"Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game" by Mark...

"Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game" by Mark Edmundson (Penguin Press, September 2014). Credit: Peguin Press

My football education began with my father. Of how many other boys in America, past and present, is that true? I might even say that my education proper, my education in the ways of the world, began with watching football with my dad. And how many others might say the same -- both for better and for worse?

We're told repeatedly that football is America's game. It's a main source of entertainment -- maybe the main source in our culture. And it's big business too: billions of dollars a year. But football is more than business and entertainment. For millions who play, or have played, football is a form of education. We Americans invented this complex, violent, beautiful game -- we shaped it. But the game shapes us too. It shapes us when we play and after we've turned in our pads for the last time. It shapes us while we're in it and then later when knowingly or not we take what we've learned from the game out into the world.

It's not just a guys' issue, though guys are most immediately engaged. More and more, women are going to be getting involved. Some will play, sure. (One recalls with pleasure that the first well-known girl high school football player was named Elizabeth Balsley.) But women -- mothers and aunts and grandmothers and friends -- are going to be getting more engaged in the decisions about whether the boys in their lives will play or not. It used to be almost a given: If a boy wanted to play football, then he played. No more. After revelations about head injuries and other harm that can come from the game, more women are going to feel compelled to decide about football. And I suspect many will be seeing it as a form of education. Are the virtues a young guy can acquire playing football worth the risks? And what precisely are those virtues; what exactly are the risks?

The coaches will tell you that football can develop character, stir courage, enhance manliness, and cultivate patriotism, faith, and loyalty. The game can teach you how to win and, maybe more important, how to lose. I believe that what they say is so. But football's virtues come with risks. The game has a dark side. The character that football instills can lead to dull conformity; the bravery it cultivates can in an instant turn brutal. Football engenders loyalty to the team, but the loyalty too often devolves into a herd mentality: my fellow players, right or wrong. Football endorses faith and patriotism. But is football really a Christian game if "Christian" means conformity with the teachings of the Gospels? Football can prepare young people for the military. But the game may also idealize soldiering and war in ways that can be fatally misleading. Brutality, thoughtlessness, dull conformity, love for the herd mentality and the herd -- these can be products of football too.

We need a deeper understanding of the game than the one the coaches, boosters, and broadcasters offer. We need to recognize how much football can give, yes: The game can be a superb school for body, heart, and mind. But we also need to see how much harm football can do, and not just to the body. Football is a potentially ennobling, potentially toxic school for the spirit. When you play the game seriously, you put your soul on the line.

"Be a football player!" we Medford Mustangs used to chant after our toughest drill, running up and down a steep bank we called the Pit. We yelled the words loudly, with pride. We were high school kids. "Be a football player!" But I doubt that any of us -- least of all me -- really knew what we were saying.

From "Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game," by Mark Edmundson. Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House Co. Copyright © 2014 by Mark Edmundson.

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