In a thoughtful and poignant memoir, literature professor Mark Edmundson remembers his years watching and playing football. With reflections drawn from Homer and the Old Testament, Coleridge and Jim Brown, he acknowledges the lessons he gained from the game and cautions against its inherent dangers. Robert Kehoe gives his review.
“Be a football player!” was the rallying cry for the Medford Mustangs. As Mark Edmundon says at the outset of his touching memoir Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game, “We yelled those words loudly, with pride . . . but I doubt that any of us – least of all me – really knew what we were saying.” He probably wasn’t alone then, nor would he be now.
While many give lip service to clichéd ideals of football being anchored in character development, moral formation, and leadership, the sport has become so wildly popular as a source of entertainment that its educational aspects have become secondary considerations at best, or simply ignored.
The result is a simultaneous overvaluation of football’s entertainment quotient, and a reduction of the importance of athletic education for the players who entertain. This leads to further confusion when football’s leaders, coaches, and players behave badly – and when fans, communities, and institutions have overcommitted themselves to being entertained, without investigating what football is all about. Why Football Matters works to minimize that confusion. In a climate where NFL and college football news is rife with scandal, this is a book that offers football lovers and haters a chance to pause, think, and learn.
Edmundson – who teaches English at the University of Virginia and proves as conversant with Sam Huff and Y.A. Tittle as he is with Plato and Freud – argues that sports are always educational, whether learning happens by design or by accident, for good or for ill. While football can “develop character, stir courage, enhance manliness, and cultivate patriotism, faith and loyalty,” it can just as easily yield to, “brutality, thoughtlessness, dull conformity, love for the herd mentality and the herd.” Naturally, we all learn by imitation, so the questions athletes must ask – no different than practitioners of any other discipline – are who are the models they are imitating, and what are they learning. Edmundson takes on these questions through personal reflections of watching and playing the game, and a contemplative investigation of the historical and cultural conditions that have led so many young men to pursue glory on gridiron.
His education in the game began as a boy on lazy Sunday afternoons in Medford, Massachusetts. “It was 1958, 1959. We rooted for the New York Giants. My father loved getting ready for the game. He pushed his king-dad’s chair into the middle of the living room, sat down, and tested it. Fine!” With everything in place, Edmundson took to observing the nuances of the sport, the emotion of the spectacle, and his father’s running commentary. Soon he started to appropriate the language of football in the same way he would later appropriate the language of philosophy and literature in his study of literary criticism as a graduate student in English at Yale.
His father’s favorite player was Jim Brown. Edmundson remembers that the running back “had the feet of a ballerina when he dodged tacklers or skipped along the sidelines, but he had the muscle of a bull. He never ducked a hit: He ran over his enemies. When he finally was tackled, he rose with slow dignity.” Little did he know, but watching football was his introduction to interpreting an aesthetic encounter.
Of course, observing, interpreting, and opining about athletics is very different than challenging oneself to pursue true knowledge and wisdom by taking action. For Edmundson, that pursuit began when he mustered up the courage in high school – well, at the time he wouldn’t call it courage – to try something he wasn’t particularly good at: a physically demanding sport. He recollects, “I was doughnut soft around the waist, nearsighted, a slow runner, and not quick at all.” But in making the football team at Medford High School, he would soon discover, “that underneath the soft exterior I had some muscle,” it just took some blocking, hitting, tackling, lifting and running “through your pads” to find it.
While football helped him understand the meaning of courage, commitment, camaraderie, and loyalty, the unanticipated byproduct of his athletic habituation was a foundation upon which his intellectual virtues could be revealed. “Like a lot of men I came to times in my life when I had to call on the kind of strength football helped me develop. I needed the resources the game helped me create.” As a memoir of how the game helped him gain that strength, Why Football Matters is a moving tale of a boy coming of age, processing experiences of triumph and defeat through the lens of family, community, and self-discovery.
At the same time as Edmundson bears witness to the educational values football can cultivate, his book also serves as a criticism of the game’s contemporary landscape. Utilizing his understanding of literature and intellectual history, he gives a circumspect analysis of football’s sinister side and the dangers of its devolution into abject savagery. He recognizes, without equivocation, that football is inherently violent. Edmundson writes, “At the center of football is a religion of winning. You’ve got to beat the other team, knock them down, drive them off, impose your will on them.”
