A word to overwrought football fans: Lighten up, Francis

I just saw the above promo, and I’ve seldom seen anything more absurd in my life.

If this is the way you feel about football, let me make a suggestion: Turn it off. Step away from the TV. Take a cold shower, and maybe a Valium.

Lighten up, Francis.

I don’t know what’s wrong with Americans. Maybe it’s because we ended the draft, so that most men haven’t experienced military service, much less combat. So they think of football as war, and say idiotic things suggesting that it’s just as life-and-death, the outcome just as critically momentous.

Note some of the language in this ad:

Every Saturday’s an attack, an ambush, an air raid…

They’ll show you hate and disrespect unlike anything you’ve ever seen….

You’re wearing that uniform, and you’re the enemy. You must be eliminated…

They want you to lose more than they want to win…

The biggest game, the only game, is the one you’re playing…


That’s the tagline of this promo campaign from Fox: “EVERY GAME IS EVERYTHING.”


The ad revels in the violence of the game. The instant when an opposing player smacks into a quarterback (see image at the bottom of the post) comes as the announcer says with relish, “It’ll make your ears ring…”

Which brings us to George Will’s latest column, in which he optimistically predicts that, with all we now know about the damage the game — yes, it’s a game, not a thing we need anyone to do — does to human bodies, especially to human brains:

CTE is a degenerative brain disease confirmable only after death, and often caused by repeated blows to the head that knock the brain against the skull. The cumulative impacts of hundreds of supposedly minor blows can have the cumulative effect of many concussions. The New York Times recently reported Stanford University researchers’ data showing “that one college offensive lineman sustained 62 of these hits in a single game. Each one came with an average force on the player’s head equivalent to what you would see if he had driven his car into a brick wall at 30 mph.”

Boston University researchers found CTE in 110 of 111 brains of deceased NFL players. In 53 other brains from college players, 48 had CTE. There was significant selection bias: Many of the brains came from families who had noticed CTE symptoms, including mood disorders and dementia. A Boston University researcher says, however, that a 10-year NFL linebacker could receive more than 15,000 sub-concussive blows….

Here, by the way, is the difference between a normal brain and one with advanced CTE:


Given that I find the trumped-up machismo of the game so offensive, I particularly like the way Will ends his column:

It has been said (by Thomas Babington Macaulay) that the Puritans banned bear baiting — unleashing fierce dogs on a bear chained in a pit — not because it gave pain to bears but because it gave pleasure to Puritans. But whatever the Puritans’ motives, they understood that there are degrading enjoyments. Football is becoming one, even though Michigan’s $9 million coach has called it “the last bastion of hope for toughness in America in men.” That thought must amuse the Marines patrolling Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

ears ring


36 thoughts on “A word to overwrought football fans: Lighten up, Francis

  1. bud

    Brad I’m going to ask you to do a little mental exercise. Sit back and reflect on how puzzled you are by the ardent Trump supporter. Not the hold-your-noser but the real die-hard Trump supporter. That is the level of puzzlement I have of people who just don’t get football. Last night after watching the riveting, white knuckles excitement of the USC-NC State football game I read this post. It was so intense it was difficult to even watch as the Wolfpack slowly marched down the field with the clock running down. Then on the last play the game ended with a dramatic pass deflection that saved the cause for the Cocks.

    There is just no entertainment spectacle that comes close to providing the same scintillating excitement level to the human psyche. No movie. No other sport. No TV show. Not even politics. Is this passion rational? That’s an interesting debate. But I would maintain it has little to do with the violent aspect of the game. To overuse a cliche it’s about the chess match combined with the drama and pageantry of the event.

    But the current game is likely to go the way of the steel framed airships. It is simply too dangerous for the young men who participate. Rules will be adopted that render the game unrecognizable to current viewers. Which in a way makes the game even more special. Since we are watching what is likely to be the end of an era we can enjoy the spectacle in much the same way we did the eclipse a few days ago knowing that we are seeing a grand drama unfold that may not come ever come through the lives of future generations.

  2. Bryan Caskey

    It’s fun. It’s community. It’s tradition.

