Making Poetic Sport of the Wounded

by Ravi Mangla

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When asked for my favorite Don DeLillo novel (a question that has yet to manifest in the natural course of conversation), I invariably respond with End Zone. A deep cut from the DeLillo library, the book is markedly different than its predecessor (the oft-brilliant Americana): slimmer, sharper, more disciplined, and leavened with his peculiar brand of gallows humor. The themes that come to dominate his later works — namely, a preoccupation with nuclear armament and its apocalyptic consequences — first take root in End Zone. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call it the Great American Football Novel, as so little competition exists (unless we’re counting Matt Christopher titles). The lack of literary interest in the game is surprising, since it serves as the perfect lens through which to examine our fractured state: its ingrained prejudices, gender distortions, money lust, and, above all, the culture of brute violence that has come under increased scrutiny of late.

The lack of literary interest in the game is surprising, since it serves as the perfect lens through which to examine our fractured state: its ingrained prejudices, gender distortions, money lust, and, above all, the culture of brute violence that has come under increased scrutiny of late.

My own love affair with football started early, around seven or eight. I had a shrine dedicated to the Miami Dolphins in the corner of my bedroom, with ephemera ranging from felt pennants to signed photos of my favorite players. I never missed a game on television. Losses reduced me to inconsolable fits of angst and suffering. Sundays passed with trepidation in my household. Bad news meant a storm, and my parents had to be prepared to batten down the hatches.

This zealous fandom continued for the next decade or so. I traveled to Florida to watch their training camp, attended conventions, managed fantasy teams, and even started a football blog (everything short of a porpoise tattoo). It wasn’t until the Richie Incognito bullying scandal that my passion for the game began to level off. Reading Incognito’s racist and homophobic messages to teammate Jonathan Martin opened my eyes to the gladiatorial mentality and language of violence cultivated in NFL locker rooms. Instead of denouncing the actions of Incognito, players vilified Martin for reporting the abuses and seeking emotional support. When Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland was notified of the ongoing harassment, he advised Martin to punch Incognito in the face. Because apparently that’s what real men do.

This newfound disillusionment with the game was only compounded by SportsCenter’s daily screenings of Jadeveon Clowney’s thundering tackle on Michigan running back Vincent Smith, which earned Clowney an ESPY award and instant celebrity (the YouTube video of the tackle has logged over five million views). My last iota of interest in the sport was atomized following the Ray Rice assault charges and the NFL’s abysmal attempt to sweep the incriminating evidence under the rug. Mind you, this is not a new tactic in the NFL playbook. Former Bears GM Jerry Angelo recently admitted to concealing “hundreds and hundreds” of abuse cases during his tenure with the team. For many executives, the decision of whether to report a violent crime is less a moral concern than a monetary one.

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In August, Steve Almond released Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. The book documents Almond’s own disenchantment with the game and its malignant influence on our culture. An extended chapter is dedicated to the prevalence of brain injuries among former players and the dubious ethics of watching athletes incur repeated blows to the head. Almond offers several prospective changes to curb the most dangerous aspects of the sport, including legislation prohibiting players younger than sixteen from engaging in full contact and imposing a weight limit on participants. Recent studies estimate the average lifespan for an offensive lineman is 52 years, with one in three players experiencing cognitive problems at a significantly younger age than the average person. Combine that with an elevated rate of suicide and chronic pain from bone and ligament damage and you’ve got a veritable minefield of post-retirement health risks for players to navigate. Unfortunately this is not something likely to be remedied with a few simple tweaks to the rules. Physical pain is endemic to the sport and any changes implemented by the league are bound to be disappointingly small and entirely inadequate.

It would be naive for me to claim that watching football inures us to violence, as anyone can tell you there’s a seismic difference between televised violence and experiencing it firsthand. My issue is more with the symbolic qualities of the sport, its embodiment of all the injustices in this country, from corporate tax loopholes (the NFL is a tax-exempt organization) to the war on drugs (the league doles out harsher punishments for drug use than it does for domestic violence) to its history of institutional racism (even with the Rooney Rule, minority coaches and executives are routinely overlooked). The attitudes and practices of the league run so contrary to my personal politics that I can no longer in good conscience allow the sport my patronage.

The attitudes and practices of the league run so contrary to my personal politics that I can no longer in good conscience allow the sport my patronage.

The game came on and we all watched it, marveling at the pros, how easily they did the things we stumbled over. In slow motion the game’s violence became almost tender, a series of lovely and sensual assaults. The camera held on fallen men, on men about to be hit, on those who did the hitting. It was a loving relationship with just a trace of mockery; the camera lingered a big too long, making poetic sport of the wounded. We laughed at the most acrobatic spills and the hardest tackles and at the meanness of some of it, the gang tackles and cheap shots. We laughed especially at the meanness.

Perhaps more than any other sports novel End Zone captures the self-conscious machismo and hyper-militarized speak of the locker room environment (“They’re out to get us. They’ll bleach our skulls with hydrosulfite.” “They’ll rip off our clothes and piss on our bare feet.”) In the heat of West Texas, toughness is valued above all else. Cecil Rector’s dislocated shoulder is corrected with a crude harness. Ron Steeples is knocked out cold and later shepherded back into the game. Jimmy Fife is teased over a ruptured spleen. The tolerance of physical pain is akin to religious rite. Injuries are worn like badges of honor. Players are lured to the program by the promise of pain and sacrifice. Even Gary Harkness, the story’s protagonist, searches for meaning in the game, a reigning sense of order. They believe by surrendering themselves to a collective identity they can be absolved of fear and uncertainty. By uniting toward a common goal they can rise above their individual limitations. Fans of the game seek a similar salve, a means to transcend the mundanities of their day. But like the dizzying hits that are slowly grinding brains into a grayish pulp, I fear how our continued consumption will wear on our own minds.

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