One of Gregg Easterbrook’s contentions in “The King of Sports’’ is that “football is the perfect game for the cultural contradictions of the United States.”
He may be right.
As Tony Dungy, who coached the Buccaneers and Colts, puts it, “football is America’s game because it is aggressive, and Americans are aggressive people.” Assuming that by “Americans’’ Dungy means citizens living between Mexico and Canada, that would appear to be true. The United States does lead the world in the production and sales of weapons and our leaders maintain a military presence throughout the world, often aggressively.
But, while the image of America is “raucous’’ and “confrontational,’’ our country likes to think of itself as “free, fair, and tolerant.’’
In “The King of Sports’’ Easterbrook finds our national game, like our national image, to be rife with paradox. In his book, the contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and ESPN.com columnist offers a critique of organized football, along with an example of one college program he views as exemplary, Frank Beamer’s Virginia Tech Hokies (a program that wins, acknowledges concussions, and graduates African-American players at a respectable rate), and suggestions on how the game could be reformed.
Easterbrook notes the NFL’s disregard for player welfare, both at the team and the league level. He cites physical risks taken by players and downplayed by teams looking to exploit them for profit. The NFL’s recent settlement of the lawsuit brought against the league by more than 4,500 former players or their family members does not address the charge that for years the NFL denied that players suffered brain damage as a result of two factors: their employment, and their inclination to listen to the bad advice of trainers and doctors retained by the teams.
Pro football, like boxing, has been presented as a workplace where — as Easterbrook puts it — “black males can achieve career success without doing well in high school and college.” This, he points out, is “a mirage.” The careers of all but the most talented and fortunate players, black or white, are much too short for them to achieve security, and years after they retire or are fired, many are still on the hook for substantial medical expenses.
Easterbrook also points out the political dualism of football, which exudes “a patina of political conservatism,” despite that the NFL (a nonprofit corporation) embraces “socialist economics’’ in the way it divides television revenue among teams, and both it and the NCAA rely heavily “on public money” for buildings, stadiums, and infrastructure.
College football takes some hits, too. Easterbrook is especially irked by what he calls “the Grand Illusion” by which college coaches recruit teenagers with the promise of eventual access to the pros. He cites Nick Saban as one of the most energetic endorsers of “the Grand Illusion,” contending that Saban has abandoned the idea of selling recruits on “tradition, a fine campus, and a big stadium full of loyal fans” in favor of encouraging them to see playing for Alabama as a stepping stone to an NFL contract, which Easterbrook regards as a con job.
College players who’ve been injured face a particularly unhappy circumstance. Although the show they stage can yield millions of dollars for the university and the NCAA, officially the players are not paid, and “[o]nce an injured athlete leaves college, the NCAA washes its hands,” meaning that neither the college nor the governing authority of college sports need help with medical expenses.
At the end of “The King of Sports,’’ Easterbrook suggests ways in which football at all levels could be reformed. He reports that the NFL presently pledges “less than one fifth of 1 percent of the revenue of the league” to programs promoting player safety. He reasons convincingly that it should be more.
And he’d like to see college football leaders acknowledge that the obligations built into playing football at the D-1 level make it difficult for a young man to take legitimate courses, let alone earn a meaningful degree. He suggests those schools award players six-year scholarships, which would ensure that they’d get at least one year as a student without football obligations.
Easterbrook ends the book with a tough but oddly hopeful question: “The United States faces many challenges more important than reforming football. . . . If the United States can’t come to grips with the relatively small task of cleaning up its national sport, how will the country ever achieve progress on grand issues?’’
Bill Littlefield hosts NPR’s “Only a Game.” He is writer-in-residence at Curry College. He can be reached at blittlef@ bu.edu.