    It’s a break from the work that we do all week. Sure, it’s just a game, and 99% of fans don’t take it so seriously that “Every game is everything.” It’s a fun way to enjoy a part of the community, and there’s something special about a game that could bring people together regardless of their political views, race, creed, socio-economic status, etc. Judging an event by a television commercial isn’t fair, but you know that already.

    College football is part of the “glue” (the set of shared values and experiences that people in this region of the world have) that binds us together. It may not be the most logical thing, but it’s the way things are. The people of the South like what we’re used to, and we’re used to what we like. College football on Saturdays in the fall is one of those things. Do some people get carried away? Sure, but give me something where some fringe of people don’t get carried away.

    To explain it in Aubrey-Maturin terms:

    You remember the proposed enclosure of Simmon’s Lea? Jack grew up hunting and riding on Simmons Lea, and the villagers would be able to cut some wood from the common and use the common for other various purposes. In that way, the common land bound the community of Woolcombe together in a similar way.It’s a shared thing.

    Sure, you could wall of the land by enclosing it, and maybe there would be some higher productivity from the land, but that would break with the tradition of allowing the town to share in the land.

    Come over to the commons, Brad. It’s down by the fairgrounds. We meet on Saturdays in the fall. It’s fun. You’ll find families together laughing and smiling. You’ll find kids throwing the football back and forth. You’ll find people enjoying each other’s company in something purely for enjoyment. You’ll enjoy the sense of community that’s been taking place since time out of mind.

    Put down that football resentment you’ve been carrying around like a bag of bricks. Come have a beer, have something to eat, stand in the sunshine of a fall afternoon, and enjoy. You never know…you might like it. :)

    1. Scout

      Or take a book or a crossword puzzle just in case :) (I’ve been known to do this at football games with my husband; it doesn’t bother him if I do).

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      I might do that sometime, if I can go straight in, park, and then leave when I want without waiting in traffic for an hour and a half both in and out.

      You know how some people get claustrophic in small spaces? I feel that way at the idea of being trapped for hours at an event like that. Once you go in, God knows when you’ll get out.

      And I’m afraid I would NOT enjoy the sense of community, not when it’s based in football. I wish I could, being a communitarian and all. But as the general said of Col. Kurtz’ ideas and methods, the basis of this community is, to me… unsound.

      I’ve tried it, a couple of times over the years, and found it unpleasant. I found myself around extremely unpleasant people. The vibe was really, really off. Like, always with the negative waves, Moriarty. Maybe this is because this was in the days with the Gamecocks always lost, and it produced a bitterness peculiar to that situation.

      As for this: “Judging an event by a television commercial isn’t fair, but you know that already.”

      But that’s just the thing: That advert pretty much captures the vibe that I get from football fans — a kind of lack of proportion, a mania, starting with the weirdness of referring to the team as “we,” and going on from there.

      And that business of “every game is everything…” Totally apart from the mania of the fans, even if they DID have healthy attitudes about it, that IS the nature of the game. With baseball, it’s like going to work every day. You know the best team in the league will lose 60 games or so. So you lose one. So you lose four or five in a row — that’s just a slump. You can come back. Hope springs eternal in baseball.

      In football, you lose one game, that’s it — it’s early September, but you already know you are DEFINITELY not winning the national championship, and probably not your conference.

      Lose TWO games, and why not just forfeit the rest of the season?

      There’s just way, WAY too much riding on each game, and worse, everyone acts like they know it..

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        And if you’ll allow ME to explain in Aubrey-Maturin terms:

        Sometimes… not always, mind you, but sometimes… I get the sense that some football fans are afflicted with… I’m afraid there’s nothing for it; I must use the word, and I hope you’ll forgive me… enthusiasm.

        There. I’ve said it and it can’t be unsaid. If a football fan wishes to send his seconds to see me, I’m at my club most mornings…

  3. Bart Rogers

    Football is a great game as long as we understand it is a “game”. But, when football like any other sport becomes a “god”, it is no longer a game, it is an obsession. I love football, I played football, and the on-field competition is a unique experience. A great tackle, a well-timed block, an up the middle gain of one or two yards for a first down going against a defensive line is a feeling unlike any other. Conversely, a great defensive stand preventing the one or two yard gain is just as exhilarating and for the moment, satisfying.

