Football as character-builder

While we’re kvetching about football…I wrote a column for the previous-to-current Free Inquiry about my dislike of the sport and its cult. (US football this is, not association football aka soccer.)

What’s so annoying about it is the crackpot assumption that everyone is wildly excited about football when after all sport is only one branch of human activity, and football is only one branch of sport. I, for one, like the other football, a.k.a. soccer, and then there is lacrosse, jai alai, bowls, darts, bocce. . . . There are many sports, and I dislike the assumption that in America we’re all supposed to share the enthusiasm for American football. I dislike the social bullying aspect of it, just as I dislike the social bullying of public religiosity or nationalism or mass mourning when a movie star dies suddenly.

If that were all, though, it would just be one among my rich assortment of peeves. But it’s not all. Football is not treated as just an enthusiasm or an entertainment. It’s taken very seriously, as a shaper of character and a source of values: not just workplace skills like discipline and teamwork, but Character. This is assumed more than argued for, in much the same way it’s assumed that religion is a key source of values and character. But what reason is there to think that football fosters good character?

Then I say a lot about what reason there is to think that it does the opposite. I say a lot about it, but I could have said more. I focused on Ray Rice and on Jerry Sandusky and Steubenville and other examples of football’s rape culture. Then I point out a pattern.

Football isn’t alone in showing this pattern. Many institutions have chronic long-running problems of sexual abuse that is concealed or dismissed—the Catholic Church, the military, universities. They all deal with it in-house instead of via law enforcement, and they are all now dealing with exposure of the festering results. Institutions have power and status, and important people within institutions have power and status. Both institutions, and the people within them, use that power and status to protect themselves at the expense of underlings and outsiders.

I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked by any of this. It’s all obvious and predictable enough:of course high status tends to confer immunity from the social pressure and sanctions that keep the rest of us in line. Of course people who have high status exploit that fact. Of course humans have always thought that important people should have extra freedom of action, so that they can exercise their importance. Homer starts The Iliad with aristocrats behaving badly, and not much has changed. We set up institutions to try to organize and channel some of these forces, but then the institutions themselves develop some of the arrogance and refusal to be accountable that the top people have always had. Football and the cult that surrounds it are an unpleasantly strong example of the process.

Given all that, and more—such as the concussion issue and the NFL’s attempts to minimize and deny it—I refuse to treat football as any kind of sacred cow. I hope the Seattle Seahawks lose every game and all the “12” flags disappear.

I look forward to your letters.

The last line should be read in the voice of Craig Ferguson.


  1. stagamancer says

    I, for one, like the other football, a.k.a. soccer.

    Why except soccer? There are plenty of serious issues with it’s global governing body, FIFA (Qatar anyone?). I won’t excuse the issues with the NFL, but claiming it, or it’s fans, are horrible while supporting soccer seems hypocritical. When’s the last time an American football referee was murdered?

  2. says

    Re ‘building character’: it strikes me that this is rather an ambiguous claim, whenever made…

    As in: sure, involvement in group activity X certainly may certainly ‘build character’. But just what sort of character are we talking, exactly?

    It tends, you’d expect, to be a mixed bag at the best of times. Sure you get ‘team players’, but you also get conformists. Depending on the culture, depending on the coach, depending on the other players, you may learn it takes cooperation and teamwork to get anywhere, and/or you may learn that those who can put the numbers on the scoreboard get away with murder in their private lives. You may learn the value of passing so someone else can make the point, or you may learn Bobby the coach’s son is never going to pass it anyway but if you give that jerk the ball, he may make the point now and then, and as a bonus he and those he’s pressed into his personal stasi may not humiliate nor injure you in the locker room after practise. You may just learn that blending in and playing along will least derail your parents’ wish to be tolerated within the community themselves, and never mind forging your own identity apart from this. Bobby, of course, learns the vital skills necessary to creating and maintaining a brutal hierarchy.

    And it seems to me a particularly pertinent objection to this ‘character building’ claim is: those outside the culture, who just don’t play along at all, are just as likely to have their character helpfully ‘built’. Granted, there is little guarantee about the quality built on this side, either. Perhaps they will learn proud independence, self-sufficiency in the teeth of cold ostracism, and a sympathy for suffering outsiders lasting them the rest of their lives; perhaps they will join the company of insightful dissenters, become one of many great artists and thinkers begun this way…

    Alternately, perhaps they’ll just become bitter jerks, blind to all suffering but their own. Ya just never know.

    … all of it leading back to the observation: team sports especially get pretty messed up, pretty quickly, and the damage they can do regularly goes far beyond concussions and soft tissue injuries. The fondness of authoritarian regimes for programs encouraging them should be a clue as to why. They’ve always been potentially very powerful social instruments, both for good and ill. It’s their apologists’ regular emphasizing of the former, neglecting to mention the latter, methinks, that is much of the problem, here. Or maybe even a symptom. As in: where you’re regularly seeing that imbalance in emphasis, you should probably worry about the character of the larger culture.

