Op-Ed: Football and the inspiration to be brave

"Unless I'm badly wrong, much of what brings fans to the game is the chance to see a contest that is beautiful and played for high physical stakes," writes Mark Edmundson. "The guys on the field are brave."
“Unless I’m badly wrong, much of what brings fans to the game is the chance to see a contest that is beautiful and played for high physical stakes,” writes Mark Edmundson. “The guys on the field are brave.”
(Anthony Russo / For The Times)

The Super Bowl is here, and those of us who have been watching the NFL from day one of the season are looking forward to a good game. We’re also facing truckloads of criticism for being fans. We’ll be called brutes and bullies and layabouts and plenty of worse things. Can we answer these charges?

When I try to explain being a football fan and to think of the fan at his archetypal best, I have to begin with my father. My father didn’t look up to much of anything. Politicians didn’t impress him much; he never went to church. He kept his own counsel, saw things from his own point of view and said what he thought. It’s probable that he never ran into the Latin poet Horace’s line to the effect that the only way to feel really good about yourself is to not admire anything. But he probably would have agreed.

There was one major exception to his non-admiration policy, his nil admirari. When he turned on the TV and saw the Cleveland Browns on the field and Jim Brown racing through the New York Giants’ defense, he couldn’t contain his pleasure and his awe.

“Lookit! Lookit!” he’d call out to me and my mother. “Lookit.” My father loved Jim Brown. He saw him as a man who had been born with preternatural gifts, then worked to bring those gifts to perfection. Brown had the strength of a bull and the feet of a ballet dancer: He was almost impossible to bring down. Seeing him on the move broke my father out of his skeptical shell and filled him with delight.


My father was a fan of almost nothing, but my father was a football fan.

I can’t help thinking of him now that fans are being written off as a gang of louts — and not terribly bright, to boot. In his provocative book, “Against Football,” Steve Almond accuses fans of celebrating a blood sport that causes no end of casualties: concussions, bodily wreckage, ruined lives. He blames them for sustaining a sport that enriches plutocrats, destroys players and impoverishes the cities that spend their tax
dollars to build colossal stadiums. Football fans are the culprits. And if they’d turn off their TV sets and burn their
season tickets, the era of destruction and decadence would be over.

It’s hard not to agree, at least partially, with some of Almond’s points. When you spot Oakland Raiders fans on TV in their team colors, chains, spiked dog collars and peculiarly original head gear — Viking helmets, buffalo shag with horns — it seems as if the residents of bedlam have been painted silver and black and tossed out into the world.

Football fans? These are the sorts of guys (and gals too — 40% of football fans are women, we’re told) who belch, scratch and drag their knuckles so low that they barely have to bend to tie their shoes.

Really? Are you sure?

I agree that there are plenty of dopey fans out there, but
I’d bet that people are taking more from the game than detractors think.

I suspect that what football mainly provokes in its audience is admiration that borders upon awe. The leaps and twists receivers can make to catch a ball are often as astonishing as Mikhail Baryshnikov’s — and Baryshnikov never had anyone waiting to blast a shoulder pad and helmet into his backbone while he was on the way down.

Is there any grace like the running back’s when he’s trying to elude tacklers? He can’t let himself get tackled, can’t let himself get hit. There’s exquisite movement and real danger as well. Football brings them together in a way that no other sport I know manages to do, time after time, play after play.


Unless I’m badly wrong, much of what brings fans to the game is the chance to see a contest that is beautiful and played for high physical stakes. The guys on the field are brave. There is no other way to put it.

So what does that make their fans? Are they, are we, living our lives secondhand as we take in what’s happening on the field? I’m guessing that there’s plenty of passive appreciation of football, which may come down to gasping at what others can do.

But I’ll bet there’s more to it than that. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people watch and resolve to bring the bravery and grace they witness on the field into their own lives.

I’m not sure we have many examples of bravery to look to in our culture. I, at least, can’t readily find it among our politicians, professionals or pundits. There’s plenty to be found in American soldiers who risk their lives in war. But actual instances of courage seen close at hand are hard to come by.


Football, though, is full of human beings being brave, taking a chance, showing guts. The stakes on that field are real: You can get slammed; you can get hurt. The stakes are just as real when people take risks in life. Sometimes you have to talk back to the boss. Sometimes you have to tell your spouse that enough is enough. Occasionally you have to say words that won’t be popular, but that you believe to be necessary and true.

My father had little money, little education, little status. But he had plenty of guts. And when he was saying his piece, as he often did, even when it was likely to cause him trouble, maybe somewhere in his mind he had the example of the courage he so savored on the football field.

Football can make us passive, sure. On the screen others will be brave for us, and we can leave it at that. But we can do more than watch in awe. We can also step forward and, with whatever flaws and stutterings, try emulating people who at least for a few hours a week are actually being brave.

Lookit. Lookit. Lookit that!
Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, is the author of “Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game.”


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