    Humans need competition, it goes back to our ancestors who had to compete to survive and the survival instinct is still alive in all of us. If you don’t believe, just read bud’s comment. Even bud, our most ardent resident liberal and non-violent person loves the game and especially the Gamecocks. Apparently it fulfills something other than love of USC for bud just as it does for millions of fans every Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and now Thursday night who attend games or watch on television. Most who watch don’t need to go out into the wilderness and hunt game or raid enemy camps and villages, our needs are as close as the refrigerator or a KFC, BoJangles, or other business offering “tailgate” food for watching a game.

    As Bryan noted, it is a time for friends and family to get together and tailgate, interact, do some boasting, have fun, and fulfill the need to belong to a “tribe”.

    I do agree the violence is taken too far by some players and if they engage in dirty play, they should be banned from playing the game. Otherwise, it is a choice players make and along with their choice is the acceptance of the potential and responsibility of injury because it is a violent sport.

    The game will give an insight to the character of some players and coaches. I watched the California/UNC game and at the end of the game when UNC was driving for a TD even though the game was already decided, the California defensive players didn’t demonstrate any sort of sportsmanship at all. Instead of defending the receiver as they should, they grabbed the receivers before the ball was thrown and held or tackled them. The damn game was over so why cheat on purpose and it was cheating and a demonstration of a lack of character and sportsmanship. If the coach was a man of character, he would have pulled the defensive players engaging in cheating but he didn’t. So what does that say about him, his staff, and the players?

    For me, I actually prefer high school and collegiate basketball. There are injuries but it is a game of skill and strategy. Even though some highly ranked programs are becoming OAD schools (One And Done players), watching a program that grooms, teaches, and practices sportsmanship is enjoyable plus it is a game that allows the athletes a better chance to avoid life changing injuries like CTE.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I want to react to two things Bart said:

      “Humans need competition, it goes back to our ancestors who had to compete to survive and the survival instinct is still alive in all of us.”

      “As Bryan noted, it is a time for friends and family to get together and tailgate, interact, do some boasting, have fun, and fulfill the need to belong to a ‘tribe’.”

      This is fake competition. It’s trumped-up. The outcome means nothing. Maybe we need to provide such things for the masses to keep them from engaging in real violence — “bread and circuses” — but I find it hard to persuade myself to believe in such competition, so it doesn’t satisfy, for me, whatever atavistic need the game satisfies for others.

      Bryan referred to community, but “tribe” seems to fit better. And a tribe too often defines itself in terms of contrast against those who do not belong. If I am to take pleasure in belonging to a tribe, what is my tribe? Who is a member, and who is not? The closest I can come is to think of myself as an American. And yet, I can’t feel as tribal about that as many people seem to feel about “their” football teams. I can’t get behind “buy American” campaigns because foreigners need jobs, too. I don’t care about terrorist attacks only when Americans are victims.

      Speaking of tribes…

      Many, many years ago, I read a short story by Philip Roth called “The Conversion of the Jews.” Here’s what little I remember about it: This Jewish schoolboy gets offended by his relatives who pore through stories about disasters, looking to see whether there are any Jewish names among the victims, as if the disasters don’t matter if no Jews were harmed. After a teacher or someone in a position of authority scoffs at Christian beliefs, the boy climbs out on a ledge of his school and threatens to jump unless the teachers and pupils assembled below agree that if God wanted to, he COULD cause a virgin to bear a child. Eventually, they say yes, God could do that, and the boy climbs down.

      I don’t think the boy himself was becoming Christian or anything — he just couldn’t stand to hear members of his tribe mock the beliefs of another tribe.

      I think I’ve wandered off the point, haven’t I?… :)

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        This lack of feeling a part of a tribe is part of what causes me to react so negatively to identity politics. When people say that people tend to associate with people like themselves, I wonder: Who are these people like me? Where are they? I look around and don’t see them.

        Nothing against the people around me. Since I don’t think it’s important for them to be “like me,” the fact that they are not (or that I don’t see them as such) is in no way a negative reflection on them.

