Mother Mary and Football’s Fall from Grace

A recent study about NFL players’ degenerative brain disease — chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE — pounded the final nail into football’s coffin for me. I’ve learned to hate the sport.

These are strong words, especially coming from a Notre Dame graduate. Forty years ago, I joined a student body that worshipped football with a piety only slightly less passionate than what we held for the university’s namesake, Our Lady. Before games, we lit candles at the Grotto, imploring the Virgin Mother for the grid-iron miracles that made Notre Dame football famous.

Nonetheless, with apologies to my alma mater, I do hate football now.

But football’s fall from grace took a while.

After graduation, I gradually came to realize that the very notion of a college football “student-athlete” was too often just a myth, with players spending more time on athletics than academics, and universities focusing more on the money players generated than on the degrees they might or might not earn. Some people now argue that we should discard the student-athlete fig leaf and just pay the players. And why not, since their coaches are usually the highest paid state employees? It’s all about money, not education.

When I became a teacher, I learned that football had undermined the academic integrity of kindergarten-through-12th-grade schools, as well. One of my football-player students apologized, citing his five-hour daily practices, “I won’t be doing any homework until after the season, Mr. Ellison. I’ll try to catch up then.” No surprise, he was failing several courses, including mine. But since his Fs wouldn’t become official until first-quarter grades had finally posted — after football season — the supposed no-pass-no-play policy meant nothing. (Schools in countries like Finland and Korea, consistently ranked among the top in the world, have no sports teams at all.)

That young man wasn’t seeking glory alone. Like so many players, he’d bought the great “ball-faced” football lie, that the game would be a ticket to college, maybe even an NFL career. The truth is that fewer than two percent of them will ever play in college, fewer than one percent will earn a Division 1 scholarship, and fewer than one-tenth of one percent will ever go pro. It’s pathetic, really.

I worried about such players’ characters, too. I vividly recall a game at the Catholic high school where I first taught. After the opposing team’s hapless quarterback had been blindsided, knocked senseless, and finally carried off the field, my school’s coach turned back to our stands, gloating, “Now that’s the way to hit ‘em!” The players and fans roared. Was there something wrong with me because I’d winced instead?

I’ve more recently come to the awful realization that football and other professional sports have become the new “opiate of masses,” diverting America’s attention from what really matters. (We’ve got more than one opioid epidemic.) For example, while the United States invaded Iraq under false pretenses, murdering a half million, squandering trillions; while the CIA embarked on an international campaign of rendition, torture, and drone assassination; while the National Security Agency improperly spied on everyone and everything; while the nation’s wealth became obscenely concentrated into the hands of a very few; while the government bailed out the banksters who thereupon unleashed a frenzy of foreclosures … while all this occurred, the only events that galvanized the people of my liberal San Francisco Bay Area into finally thronging the streets were the Giants and the Warriors winning their championships.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick serves as a warning for anyone who might dare rouse fans from their slumber. He took a knee to protest police treatment of African-Americans, and subsequently lost his career.

Now the last straw: Neuroscientists have revealed that 110 out of 111 deceased NFL players studied had suffered from CTE. The players' symptoms had included depression, aggression, drug abuse, dementia, and even suicide.

Meanwhile, Dr. Ann McKee, director of the CTE Center at Boston University, warned, “I’ve looked at brains of young teenagers and seen damage that I’ve never seen before, and it came from football impact injuries. Took my breath away.”

In other words, when we watch a football game, NFL or otherwise, we are cheering players on as they inflict permanent brain damage on each other. Go team?

Well, I’ve had enough. I hate football; and, frankly, I suspect Mother Mary does, too.

Shouldn’t everyone?

(This article was originally published in The Cleveland Plain Dealer:

David Ellison, author of Santander: Rambling on Borrowed Time, retired after 36 years in education to Ajijic, Mexico.

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