Then the pair of players retired and the teams faded. Basketball didn’t have a back-up marketing plan.