Monday, September 15, 2014


               The National Football League is riding high financially these days, occupying ever-larger chunks of the TV spectrum, packing its taxpayer-funded stadiums at ticket prices that far exceed the average taxpayer’s budget, and selling its gear to people of all ages and both sexes.  Franchise values have soared, heading into the 10-figure stratosphere. There’s enough spare cash floating around it to take a chunk out of the national debt.
              Funny thing, though: the league never has been more defensive, and I’m not talking about the kind of dee-fense that takes place on the field.

               Finding reasons for the posture doesn’t require reading between the lines, to invoke another gridiron term. Daily news accounts and security-cam videos produce recurring evidence that players who are paid to be beastly in uniform can’t always turn off their aggression after they take off their pads. Nothing new there, but we always treat it as though it is. Last season’s Miami Dolphins’ bullying revelations showed that some of those guys aren’t nice even to their teammates.

Worse, the dangers of playing football—always manifest—have become apparent to the most obtuse, as former stars such as Junior Seau and Dave Duerson take their own lives rather than soldier on with the consequences of old injuries, and other ex-players by the score parade their once-hidden wounds and seek redress. It’s not a pretty sight.

That last situation concerns more than just NFL alums; in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine, under the headline “Hating The Game,”  the “The Ethicist” column dealt with a reader’s question of whether it’s okay to support a league that seems to know it is detrimental to the health of its participants. The (long) answer by columnist Chuck Klosterman boiled down to the observation that NFLers are well-paid, adult volunteers who by playing take an “elective physical risk” similar to that of the practitioners of other dangerous trades, so it’s permissible to cheer them on.

That’s my take, too, but the reasoning breaks down when it’s applied to the kids’ and high-school games that are the sport’s foundation.  The participants there are below the age of informed consent and any parent worth the name these days must think long and hard before signing the forms that send their sons off to battle. Making that choice more difficult are recent studies that show it doesn’t take a Big Bang concussion to trigger lasting brain damage, that the cumulative, small-b bangs inevitably sustained during football practice and seemingly eventless games can have the same effect. 

The NFL doesn’t take adversity idly. It’s countering its risks-to-kids problem by pushing a program called “Heads Up Football” that involves teaching young players not to lead with their heads while tackling, blocking or carrying the ball. Instruction techniques are available at a NFL-sponsored website called, which it plugs in TV ads featuring smiling youngsters. Interestingly, the site carriers a $25 charge for coaches and others wishing to learn the program, meaning that the league has turned safety into a revenue source. And while anything that might reduce head and neck injuries is good, it’s disingenuous to imply (as the “Heads Up” ads do) that it sanitizes the sport.

Further, the NFL isn’t satisfied with a provisional pass, it wants mushy and unconditional love from its followers. That’s the message of its “Together We Make Football” campaign, which, through a website of the same name, offers Super Bowl trips for the best testimonials to the positive impact of the gridiron game on people’s lives.

I’ve checked out the site and it’s a hoot.  Many of the letters shown break new ground in inventive grammar, spelling and word use; those are regarded as evidence of sincerity, I guess. For example Allen, a Cincinnati Bengals fan (last names aren’t used), writes that he and his neighbors in Westwood, Ky., love the local high-school team because “they go out and give it there all.” He adds: “We’re happy when they win and sad when they lose to the point their is tears.”

Serita, a Green Bay Packers fan, recalls her introduction to the sport thusly: “I remember when I was younger me and my mom used to watch the game all the time. I ask my mom what’s on TV and my mom said sat down and watch it and I been liking the game since.”

Most of the letters credit football for being a focal point of pleasant gatherings of family and friends, but some say it brought more-specific benefits. Baltimore Colts fan Tommy writes: “I was always a shy guy growing up until one day I saw Peyton Manning play during the 2009 season. After that day I became a fan and my social circles have increased.”

There are tales of courage: “My son Spencer has been playing football since he was 7.  Even sore with echilis tendinitis he never complained FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME,” writes New York Giants fan Connie.

And of developmental milestones: “Our baby was born August 9, 2013,” writes Packers fan Jasmine. “Two months later we were watching a Packers game and I was screaming because they scored. And I hear by two-month-old baby go “OHHHHHH!” Her first word. All because of Green Bay.”

It’ll be tough, however, to top the testimony of Dallas Cowboys fan Anna. Her missive rambled, and is hard to excerpt, so I’ll paraphrase. It seems that she also was a New York Jets fan when Boomer Esiason played there. In one Jets’ game she watched with friends, while in the late stage of a difficult pregnancy, her darlings blew a lead, causing her to become apoplectic. Her friends, alarmed, rushed her to a hospital, where her child was born through an emergency c-section.

 Later, the doctor told her that if she hadn’t delivered when she did, blood clots might have formed that would have threatened her life and her child’s, so the dog-ass Jets’ collapse could have saved them both. If that story isn’t worth a Super Bowl trip I don’t know what would be.