Connecting his experience as a player to a compelling analysis of the battle between Achilles and Hector, Edmundson shows that football players, like the warriors in Homer’s Iliad, are capable of bending and breaking rules to avoid facing loss and humiliation. At the outset of the epic poem, Homer does not evoke the god of courage. Rather, he draws from the god of anger and the immortal song of mighty Achilles’ rage and hunger for power that is fueled by fear. On this reading, it is not bravery that inspires Achilles to take the field against the Trojan warrior Hector. It is fear of humiliation, and “his drive to compensate for his shame brings him close to being a beast.” Achilles announces to Hector, “I’m so enraged I could eat your flesh.” As Edmundson makes perfectly clear: “That is the way of the lion and the wolf but not the way of man.” But if you worship at the altar of winning, the way of the lion and the wolf may be just what your fans and coach (or drill sergeant) are looking for: “Football players and soldiers constantly behave like Achilles. They go berserk. Whether they are fed by shame or primal rage or some other more noble quality, it is not easy to say. But we can say this: Those who have access to their rage often triumph.” In other words, nice guys finish last.
Here, Edmundson reflects on the Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor, who “by his own admission … turned himself into something like an animal. He was an assassin on the field. Off the field he was all about cocaine and fast driving and sex with whoever.” His Hall of Fame coach, Bill Parcells, was well aware of Taylor’s objectionable moral comportment, but he never asked anything more of his prized linebacker. The religion of winning demands a different catechism.
Whereas Achilles’ fear of failure and hunger for power drives him to glory in battle, Hector is motivated by the love of his family and the defense of his city. He is capable of violent action, but his appetites are more refined and he does not take pleasure in the acts themselves. In the end, Hector’s nobility is no match for Achilles’ rage. When Achilles drags Hector’s defeated body around the city of Troy, the religion of winning is given one of its greatest literary victories.
In real life, football has fielded plenty of players who resemble Hector (Reggie White, Barry Sanders, and Steve Young come to mind), but Hector can only hope to outwit and outlast Achilles. In football’s religious hierarchy, if Achilles – or Lawrence Taylor – assumes authority, we can do little more than cower at the feet of the winner.
With that, football’s supremacy as America’s pastime has significant ramifications. Because football games are often vital communal events, and football players are necessarily role models, Edmundson’s understanding of football as an inherently educational and moral exercise needs to be taken seriously. But the power and beauty of football’s spectacle is so moving that it becomes very easy to ignore, or trivialize, the educational and moral aspects of the game. The costs of that ignorance have already yielded grave consequences. As the sport’s audience grows, football players’ appetites appear to be leaning in Achilles’ direction.
Edmundson points out: “Every Saturday and Sunday in American football, players do astonishing deeds. They jump and bound, leap and dodge, and run at eye-searing speed. They seem for a while as if they’re more than human.” But the problem is that athletes are not more, or less, than human. They are human, and if we allow the beauty of athletic performance and achievement to result in an assertion of otherworldliness, we deny the athletes we watch the essence of their own humanity. For Edmundson, this is a moral catastrophe – one that players and families from Pop Warner football all the way to the NFL are paying for with their bodies, and sometimes their lives.
Essayist Stanley Crouch once wrote, “We are now mightily perplexed by the vulgarity and the brutal appetites of our culture.” With football’s popularity and commercial power, it appears that perplexity has given way to acceptance and assimilation. The religion of winning is winning. Ben Roethlisberger’s possible rape of a woman in the bathroom of a Georgia bar in 2010 has been virtually forgotten. Jameis Winston won the Heisman Trophy and a national championship last year in spite of suspicion that his university and Tallahassee civic officials shielded him from facing rape charges. And if it wasn’t for TMZ releasing a video of Ray Rice knocking out his soon-to-be wife, he would be playing for the Baltimore Ravens right now.
Though football’s leaders would like us to believe these are exceptions to the rule, Why Football Matters makes it abundantly clear that the way football players behave depends on what they learn from the game and the coaches who teach them. Edmundson’s reflections on the virtues and vices of the sport present a serious challenge to coaches, players, and fans to confront the vulgarity and brutality of recent headlines with more than a blind eye, or veiled ignorance.
“Be a football player!” the Medford Mustangs would say.
Ben Roethlisberger, Jameis Winston, and Ray Rice are football players. What it means to be a football player today and in the future will reveal whether we, as a people, have sided with Hector or Achilles.
Penguin Press, 2014. 240 pp. ISBN: 9781594205750
Robert L. Kehoe III is a writer who lives with his wife and sons in Madison, Wisconsin. You can follow him on Twitter at @robertkehoe3 and read his essays for Point Magazine, Howler, Eight by Eight, and other journals on his personal website.