College football kickoff is upon us, and former Dartmouth Big Green placekicker Chuck Zodda is jacked and pumped for the occasion. Opening Day is a chance to look back at where we’ve been, and to wonder about the future of the game we love.
When I was 10 years old and entering fifth grade, I told my mother I wanted to play football.
Her response was predictable, considering I weighed all of 65 pounds and would have looked like a human candied apple with a helmet on. The sport was too dangerous, I was too small, and if I wanted to play, I would have to wait until high school. Being the wise-ass that I was (still am) I told her that I could only end up injured if someone could catch me, which was obviously impossible since I was faster than anyone at school.
By the time I reached high school, I was good at soccer, so switching to football was out of the question. But when my natural talent with a round ball peaked during my freshman year of college, I decided to walk onto the football team as a kicker.
My mom was undoubtedly pleased that I would now be on a field with 300-pound men trying to rip the head off of anyone with a different-colored jersey.
I spent the first 19 years of my life never playing a down of organized football. But the game still pulled me in and captured me for three years in college, despite my own genetics, family, and other pursuits pulling me in the opposite direction.
We sit here today on the eve of the NCAA and NFL seasons with many fans feeling that same pull for different reasons.
The effects of concussions on players during and after their playing careers have become a health issue that we are only beginning to understand the depths of, not only in terms of with physical injuries but also with the recognition that mental illness might be the transactional cost of playing the game. At the same time that scientists are learning more about concussions and impact injuries on the brain, the NFL continues to hide behind the claim that it didn’t know about the risks, much the way tobacco companies hid behind a similar claim regarding cigarettes in the mid-20th century.
The NFL also is making little progress on dealing with the problem of domestic violence, moving from the botched handling of the Ray Rice and Greg Hardy situations last year to last week’s charging of Ray McDonald and Ahmad Brooks with rape and sexual battery respectively. Just last week, we s saw clips from the 2014 rookie symposium, in which rookies were encouraged to find someone to “find a fall guy” for their poor decisions, rather than improve the decision-making that led to them.
But the problems aren’t exclusive to the NFL. The NCAA continues to be locked in a battle with its players over their right to earn money for their play, with the ruling against the Northwestern football players union the latest blow to college athletes wanting to be more than free labor for billion dollar enterprises. While this battle is far from over, it is clear the NCAA and its member institutions are digging in their heels, knowing that once Pandora’s box is open, there is no turning back.
All the while, we have somehow been captivated by the idea that deflated footballs is somehow a problem worthy of an eight-month investigation that has fortunately provided us with the phrase “Dorito dink” and Rob Gronkowski making “DEEZ NUTS” jokes to break up the monotony.
Forgive me while I ask the question that is on all of our minds today:
What the hell am I doing watching football?
Football fans have been on the run. It is easy for people not connected to the game to ridicule it for being the “National Felon League” or wondering why anyone would let their child play football with the emerging research into concussions and their effects later in life. When Mike Ditka, one of the toughest players to ever play the game and a man who has been handsomely rewarded for it, said, “If God had wanted man to play soccer, he wouldn’t have given us arms,” now says that he wouldn’t let his children play football (you were right, mom), how does the average fan defend the sport, let alone tune in to watch games?
It has been just as difficult being a writer. In some ways, I wonder if by writing about the great plays or comical missteps simply glosses over the fact that we are watching a sport that seems to do more harm than good to the people playing the game. Trying to figure out my responsibility throughout the developments of the past year has been difficult. The first impulse is to deny there is a problem, just like any time that someone tries to take something from you that is important and meaningful. But football does have problems with the health of its players, with the compensation of players, and with how those players conduct themselves in society. Is it wrong for me to still love football even with all of the issues present in the game today?
Because make no mistake about it, I love football.
I love the raw emotion on big plays. I love quarterbacks looking off defensive backs before delivering perfect strikes to the opposite side of the field. I love linebackers teasing a blitz before dropping into coverage and making a pick. I love two coaches separated by 53.3 yards scheming to outsmart each other.
But it is not just what happens on the field.
I love the sound of the crowd building as they watch a running back trying to make it to the end zone as he runs out of gas. I love the spray of beer as the crowd erupts in celebration and temporarily loses all motor control. Hell, I love sitting in traffic for an hour on the way to the game knowing that 70,000 people are doing the exact same thing at that very moment.
There are a lot of problems with football today. But there is also so much that is right about it. With 140-character clips and 30-second soundbites, we are often left wanting for nuance in a world that wants to push us to make quick, simplistic declarations of what we believe in. But make no bones about it – loving football and wanting to improve it are not mutually exclusive ideas.
Football is our invention, it is our child. Just like a child growing up has to learn right from wrong and how to behave in order to reach its potential, so does football. Our job as fans, players, coaches, owners, and writers is to help guide it in that direction. Let that be in the back of your mind when you watch this season. Embrace what is great about the game, and look for ways to improve it for the next ones to suit up.
Because I don’t want to have to tell my future 10-year old that he can’t play the game he loves.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.