Football and Values at a Crossroads

As a high school marching band member, I attended every school football game. So, you’d think I could tell you how the game of football is played, but I can’t. I didn’t enjoy watching boys crash into each other, or the stopping and starting of plays, so I didn’t pay much attention. (On the other hand, I enjoy watching baseball and tennis, more appealing to my sensibilities.)

At the risk of upsetting friends, I want to talk about my antipathy for football, and football culture in American society.

This past year I thought we were on the verge of seriously discussing the issues in football culture. We heard reports about the long-term effects of repeated concussions on players’ brains. Domestic violence scandals involving NFL players dominated the news for weeks, with critical reviews of NFL policies toward bad-boy players. This year’s Super Bowl featured a 30-second ad for the “No More” anti-domestic violence and sexual assault initiative. We heard charges of football deflation, with claims of lies and deception. Maybe now we would find a way to discuss the ethics of football culture, including the idolization of football stars and how football has achieved a nearly religious status in American culture.

Yet, a view of the whole seems elusive. Each negative story has been discussed until the news cycle runs its course, then dropped. It’s a disappointing stop and start of play, just like the game, in my view.

This week, another challenge to football culture on college campuses was presented in a NYTimes op-ed by Joe Nocera, At Rutgers It’s Books vs. Ballgames, 5/12/15. Since two of my children graduated from Rutgers, this one caught my attention. Our family had discussed our displeasure over the growing athletic budget. Nocera writes, “It’s not exactly a secret that big-time college sports often distort priorities on university campuses. But every once in a while, something bursts into public view to put those priorities in glaring relief.” He cites a dispute at Rutgers between faculty members who oppose the athletic department’s “out-of-control costs” against powerful alumni who are seeking increased funding to enable the football team to compete in the Big Ten.

Nocera reported that after 10 years of athletic department deficits from $20 to $36 million a year, some NJ lawmakers are advocating even more football spending. The students and their parents pay for the deficits through increased fees and tuition, even as state higher education funding is cut. The costs exceed the dollars – funding cuts to faculty salaries and library resources depletes the quality of academics. Cutting many faculty positions and $500,000 in the library budget helped the university to pay the $1.25 million salary of the head football coach, who, by the way, is the highest paid New Jersey state employee.

The celebrity culture and huge dollars involved in sports should worry us all. If brain damage, domestic violence and shady ethics haven’t gotten our attention, will the exchange of investment in education for football stadiums and overpaid coaches stop us short? I sure hope so, as they should. It’s time for a conversation.



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