        And when you see yourself as a distinct individual (although as a member of a community of other distinct individuals), you can get pretty peeved when other people try to force you into a tribe of people “like” you. It can irk you when tribe-oriented people tell you to “check your privilege,” privilege you presumably possess as a result of membership in said tribe…

      2. Bryan Caskey

        “This is fake competition. It’s trumped-up. The outcome means nothing. Maybe we need to provide such things for the masses to keep them from engaging in real violence — “bread and circuses” — but I find it hard to persuade myself to believe in such competition, so it doesn’t satisfy, for me, whatever atavistic need the game satisfies for others.”

        It’s sports. It’s the nature of sports to be competitions that are ultimately friendly in nature. You know, sort of like the Olympics. It doesn’t matter who wins the Olympic medal in the decathlon, either. Baseball is also a “fake competition”. The outcome of a baseball game “means nothing” in the same sense. It doesn’t matter if the Yankees or the Red Sox win the World Series in the same sense that it doesn’t matter who wins a football game.

        You’re just making a larger argument against sports and athletic competitions in general. That’s fine. Just say, “I don’t really like sports.” That’s cool. You don’t have to like all the same things that other people like. However, there is real merit to athletic competition. Participants learn the value of being part of a team. They learn the value of hard work. They learn the value of showing up on time, following directions, and a million other life skills. Team members share common experiences of success and defeat on the field of play. Friends are made, and life lessons are learned.

        But hey, if sports aren’t your thing, there’s always other hobbies.

        I don’t get real into [insert hobby], either. However, I don’t run down people who are super interested in something else where the outcome means nothing. Maybe those people need to keep themselves entertained, but I find it hard to persuade myself to believe in the value of [insert hobby], whatever the need for this [insert hobby] satisfies for others.

        1. Doug Ross

          Let’s not forget that if the Gamecocks didn’t exist, The State would probably lose a significant portion of its subscribers.

          I’ve always wished I could be part of a business organization that ran like a professional sports team — with planning, execution, merit based pay, all striving for one primary goal, and attention to personnel development and succession planning. But once you get above about 100 people, that becomes impossible. It also can’t happen for a company beholden to Wall Street and government regulations.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            I can identify with your wish, up to a point. I know from experience that there’s nothing like working with a small band of committed, talented people who will work ’round the clock to accomplish a mission for the greater good.

            You said “business organization.” I’m not sure it’s easy to find what I’m talking about in business, although that’s not impossible.

            Of course, you’d say I was part of a business when I experienced that at newspapers, but only technically and indirectly. Nothing that I did at the private businesses called newspapers had anything to do with business considerations, beyond the aim of trying to produce a good product.

            Now that newspapers are ghosts of themselves and the people so overworked and harried and looking over their shoulders for the next round of layoffs, I don’t know if it’s possible to experience that joie de guerre that I remember from the better parts of my career.

            I imagine I could feel it in a political campaign, if it was for a candidate I believed in the way the folks on “The West Wing” believed in Bartlet… But in politics, that would be exceedingly rare….

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              OK, here’s where I might find it in business — if I had discovered, or believed I had discovered, the magical new business model that would make news-gathering lucrative again in midsized markets. This would be a tremendous boon to our democracy in our cities and states, and it would be worth working very hard indeed to implement.

              Give me a small team that believed in it as much as I did, and it could be pretty awesome…

            2. Doug Ross

              Well, the newspaper industry in general runs like a football team that still thinks the wishbone formation will win ball games. What you find in sports that you don’t find in the newspaper is the ability (desire) to adapt to the changing environment. Competition does that — and newspapers got very lazy at the time the Internet came into play. That industry is very slow to react, very parochial in its view, lots of condescension and disdain for anything/anyone with a new idea.

              Many sports teams (Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs, Golden State Warriors) understand you sometimes have to tear it all down to rebuild something better. Newspapers missed that opportunity and that’s why they’re in the “look over the shoulder” mode now. Nobody had the guts to look at what was staring them in the face when it came to the production and distribution of news content.

              Slow on video, slow on social media, slow on innovation. They’re the Cleveland Browns.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Doug, again, you show that you don’t understand what happened to newspapers, or why. I’m not going to type all of that again, though, except to say that IT DIDN’T MATTER HOW ADAPTABLE NEWSPAPERS WERE BECAUSE PEOPLE NO LONGER WANTED TO BUY THE ADVERTISING THAT KEPT THEM GOING.

