In defense of football

There seems to be a somewhat condescending attitude toward sports among some in the academic set. Even the sport studies department here is affected – despite their title, they do not seem to like sports much at all. (I was a student there for one semester). At the top of the list of sports blacklisted by this group is one of my favorites: football.

Football is unique in the sports category in that it’s almost exclusively played by males. Often, football is also the highest-profile sport at high schools and colleges across the country. Consequently, football is the natural whipping boy for those who are sports anti-establishmentarians. The sport studies department here is on board; when I was in their program, I was required to attend an evening lecture by the author of a book titled “The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football.” As you could guess, the lecture was not exactly pro-football.

Many of the teachings of this school of thought are concerned with the evils of football and other contact-based, male-dominated sports. Football is a socializing agent for young men, and thus, the academics attribute scores of awful traits among this demographic to the football experience (including off-field violence, degradation of women and drug abuse).

This is easy for people to say (especially without empirical evidence either to contradict or to support their claims), and many seem to deeply believe it – except they didn’t play football. I did, and I didn’t learn any of the things that I’ve been told football should have taught me.

What I learned from football was control. Football is an inherently violent game; I hit someone on every single play of every game I ever played. But the violence took place in a controlled setting, in a manner regulated by a set of rules designed to ensure safety. If I broke those rules, my team was summarily penalized, giving me an imperative incentive to control my surges of anger during the game. Sure, I hit people, but I learned to control myself while doing it. It’s no surprise to me that I haven’t been in a physical fight since I started playing football. Meanwhile, the guys I know who are most likely to start a brawl are guys who never played football. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

What I learned from football was perseverance. Football is fun. Football practice is not. I spent many hours wondering if the fun I had Friday nights was worth the work I did Monday through Thursday. I know I considered quitting a lot during end-of-practice conditioning drills, but I stuck it out for all four of my high school years and in the end I can’t imagine not having gone through it. I learned that everything worth doing in life is not necessarily going to be that much fun. The important thing is that I kept with it.

What I learned from football was responsibility; every time I was on the field, I had a responsibility to the other 10 guys out there with me to execute my part of the play. What I learned from football was teamwork; I was one of 11 guys working toward a common goal. What I learned from football was commitment; I picked an activity and saw it through to the end, every night until the end of practice, every game until the final gun and every season until the end of the playoffs. What I learned from football was respect – for my opponents, for my teammates, for my coaches and for myself.

Respect, commitment, perseverance, teamwork, responsibility, control. What I learned from football was simple: I learned more about being a man in four seasons on the football field than I have in the rest of my 22 years combined. The critics of football were wrong: What I learned from football wasn’t evil. It was essential.

Jon Marthaler welcomes comments at [email protected]