  3. David Marjanović says

    European here. Assoc. football can be quite horrible indeed. The difference relevant to this thread is that it isn’t promoted by schools or universities anywhere near like sports in general and American football in particular are in the US; there are no claims that it “builds character” or is any better for your brain than any other team sport.

    Indeed, the concept of “builds character” seems to have died out, because up until WWII it was claimed that war “builds character”.

  4. says

    “Football as character-builder”

    That claim was made by coaches in a pop warner league. It was the news story surrounding that league which led me to quit watching football in the fall of 2012.

    One Pop Warner game results in five concussions

    In an alarming case of young athletes being put at risk, five children suffered concussions last month in a Pop Warner football game that resulted in disciplinary action against both coaches and association presidents.
    The injured children, all 10 to 12 years old, played for the Tantasqua Pee Wees Sept. 15 when they were overrun, 52-0, by a Southbridge team whose website’s banner states, “Are You Tough Enough.’’

    The five children missed various numbers of school days because of their injuries, and one has not returned to the field.


    “There’s an obligation to walk across the field and say, ‘This thing is out of hand,’ and nobody did that,’’ he said.

    Iller said Tantasqua staff members with emergency medical training evaluated the injured children during the game but did not consider their conditions serious enough to warrant further attention.

    Five concussions in a single game “does not warrant further attention”. The parents, referees and coaches let the game continue long after the “mercy rule” should have been invoked.

    Parents who put kids under 13 into football are no better than parents who shake babies. The only difference is that the kids cause brain injuries to each other, not the parents to their own kids.

  5. says

    @ 1 – I didn’t say I support soccer – I said I like it, in the course of pointing out that there are a lot of sports and it’s not self-evident that US football is at the pinnacle of them or The One that everyone loves. I just meant I like it, as a game, to watch with some enjoyment. I like watching figure skating and gymnastics, too – but even though I like watching them, I am at the same time annoyed by the difference in the way women and men are (apparently) required to dress.

    I know, about FIFA and Qatar – I’ve blogged about it at least a couple of times.

  6. anbheal says

    It’s worth noting the epidemic of concussions among women soccer players in the NCAA and across the globe. FIFA and the NCAA are in denial as much as the NFL. I mean, I agree with your take on the NFL, but soccer is almost as poor a counter-example as boxing. And talk about the pressure to feign enthusiasm, and the anti-social nature of the most fervent fans…..I believe the word “hooliganism” is associated with one sport more than any other, and it ain’t football. And if you ever ask a Mexican barkeep to change the channel from the least important Premier League soccer match to, I dunno, the Russians nuking Washington, or the incoming tsunami, you may expect the most savage of reprisals from all the other drinkers!

    I think soccer is the more malevolent influence, worldwide, hands down. Russell Wilson is unlikely to suffer the fate of Andres Escobar, for a similar mistake.

  7. says

    Again – I didn’t say in the FI column, and I’m not saying in general, that football aka soccer is good while US football is bad. I simply said that I like football aka soccer, meaning, as a game to watch.

    Or wait, I did say in another post that it’s open to girls and women. True. I did forget about headers and the concussion issue. Fair point.

  8. chrislawson says

    Ophelia, I think it’s just a misreading of your first two sentences, which *seem* to imply that soccer is better than US football not just as a sport you enjoy watching but also regarding “its cult”, but obviously that was not your meaning.

  9. says

    Ah yes, I see. No that’s not what I meant – I just meant it was specifically US football I was writing about. Since everywhere in the world other than the US means one thing by “football” and only the US means that other thing, I always feel the need to clarify.

  10. lpetrich says

    J.K. Galbraith, The McLandress Dimension, “Allston Wheat’s Crusade”. Gore Vidal in Reflections upon a Sinking Ship on it:

    “Allston Wheat’s Crusade” is a good little joke. A right-winger sets out to prove that team sports are a tool of the Communist conspiracy since they tend to diminish the individual while glorifying the group. At one point, the author nicely parodies the Bircher prose style: “America is a country of team sports. We must see these sports for what they are. They are brainwashing stations for individualism. They are training schools for collectivism, socialism, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism.”

  11. says

    I think that, generally speaking, “building character” actually means “destroying individuality,” whether or not anyone understands or admits this.

  12. smrnda says

    Claims that any specific activity or pursuit ‘builds character’ seems, to me, to just be a way of implying that the insiders possess incredible personal qualities at a level outsiders can’t possibly reach. It’s just in group chauvinism. Given the frequent criminal conduct of athletes at all levels, it also seems pretty ridiculous.

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