On NPR's "Weekend Edition: Sunday" today, the show featured a segment with Nate Jackson talking about his just-published memoir, Slow Getting Up. The New Yorker's Ian Crouch melds Jackson's view of his life in the NFL with a recent column by the NY Fishwrap's William C. Rhoden about the morality of NFL-fandom. Rhoden offered 3 options to NFL fans:
1. Watch the games no matter the consequences.
2. Watch the games despite troubling thoughts.
3. Walk away from the games without a backward look.
Today, the NFL is entering Week 3. If this is a (fair & balanced) faux Hobson's choice, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
Is It O.K. To Watch Football?
By Ian Crouch
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
In the past few years—thanks to a combination scientific study; legal action from current and former players; dedicated reporting; and an increased, though surely belated, openness on the part N.F.L. executives—football fans have been forced to confront something that we already knew from plain sight: the sport is dangerous for the people who play it—for their joints, and bones, and muscles, and, especially, for their brains. The recent settlement between the N.F.L. and thousands of former players or their families, who were suing the league for what they alleged was its failure to inform players about the long-term health risks of concussions and other head trauma, does not resolve the issue for fans. The deal means that no evidence about what the league has known about head injuries, and for how long it has known it, will come up in the discovery process before a trial: key language in the agreement holds that it “cannot be considered an admission by the NFL of liability, or an admission that plaintiffs’ injuries were caused by football.” Nor does it absolve us from taking time to ask ourselves some hard but basic questions: Is it O.K. to watch, and take intense pleasure from, a game that is so hazardous to its players? Should football in its current form even exist?
In a recent column for the Times, the longtime sportswriter William C. Rhoden considered these issues and reached the conclusion that fans are left with three options, none of them entirely satisfying:
You love the product and don’t really care about its costs.
You are troubled by football but will continue to watch.
You will walk away.
Rhoden is not the only writer to think about the sport this way, but his three choices are usefully stark. And they’re especially relevant for any reader of Slow Getting Up (2013), a compelling and often funny new memoir by Nate Jackson, who spent six seasons as a receiver and tight end in the N.F.L., before retiring in 2009. Jackson went undrafted as a wide receiver from Menlo College, a small school near his hometown of San José, before being signed briefly by the San Francisco 49ers. He was dismissed by some as too slow to be a receiver, and later, when he played tight end for the Denver Broncos, the knock was that he was too small. These limitations hurt his football career, but they may well have helped his writing—if there’s a sweet spot for the sports memoirist, it’s mediocrity. (Though, in this case, mediocrity means being among the best players of a sport on earth, but middling among one’s fellow pros.) Jackson is neither egghead nor meathead; he’s one of the boys playing a game he loves, but he also happens to have his eyes open to the cracks in football’s formidable mythology. And his memoir, with its competing passion and ambivalence, offers evidence and argument for fans who may be considering Rhoden’s set of choices.
Option No. 1: “You love the product and don’t really care about its costs.”
A common argument from contented, unworried football fans is that players in the N.F.L. are not conscripted into a violent game, but instead eagerly strive for it all their young lives and are richly rewarded with money and attention. Jackson takes it one step further, arguing that for players, the real rewards of football are in its violence: “I want to get hit. I mean really hit. I want to hit the ground hard and get up shaking myself off because I think I’m dead.” In some of the book’s most captivating prose, Jackson writes about the thrills of what he calls “the ritual sacrifice” of kickoffs. They are among the game’s most dangerous plays, but still, he concludes, “There is no feeling that will ever replace that moment in my life. I know that now.”