                That’s why it would be necessary to find a new business model — which no one has done yet. And neither you nor anyone else can pretend you have that new model. So it’s silly to say “if only newspapers had done what I know it was obvious they should do,” because you don’t know.

                If you come up with the answer though, come to me and with my knowhow and your business idea, we’ll make millions, maybe billions, teaching news organizations (“newspapers” is a bit misleading, since that’s a smaller and smaller part of the business) how to save themselves…

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          “Baseball is also a ‘fake competition’. The outcome of a baseball game ‘means nothing’ in the same sense. It doesn’t matter if the Yankees or the Red Sox win the World Series in the same sense that it doesn’t matter who wins a football game.”

          See, now you’re just babbling nonsense… :)

          I suppose I didn’t put that well.

          My point about football is that people make more of it than an athletic competition. That’s why I seized upon that ad — it summed up what I dislike about football.

          I like sports. I’ve always enjoyed playing sports — golf, tennis, softball, baseball when I was young. When I was in my teens, I was seriously into bowling. I was on both the wrestling and track teams in high school.

          I’m less interested in watching. But even there, I have an appreciation of seeing a good play executed by people who are really good at the game — including with football.

          Back when I first got out of college and it took me several weeks to find a full-time newspaper job, I spent my Friday nights covering prep sports for the now-defunct Memphis Press-Scimitar. I found the work mildly interesting. Each of us stringers would cover a game, then head back to the office and work the phones to get scores and stats from other games we didn’t have people to cover, then write our stories on the games we had covered for the next day’s paper.

          Later, when I was a reporter with The Jackson Sun with responsibility for several counties, I’d occasionally help out sports by covering a game for them.

          I had my own way of covering them. I generally didn’t sit in the press box. I liked to go sit out in the crowd, which gave me a better feel for the experience (to this day, when covering political events, I stay out of the designated press area if I can help it).

          This was fine, except sometimes I’d get caught up in the act. Someone would run back an interception for a touchdown, and I’d get excited and stand up and say, “Yes!” And then look around me at the seated people glaring at me because it was the OTHER team that scored. Like I cared, but it was still embarrassing.

          I appreciate sports qua sports. I don’t like the way people act like it’s a life-and-death thing…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            I think I’ve probably said all that about covering prep sports before.

            But thinking about it just dredged up a painful memory that I know I haven’t written about. And it’s probably an additional reason for my animus toward football. I may write that sometime this season…

  4. Bob Amundson

    Helmets will change and better protect brains. My first helmet (high school surplus) was leather with no face-mask. When I played, it was a fiberglass suspension helmet (with a face-mask); I still have faint scars on my forehead from the suspension rubbing. I have to admit, I looked pretty nasty with blood running down my face. Brad, I was also a wrestler and have the cauliflower ears (not as bad as some) to prove it, although some of the damage was done by pulling football helmets on and off.

    My “bell was rung” several times; at least once was most likely a concussion (don’t remember playing a series of downs). Once I hit an opponent so hard he suffered a detached retina; I visited him in the hospital and honestly told him how sorry I was.

    Football is a violent sport. I love it. I feel blessed I was able to play. I am looking forward to the change in technology that will make the violence less destructive to brains.

    1. Bob Amundson

      I watch football mostly on TV, mostly college football. We live about a mile (as the crow flies) from Williams-Brice stadium, and it is fun to hear the crowd roar even before we see a touchdown on the television. I understand Brad’s dislike of the crowd, the traffic. But once in a while, going to the event live is fun.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      “Helmets will change and better protect brains.”

      Is that possible? Could anything on the outside of the skull help? I ask that because I THINK the damage is going on inside. Isn’t it about the brain itself slamming into the inside of the skull because of the violent motion? Maybe not, but that’s what I thought it was…

      1. Bob Amundson

        The research is ongoing, much of it led by the NFL. Two U of SC players are wearing special helmets that tract data, such as number of hits over a certain g-force. IoT (internet of things) data will inform improvements, leading to a safer helmet.

