Next Big Culture Clash: Banning Football

The most important center-right political article of the year -- in fact, the most important political article of the year -- may well be a piece by the liberal writer Jonathan Chait in the current New York magazine titled “In Defense of Male Aggression: What Liberals Get Wrong About Football.” The thesis of the article is pretty much summed up in the title. In a development that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago, a serious move to delegitimize or even abolish football may well be emerging as the next big cultural cause of the left. Chait has come forward to defend the game, its role in American society, and the concept of masculinity at its core.

Chait makes some cogent arguments on this cultural battlefront, but the real importance of his article is that he is the first mainstream liberal writer to confirm that the battle exists (and therefore that the few conservatives, ranging from Max Boot to Rush Limbaugh, who’ve written or talked about it aren’t nuts). This offers hope that, unlike in so many of these culture wars where progressive victory becomes a fait accompli before the progres­sives acknowledge, and everyone else realizes, what is going on, we may actu­ally get to have a real debate.

Chait’s contribution to this debate comes at an inauspicious time. Just prior to his article’s publication three high school football players, including a 16-year-old in Suffolk County, died in a one-week period. But as Chait shows, despite this horrid coincidence such tragedies are in fact exceedingly rare, and the high school football fatality rate is actually lower than that for basketball, lacrosse and water polo. As Boot noted in the Wall Street Journal last year, football deaths at all levels have declined precipi­tously from 36 in 1968 to fewer than ten per year the last few decades, and far fewer Americans die playing football than horseback riding, bicycling, swimming – or being struck by lightning. Even the incidence of concussions – the source of much legitimate concern about the NFL – is only “incrementally higher” in football at all levels (6.4 per 100,000 athletic events) than in ice hockey (5.4), boys’ lacrosse (4.0), or girls’ soccer (3.4), Chait points out.

But while these numbers provide important perspective, they are not the main focus of Chait’s article, and he does not downplay the seriousness of the NFL concussion problem. Rather, he adopts Boot’s “mend it, don’t end it” approach to the game, and even acknowledges the possibility that “advances in weight and speed training” may make it impossible to mend at the professional level without some fundamental rules changes. His concern, though, is that a “period of serious and justifiable medical revelation is slowly giving way to a moral panic” about football among the liberal elite, with “a safety-reform movement mutating into a culture war, where one part of America rises in visceral, often-uncomprehending revulsion against the values and mores of another.”

The recent diatribe of leftist professor Steve Almond, in his succinctly titled Against Football, that the sport “fosters … violence, greed, racism, and homophobia,” Chait observes, “increasingly speaks for liberal ­bien-pensant opinion in America, since football is a manifes­tation of traditional masculinity that is increasingly out of step with liberal society.” And, indeed, sentiments such as Almond’s are rapidly spreading, as such sentiments always do, from the fringes of academic la-la land to the arbiters of mainstream liberal opinion. Malcolm Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker, has compared football to dogfighting. The cover of Time magazine a few weeks ago demanded: “He Died Playing This Game. Is Football Worth It?,” featuring a story about another tragic high school death last year. The New York Times has crossed the line from investigative reporting about concussions to bemoaning the alleged “barbarism” of broken legs as well as broken brains.