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I’m not looking forward to the Super Bowl tomorrow. But you know, this:

I loved this. But it also started me thinking about how sad it is that much of the current nerd culture loves to dismiss sports out of hand. I loathe the way many of my friends use “sportsball” to highlight their ignorance about all sports, and I won’t play that game.

I’ve played sports most of my life, and I believe that sports are important. They were incredibly important to me as a youth, playing soccer, softball, and basketball, running track and cross country, and ultimately rugby. And not just to me — to thousands upon thousands of other women, too.

ONE | As Girls Become Women, Sports Pay Dividends, New York Times, February 2010

Using a complex analysis, Dr. Stevenson showed that increasing girls’ sports participation had a direct effect on women’s education and employment. She found that the changes set in motion by Title IX explained about 20 percent of the increase in women’s education and about 40 percent of the rise in employment for 25-to-34-year-old women.

“It’s not just that the people who are going to do well in life play sports, but that sports help people do better in life,” she said, adding, “While I only show this for girls, it’s reasonable to believe it’s true for boys as well.”

TWO | An Exercise in Body Image, Harvard Political Review, Summer 2014

Rugby is a source of empowerment. Women players are taught to use the strength of their bodies in ways they had never even conceived. Where society appreciates the meek timidity that is supposed to accompany female beauty, rugby encourages women to be a dominating presence—fearless in pursuit of her goals.

 

(Playing sports in high school is tentatively linked to prosocial behavior in men, as well.)

But playing high school sports and playing high-pressure college or pro sports are different animals — commercialization of athletics and a significant personal identification with athletics at these levels have been linked to anti-social behavior and negative effects on college athletes. These effects are creeping down into high school athletics, too, sadly. And nowhere are these negative effects seen more clearly, lately, than in the NFL.

So, while I’ll probably go enjoy the the company of my new Nieman friends during game time, in our precious year together, and share the Americana of the event with them, I”ll also be keeping in mind the wise words of Steve Almond (whose book Against Football  I highly recommend reading) and questioning my decision:

THREE | Is It Immoral to Watch the Superbowl? Steve Almond (New York Times), January 2014

Pro sports are, by definition, monetized arenas for hypermasculinity. Football is nowhere near as overtly vicious as, say, boxing. But it is the one sport that most faithfully recreates our childhood fantasies of war as a winnable contest.

Over the past 12 years, as Americans have sought a distraction from the moral incoherence of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the game has served as a loyal and satisfying proxy. It has become an acceptable way of experiencing our savage impulses, the cultural lodestar when it comes to consuming violence. What differentiates it from the glut of bloody films and video games we devour is our awareness that the violence in football, and the toll of that violence, is real.

The struggle playing out in living rooms across the country is that of a civilian leisure class that has created, for its own entertainment, a caste of warriors too big and strong and fast to play a child’s game without grievously injuring one another. The very rules that govern our perceptions of them might well be applied to soldiers: Those who exhibit impulsive savagery on the field are heroes. Those who do so off the field are reviled monsters.

The civilian and the fan participate in the same basic transaction. We offload the mortal burdens of combat, mostly to young men from the underclass, whom we send off to battle with cheers and largely ignore when they wind up wounded.

One thought on “On Super Bowl Sunday

  1. I just got a chance to read this post and it really resonated with me. Sports was my life when I was younger. It was really all that mattered to me. Through competition and teamwork I learned how to train hard, how to get on with others (some of whom I was in complete admiration of and some of whom I, honestly, wanted nothing more to do than soundly beat), and how to be proud of myself. When I got to university there was a profound shift in how I saw athletics. I went to a Big 10 school and sports, in particular football, formed a very big part of the social scene. But the values I mention above were not part of what sports meant at my school. Games meant drinking, excessively, and some culturally supported form of hated directed toward whomever we were playing that weekend. Although I participated in the fervor, because I didn’t know any better at the time, I remember feeling alienated by it and longed for it all to have more meaning. I’m glad you wrote this piece. I must say though that I find it very interesting that it did not generate a robust conversation around some of the points you make.

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