        You are correct that CTE is caused by forces within the cranium, and I don’t know what an effective helmet will look like. But I have confidence (not absolute) that there is a solution.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Perhaps that day will come. Although I have my doubts.

          In the meantime, the solution is not to play football. And not to encourage others to play football. Because all that damage is unnecessary.

          It violates my paratrooper rule. I look at people who skydive for fun, and I find it incredible.

          I have a personal rule: I will only jump out of a perfectly good airplane in flight if it’s absolutely necessary that I do so in order to help free Europe from Hitler. It made sense when the guys in “Band of Brothers” did it. Any reason that falls short of that is inadequate…

        2. Claus2

          I believe they’ll find out the best helmet is no helmet. Look at Rugby for comparison in brain injuries. Players learn that a hard plastic helmet can be offensively rather than defensively. They know the crowd loves a good helmet on helmet hit that can be heard throughout the stadium. I doubt a player would be willing to try that with little more than skin and hair protecting his skull.

          Hockey experienced the same thing when they went to the facemask and cage on the helmets. High sticking penalties went up exponentially.

  5. Doug Ross

    I’m guessing George Will had some moments in the locker room of his high school that he’d likely want to forget.

    Georgie: My good men, as Aristotle once said, “Must you snap that towel with such vigorous enthusiasm at my posterior? The contusions that emanate from my epidermis are not unlike the pain serviced upon Dante in his journey through Hell”.

    Will’s actual exposure to man-to-man competition was probably centered around the debate team fighting over chairs.

    1. Bart Rogers

      “Will’s actual exposure to man-to-man competition was probably centered around the debate team fighting over chairs.” As Larry the Cable Guy would say, “I don’t care who you are, that right there is funny”. Good one Doug!!

  6. Brad Warthen Post author

    Looking back at the images of the two brains…

    The one on the left could be Hans Delbruck’s brain. I think the one on the right belongs to “Abby Someone,” perhaps Abby Normal…

  7. Norm Ivey

    I get both sides of this discussion. I’ve been one of those day-long tailgaters discussing every element of the game, convincing myself that the Gamecocks could be victorious in even the most unlikeliest of circumstances. I have spent entire Sundays in front of the TV, especially late in the season, pulling for a team I normally wouldn’t care about to win or lose just so it would help my team into the playoffs. I would be involved in multiple fantasy leagues. I was consumed by standings and stats and trivia.

    And then a couple years ago I realized I just wasn’t enjoying it much any more. The actual violence was part of it, but stuff like the ad above and annoying announcers led to my dissatisfaction as well. I found that more and more players were just the type of people I didn’t want to watch. Even the NFL itself just began to feel kind of sleazy.

    I quit watching on Sundays except for the playoffs. I still watch college ball a bit, but it’s a whole lot less important. I recognize Bud’s passion, but I no longer feel it. I can turn it off and walk away. Most of the timeI’d rather be hiking in the woods or sipping a beer out back.

    1. Barry


      I am in the same boat. 5-7 years ago I could name every player, every recruit, etc on the Gamecocks.

      Slowly I have lost interest mainly due to just being busy with family. I had to be reminded last week that Saturday was the first game, I was stunned when I came to that realization.

      Fast forward: I can only name 5-6 players on the current team.

      I have found that I simply don’t care anymore. If they win, ok. If they lose, that is fine. It doesn’t impact me either way at all.

      As I sit here now, I have no idea when the Gamecocks play next week. I have plans on Saturday anyway and won’t be near a tv.

      The change has been fast, but it’s been good. I enjoy not caring enough to keep up with it. Some of my friends don’t have anything to talk to me about anymore it seems.

      Luckily, my boys- both teens- don’t care about sports at all.

    2. Richard

      Yeah, but this year USC has a DJ to entertain between plays… so while you’re sitting in the stand during 95 degree heat you can go deaf at horrible music played over a horrible speaker system at eardrum damaging volume.

  8. Bob Amundson

    Funny, I just bought a jump for my wife as a birthday present; it’s on her bucket list. I jokingly say I paid $100 extra to push her out. My one jump was initiated with a boot pushing my behind, so I understand and agree with you.


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