Jackson also writes extensively about the perks of money, status, fame, and power. “The world is ours in Denver.... There’s never reason to worry: Drink up, young stallion. And keep your wallet in your pocket. Your money is no good in this city. Your dick, however, is another story. Keep that thing ready. You never know when you’ll need it.” This is the alluring dream of professional sports—seemingly eternal high-rolling through Super Bowl parties, Vegas adventures, and Sunday nights at the hottest clubs full of what Jackson calls “bloodthirsty jersey chasers.” Jackson, whose sense of irony deflates most of the false glories of modern football, can’t help boasting a bit about his escapades as a large and well-monied man cast in the glow of his spot on an N.F.L. roster. (To his credit, many of his advances end in various comic rejections, and most of the sex talk in the book is about masturbation.) He buys a Denali S.U.V., and later a big house in the suburbs, which is mostly empty. He knows these things are silly, clichés of sudden sports money, but he does them anyway—and notices how his ride compares to the others in the parking lot.
Beyond the money, there are other more sincere pleasures: the deep friendships with fellow players and coaches and members of a team’s staff; the sights and smells of a manicured field; the feeling of catching your first professional touchdown after toiling for years in obscurity. At the front of the book, Jackson quotes his former quarterback Jake Plummer: “Football is fun.”
Option No. 2: “You are troubled by football but will continue to watch.”
Despite his love of football, Jackson is constantly noting his mixed feelings about the pros. The N.F.L. offers no guaranteed contracts; for most players, the only sure money comes from signing bonuses. “I am meat, traded to the highest bidder: the only bidder,” he writes. “Fine, I’ll be your meat. I’ll be whatever you want me to be. Just give me a helmet.” When Jackson travels out of the country, his passport is stamped as “entertainer.” The N.F.L., he writes, has become a “pageant.” The reality of the thing gets lost on most viewers, watching in their living rooms or at their local bar:
Consuming the product through a television screen, at a safe distance, dehumanizes the athlete and makes his pain unreal. The more you watch it, the less real it becomes, until the players are nothing more than pixelated video game characters to be bartered and traded.
Jackson details all his injuries—he was hampered throughout his career by various problems with his legs—and the pain meds he and his fellow players were injected with each week: “every game a needle,” he writes.
The game becomes for Jackson like a poisoned love affair, one he knows is bad for him, but from which he can’t get entirely clear. At low moments, he considers his vocation with resignation, as simply as an exercise in rough capitalism: “The physical talent we were born with pushed us onto the football field. It was a no-brainer, really. Society funnels people into the industries that their talents serve.”
Option No. 3: “You will walk away.”
Jackson’s most pointed criticism of professional football is aimed at the medical care in what he calls the “industrial football complex.” His recovery plans felt rigid and overly generalized: “There simply isn’t time to pay attention to the individual athlete’s body.... Here’s the program. Go.” He writes about feeling left out of his own treatment programs, which were often presented to him after they’d already been approved by coaches and team management. Though he doesn’t address concussions, it is easy to see how some players may have felt that they were in the dark about their own health, or later, came to feel that they hadn’t been protected by people they were told to trust. Some of that ignorance was likely willful. Jackson writes about how most players preferred playing with injuries to being left in the isolation of rehab. He equates going on injured reserve and being kept off the field for the remainder of a season with death.
Still, Jackson never condemns football as too dangerous to exist—nor does he suggest reforms to the rules that might better protect its players. He is proud of his size and strength, and of the big, strong men whom he worked with each season. His football dream would never have come to pass if fans had decided to walk away from the game. He is plain about the moral mathematics: “My life hurts. But pain is glory. And glory is money.” Elsewhere, he spells out the ethos of success on the field: “Decide what you’re going to do and do it violently.”
Jackson, in the end, walked away from football, fortunate to be mentally intact. But he didn’t choose to quit. If his legs hadn’t failed him, he’d have kept at it. He has a sharp eye for hypocrisy and nonsense, but he is also a sports idealist, and football, in its ideal state, was what he lived for until he couldn’t anymore. “Every crease and every line, every grunt and every pop, I’m playing the game I love,” he writes. “The grass is still green, the hits still hurt, and the ball in flight is still the most beautiful sight I know. I will chase it to the ends of the earth.” Ω
[Ian Crouch is a Web producer at The New Yorker. He received a B.A. (English) from Duke University and an M.A. (Journalism) from New York University.]
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