Monday, September 1, 2014


               They didn’t have Little League when I was growing up in Chicago during the 1940s and early ‘50s.  We played 16-inch softball because it was best suited to the small playgrounds and parks that were handiest, and didn’t require much gear. But play ball? We did lots of that in season, mornings, afternoons and evenings until it got too dark.
              We played mostly choose-up-- three-against-three, four-against-four, or whatever alignments our numbers that day allowed. We tailored the rules to suit the circumstances, usually requiring pitcher’s hands out, right field out and the batting team supplying the catcher and umpire. Those last two things might seem iffy, but they almost always worked out okay.

We played some organized softball, too, in my case mostly at the gravel-surfaced McPherson School playground I frequented.  The playground director was a rotund political appointee named Ed Uhlich, whom we kids nicknamed “Uncle Ed” because he was anything but avuncular. He did, however, bestir himself to schedule occasional practices, hit fungoes to us and make out the lineups when we played other playground teams at the “midget” (ages 8, 9 and 10) and “junior” (11-13) levels.

 We had only so-so success in those leagues until the last year, when a couple of miraculously talented kids, including Billy Haig, who would become a basketball star at DePaul U., joined our ranks, and we won a city title. That’s the way I remember it, anyway. I’d feel better about the brag if I still had the medal to prove it, but, alas, it’s been lost.

By “we” I mean the boys my age who lived in the Northside neighborhood around the school.  There were girls in the nabe, of course, but we guys never (as in never) played sports with them. It wasn’t that we rejected them, it was that the subject never came up. Girls did other things for fun back then. I mean, they must have.

The pattern continued at Roosevelt High School, which I attended (1951-55); it had varsity sports for boys but not for girls. Ditto for the other Chicago public high schools then, as far as I know.  Any controversy engendered by that situation was all but unvoiced. Girls were cheerleaders, and that was that.

Now things are different; indeed, the spread of women’s sports has been the biggest change in the sports world since—well—ever. Simple equity demanded it, pushed along by the example of the Olympics (the one really worthwhile thing that institution has done) and Title IX, the 1972 Civil Rights Act amendment that prohibited discrimination by sex in any educational program or activity that received Federal funding. Forty-plus years later we’re still arguing about what Title IX means, but for thousands of woman and girls it’s certainly meant the opportunity and wherewithal to express themselves athletically.

   Mostly, separation rules on the fields of play: girls play girls and boys play boys. Once in a while, though, the pattern gets broken, as it did in the Little League Baseball World Series a week or so ago. There, in full view of ESPN, 13-year-old Mo’ne Davis, representing a Philadelphia team, not only pitched a complete game in the diamond sport’s annual kids’ classic but shut out her foe, busting 70 mph fastballs past bewildered boys. As they say, the crowd went wild. That included Sports Illustrated magazine, which put the youngster on its cover.  
             People get excited whenever girls (or women) beat boys (or men) in sports, even in horse racing, where the physiological differences between the sexes are less important athletically than they are in humans. I guess that’s because everyone loves an underdog. Truth is, though, that in the Little League eligibility ages of 11 through 13 girls are in the least-underdoggy phase of their lives, being on average a bit taller and heavier than boys of the same age (no kidding). Girls usually mature (i.e., go through puberty) earlier than boys, and thus have their growth spurts earlier. By mid-teens, however, boys usually have passed them, and by adulthood have about a 50% edge in “lean body mass” (i.e., muscle). That’s the basis of male athletic superiority.
            Every so often a promoter will turn a buck by challenging the above verity and staging a so-called Battle of the Sexes. The most notable of these came in 1973 when Bobby Riggs, a tennis champion in his youth but by then a 55-year-old hustler, ginned up (and won) a match with Margaret Court, a top-ranked woman. Having captured the media’s attention, he then took on a 29-year-old Billy Jean King, the reigning women’s Wimbledon champ, in a nationally televised match in the Houston Astrodome involving side deals that were much more lucrative than the $100,000 match prize.

 King wasn’t impressed by Riggs’ dink-and-lob game and whipped him, sending women everywhere off in search of tennis gear and instruction.  That was great but a more-accurate measure of the courtly difference between the sexes was a 1992 match between Jimmy Connors, only slightly over the hill at 40, and a closer-to-her-prime Martina Navratilova, then 35. Connors won 7-5, 6-2, despite getting only one serve a point in his service games and allowing Martina to hit into the doubles alleys.

Plenty of women can beat plenty of men in plenty of sports, but at the top level of sports in which both sexes participate in pretty much the same events (mainly track and field and swimming), men’s records are uniformly about 15% better than women’s.  That’s also about the year-in, year-out difference in average drives on the PGA and LPGA tours, which is why the women compete on shorter championship courses than the men.

Mo’ne Davis seems like a terrific kid, poised and pleasant. Her team made the semi-finals of the Little League tournament, no small achievement. Interviewed on TV after one game in Williamsport she said that she likes to play basketball, too, and that her ambition is to be the first woman to play in either Major League Baseball or the NBA.  It’s good that she’s keeping her options open.