Friday, October 14, 2016

Friday Book Report: Out of Their League

I haven’t watched any football this season.  It’s not just because my team—how do I say this delicately—sucks.  I’ve been having qualms about watching for years as a result of books like Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger’s Pros and Cons and Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru’s League of Denial.  The whole circus around Colin Kaepernick and his peaceful protest strengthened my conviction that really this was all about hypocrisy.  Then I read (and wrote about) Harry Edwards’s Sociology of Sport, which led me to today’s book, Dave Meggyesy’s Out of Their League.

Essentially, Meggyesy’s account points out that none of the stuff that is hitting the news recently is new (the book was published in 1970).  The issues with player health, drugs, concussions, violence against women, racism, and pseudo-patriotism have been there all along.

In the Foreward, he writes about why he quit football:

“It’s hard for me to count the reasons why. But I can begin by telling you about an image that is etched deep into my memory.  The Cardinals were playing the Pittsburgh Steelers in St. Louis one rainy, cold Sunday afternoon.  We were beating them easily and then, with a minute or so to go, they scored.  I was playing end on the kickoff return team and my assignment was to swing more than halfway across field and block the third man from the kicker on the Pittsburgh team.  I watched the flight of the ball as it went straight down the middle.  Then I dropped back a few steps and began the sprint across field.  My man must have thought someone had blown their blocking assignment or maybe it was because he was a rookie, but whatever the reason, he was making a bad mistake:  running full speed and not looking to either side.  I knew he didn’t see me and I decided to take him low.  I gathered all my force and hit him.  As I did, I heard his knee explode in my ear, a jagged, tearing sound of muscles and ligaments separating.  The next thing I knew, time was called and he was writhing in pain on the field.  They carried him off on a stretcher and I felt sorry—but at the same time, I knew it was a tremendous block and that was what I got paid for.

“During the rest of my years in the pros, this image would occasionally surface in my mind.  This sort of thing happened all the time; it was part of a typical Sunday afternoon in big-time football.  But the conditions that made me feel a confused joy at breaking up another man’s body gradually became just one of many reasons why I decided to quit the game.

“After playing the sport most of my life, I’ve come to see that football is one of the most dehumanizing experiences a person can face…” (p.  3-4)

I quoted at length, I know, but I wanted to give the full force of his writing, of the conflict between the amazing athletic enterprise and the inherent violence, of getting paid to do a job well, except that job is to wreck people.

The book is engaging throughout and often funny, intentionally or through the passage of time and its effect on colloquial speech.  The whole experience is thought-provoking and produced change in my behavior.

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