Illegal Procedures

Yeah, still a fan. But I’m having more and more trouble enjoying football—and I sense a new culture war brewing.

By Michael Tomasky

Tagged Sports

It’s September, which for many years for me meant one thing more than any other: It was football season again. I grew up in a college football town, you see, and while Morgantown, West Virginia, isn’t South Bend or Ann Arbor or Tuscaloosa, it is governed on football Saturdays by the same essential impulses. And this was so even when I was a youngster in the 1970s, just before college football exploded into a multibillion-dollar business and there were 18 games on TV every Saturday, down to the likes of William & Mary versus Elon.

We’d meet up, my friends and I, many hours before kickoff; we’d charge down to Mountaineer Field, the old one, for those few of you who know of such things, passing the football along the way, pretending to be Danny Buggs or Artie Owens; we’d meet up with more friends, and our friends’ parents, and our parents’ friends, and everybody in town, it seemed; we’d stop to marvel at the marching band, in those crisp uniforms that haven’t really changed since then, as it paraded around the horseshoe of University Avenue, the reports of the snare drums echoing off the classroom buildings; and so on, and so on, and so on.

As you can see, while the game was certainly the organizing principle of the whole business, the day was filled with cultural sacraments that extended well beyond the field of play. When you grow up in such a place, all those rituals work their way into your marrow. In addition, in a smallish town like that, the interaction between team and community isn’t limited to six home-game Saturdays a year. Over time, you get to meet and sometimes know some of the players. You learn things about their lives. Ditto the coaches. I went to high school with the head coach’s kids (the famous Bowdens!). It amounts to a kind of way of life, even for those whose TV rooms aren’t stuffed to the gills with school-colors paraphernalia. And so, for many years after I moved away from Morgantown, when football season rolled back around, I still felt the chemistry in my body change a little.

I kind of still do, but only kind of. A lot has happened in college football, and in football more generally, to diminish my autumnal enthusiasm. For one thing, with specific reference to West Virginia University, we’re all still getting over not playing our age-old rivals anymore (Pitt, Syracuse, and Penn State, though that one ended long ago) and trying to pretend we have rivalries with Baylor and Texas Christian University and other members of the Big 12 Conference (which has ten members) that West Virginia joined in 2012. But speaking more broadly, there are two issues: with respect to the college game, the huge changes that loom as courts move to order universities to pay these student athletes; and with respect to the game generally, the fact that it’s becoming increasingly impossible to ignore the mess it’s making inside players’ craniums.

So unattenuated fandom is becoming increasingly difficult for me, and for a number of my friends with whom I discuss this. But we’re all liberals, and Yankees (the Morgantown I grew up in was not Southern, although it might be now, but that’s a different essay). I doubt conservatives and Southerners are feeling quite so conflicted. And that divide is going to get political, if it isn’t already. Football, over the next 20 years or so, is going to develop into a new front in the culture war, and in all likelihood a bitterly divisive one.

The first problem is the human race’s eternal issue: the corrupting influence of money. Money is why West Virginia joined the Big 12 Conference, which makes no geographic or moral sense at all but makes all kinds of pitiless financial sense. As I recall the numbers, the university went from making around $13 million a year as a member of the Big East Conference to earning just more than twice that. And it’s why Maryland joined the Big 10, and Syracuse the Atlantic Coast Conference, and so on. It’s all outrageous, and it’s all driven by television money, and it’s mind-boggling to me still that there was no legal authority like the NCAA to bring order to it all. All this has constituted a capitalism more naked and Darwinian than any we’ve seen in this country in any other realm in some time. At least the Securities and Exchange Commission pretended to regulate banks.

But that’s just a side issue. The larger issue is the push to start paying these players. There is a lawsuit, O’Bannon v. NCAA, that’s working its way through the courts now and that could change and, in my view, ultimately destroy college athletics. Ed O’Bannon was a star basketball player at UCLA in the 1990s, and he noticed that a leading video-game maker was clearly using his likeness (without calling that likeness Ed O’Bannon) in its products. O’Bannon sued the NCAA and the video-game company, demanding his piece. The company settled with him, but the NCAA is fighting the case. In August 2014, a federal judge ruled against the NCAA, saying it violated the Sherman Antitrust Act by not compensating players from the profits earned from video games and other commercial products. The NCAA is appealing, but if things stay as they are, student-athletes entering college in 2016 will have to be paid, although apparently on a deferred basis, after they’ve completed their athletic eligibility.

On the one hand, this all seems reasonable and, indeed, as American as anything could be. You slap a famous person’s image on something, that person gets a cut of the action. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Maybe it’s fine that these athletes get something—and the idea that they don’t get it until after they’re done playing is a sensible buffer against making an already decadent state of affairs with respect to how star athletes are cosseted even more so.

But I think I can see where this is headed, and it’s to an ugly destination. Once the principle is established that these athletes can get paid, it’s only a matter of a few years until we start slipping down the proverbial slope. Another lawsuit will be brought, and another, and finally, a federal judge—and almost certainly a liberal one, just like the one who made the O’Bannon ruling, a Bill Clinton appointee seated in the college-football dead zone of Oakland—will say, “What the hell, pay the bastards their market value.”

