What Is Football Doing To Us As A People?

Jun 1, 2016
Originally published on June 1, 2016 3:46 pm

A few years ago during an interview, Dave Pear, a former defensive lineman with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, suddenly, without warning, grabbed me — his huge thumb and forefinger pinching my poor neck. It was only for a few seconds, but my knees started to buckle and the pain shot through me. Calmly then, Dave said, "That's how I used to feel all day long."

The point of that little episode is not just to show how painful football can be and how it can leave players like Dave Pear wounded for life. Does each of us need to suffer agony to understand how brutal our gridiron entertainment is? Surely, seeing is believing enough. So, what is football doing to us as a people? How do we explain an America that alone in the world so loves this savage sport?

Click the audio to hear Frank Deford's full commentary on this issue.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

With the NFL's recent admission to Congress that their game can indeed cause brain damage, commentator Frank Deford wonders why Americans continue to love football so much.

FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: A few years ago, during an interview, Dave Pear, a former NFL Pro Bowler as a defensive lineman with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, suddenly without warning, grabbed me, his huge thumb and forefinger pinching my poor neck. It was only for a few seconds. But my knees started to buckle, and the pain shot through me. Calmly then, Dave said, that's how I used to feel all day long.

The point of that little episode is not just to show how painful football can be and how it can leave players like Dave Pear wounded for life. Does each of us need to suffer agony to understand how brutal our gridiron entertainment is? Surely, seeing is believing enough. So what is football doing to us as a people? How do we explain an America that, alone in the world, so loves this savage sport?

Of course sometimes, despite all the National Football League does to conceal the facts, the truth stumbles out. A few weeks ago, before a congressional committee, an NFL vice president admitted - yes, he couldn't deny it - there was obviously a link between the game and the battered brains of those who played it.

Then, a few days ago, Doug Whaley, the Buffalo Bills general manager, baldly stated on the radio that it's a violent game that, personally, I don't think human beings are supposed to play. Naturally, even before the human beings at NFL headquarters on Park Avenue recovered from the shock, general manager Whaley said he certainly didn't mean to say what he did say so loud and clear. All I could think of was the late comedian Flip Wilson whose favorite punchline was a screech - the devil made me do it. Thank you, Satan, I thought.

But then the NFL was also recently been accused by some members of Congress of duplicity, trying to manipulate it so that their favorite investigators would get the lion's share of a grant to the National Institutes of Health to study the sport's brain damage. Of course, the NFL's chief enabler Commissioner Roger Goodell maintained that the league acted appropriately.

Meanwhile, the Ivy League banned full-contact practice, which is analogous to baseball forbidding fielding practice. Really, what does it say about an activity that it is so dangerous that you better not work at it? Notwithstanding, whether the damage to the players or the pain they endure - which I was privileged to suffer once but for a few seconds - we Americans will not stop adoring football. The devil must make us do it.

CHANG: That's commentator Frank Deford. His new book is, "I'd Know That Voice Anywhere: My Favorite NPR Commentaries." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.