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 The Case against Football 

January 10, 2006 
We are deep in the season of peak football fanaticism, of bowl games and playoffs. Even I sometimes get caught up in the spirit of it, though Today's column is "The Case against Football" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.I disapprove of American football in principle.

The rest of the world reserves the word football for a sport in which the ball is kicked constantly. That makes sense to me. What I don’t understand is using the word for a sport in which the ball is kicked only a few times per game; most of the time it’s carried or thrown. With the almost total disappearance of the quick kick and the drop kick, the name makes less sense than ever. Think about it: the overwhelming majority of football players never kick the ball in their entire careers! The average fan never ponders the implications of this fact.

Worse, every so-called football team is actually several teams, an offensive team and a defensive team, plus “special” teams which do most of the actual kicking. So the victory or loss of a given game depends on the independent performances of all these teams.

When I was a kid, players were expected, at least in college football, to play both offense and defense, just as in other sports. That’s as it should be. In most sports, from chess to boxing, offense and defense are inseparable. But football is perverse that way, like baseball since the designated hitter ruined it, only worse. No player plays an entire game anymore. This is not only regrettable but philosophically unconscionable.

As I write, the Washington team, whose official nickname I won’t repeat, since it is now regarded as an ethnic slur, has just won a game in so ugly a fashion as to underline my point. Its offensive unit chose to take the day off, and the defensive unit pretty much won the game on flukes. This was all pretty much within the rules, except when one of the Washington players spat in an opponent’s face, he was ejected and later fined for this infraction, but it tells you the kind of sport football has become. One of these days I expect every team to have a special spitting unit too, so the essential players won’t have to risk ejection.

[Breaker quote for The Case against Football: A philosophical view]But the football obsession is so strong that at the end of Sunday Mass the next day our pastor referred happily to the Washington victory, and the congregation applauded. Somewhat unseemly conduct in the house of the Lord, I thought. I could see clapping for the defensive unit, maybe, but for the offense?

I admit that football can be fun to watch, if you set your deepest beliefs aside for a couple of hours. I allow myself to watch only a few games at this time of the year so I can keep up a conversation with the clergy. Clergymen of all faiths have it tough, because they can hear off-color jokes only from other clergymen, but football gives them something they can talk about with the laity without shocking them. This too must be counted a point in the game’s favor.

It’s been many years since I’ve watched a college bowl game, so this year I decided to watch the Rose Bowl and see the amazing Bush kid everyone, especially the clergy, is talking about. I couldn’t have picked a better year. It turned out to be one of the most exciting games ever played.

At least that’s the strong impression I got from the papers the next morning. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten to watch it. I’d gotten caught up in some hobby — knitting booties for my new grandson, I think — and had lost track of the time until it was too late. I felt a twinge of regret when I read that Texas had come from behind to whip Southern Cal in the final minutes.

But when I read that the Texas quarterback had not only passed for 267 yards but also run for another 200, including the winning touchdown in the last few seconds, I figured it was all a pack of lies. Journalism isn’t what it used to be either. In the old days they’d have been ashamed to run a story like that. They had too much respect for the reader’s intelligence. Nowadays they assume that football fans will believe anything.

Joseph Sobran

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