In one sense, red America might like this just fine, because it would work to the benefit of places that already have pots of money and are willing to devote millions to paying the top student athletes: Alabama, Texas, and so forth. It would also work out just dandy for a few purple and blue places, too: Ohio, Michigan, Southern California. But what red America wouldn’t like is the application—being pushed mainly by liberals who for the most part didn’t grow up in places like Morgantown, West Virginia, and probably don’t even watch college football—of antitrust law to college sports. Which is to say, it would despise the idea that liberal lawyers and judges were sticking their noses under the walls of this one silo of American life that had always been either free of politics or, to the extent that it was not free of politics, had been unremittingly theirs in affect and coloration. It’s not enough that you make us marry gay couples and force us to celebrate transgenderism; now you take the one sport that has been historically ours—and historically, college football was assuredly the South’s sport, largely because no one could force them to integrate it—and you tell me that the government gets to call the shots in that realm, too?

The tension here will be between big money, which will support the change, and tradition, which will oppose it implacably. I would guess that in red America, especially in the South, and even in the Southern redoubts where they have big money to throw at college football, tradition will win, and traditionalists will dig in. Hence, the culture-war front: A battle will play out over the next generation or two in courtrooms, pitting liberal legal and labor activists against not just conservatives but college-football fans, a group that includes many, many millions of Democrats. The already stated goal of some in the former camp is to end college football and make the NFL set up a farm system akin to baseball’s. I wouldn’t want to be a sitting Democratic President when that happens.

But the far more serious problem, real right here and now, is brain damage. On this one, the people fighting tradition are entirely right, and the people defending it sound increasingly reactionary, stupid, and callous. I listen to sports talk radio sometimes in the car. Every time there’s a new study linking repeated blows to the head to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), most of the men given airtime—many of them ex-players—still just natter on about how it’s a man’s game and it’s violent and so be it.

In April, a federal judge ordered the NFL to pay a total of about $1 billion to perhaps 6,000 former players (about one-third of the total) who are expected to suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s. A billion dollars in this case is not a lot of money; it’s to be paid out over decades, and the league makes $10 billion a year. So there will be more lawsuits, and, one hopes, a lot more money paid out.

But this culture war won’t play out chiefly in courtrooms. It will play out in the broader culture when a figure like President Obama or LeBron James says he wouldn’t let a son play football. And it will play out in the legislative bodies across the country that are already moving to ban youth football. New York state Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, a Bronx Democrat, introduced legislation in 2013 to ban children under the age of 11 from playing tackle football in New York state. This was evidently the first such piece of legislation in the country, but there are more now. I don’t think any of them are law yet, but one day some of them will be. Another retired star like Junior Seau will shoot himself, or another more-or-less anonymous young man will hang himself. He will be described as cheerful and the last person you’d have expected to do such a thing, but researchers will find signs of CTE in his brain, and the cries for action will ring loud, and rightly so.

It’s not hard to see how this is going to play out. First, there will be bans on youth football. Then, science will show that this step doesn’t solve the problem, at which point high school football will be targeted. And once states aren’t cranking out young football players, at some future point, it stands to reason, there won’t be adult football players.

The first states to act are obviously going to be places like Vermont, Rhode Island, Hawaii. The last, of course, will be Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas. It’s not hard to foresee a future, in ten or 20 years, when football basically isn’t played anymore in half the country—and the map of where it is and isn’t played will track our red/blue political divide almost perfectly. Almost, but not quite, because some key blue states will be almost as resistant as Texas: Michigan and Pennsylvania, notably. Banning football will be good for the kids and their cranial matter in states that do so, but it probably won’t work out so well for liberalism, which will be seen by the average person as having wrecked the sport that is far and away America’s most popular.

There are steps the NFL can and should take. There are these helmets with a double layer of padding; players will look a bit like Fred Flintstone’s little friend, the Great Gazoo, which will take some getting used to for fans, but that’s a small price to pay. Fines and penalties for hits to the head should be dramatically increased. And no one is talking about this now, but they should be: Why not just limit careers to seven or eight years? Five for linemen?

That may sound radical, but if football doesn’t impose steps here to show that it takes these men’s futures seriously, steps will rightly and necessarily be imposed on it. And we’ll all start contemplating a future without football at all, which maybe wouldn’t be the huge national tragedy many will paint it as. The biggest downside to that—and this brings us back to the college game—is that under the current system, every year a few thousand young men get a chance to go to college who otherwise would not. The people who want to end the current collegiate system never seem to give much thought to that.

As for me, I’ll watch this fall, but a little less than I used to. I don’t know; I might be lying about that—we’ll see. But this much is certainly true: Whereas 20 years ago I would have lustily watched repeated replays of some bone-crushing hit, this year, when I see one of those, I’ll wince a little, and maybe turn the TV off for a while.

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Michael Tomasky is the editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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