Oct 25, 2010

A CRIMINAL ELEMENT IN FOOTBALL? DENIS JOHNSON. JAMES WRIGHT.



I'll be interested in reactions to Denis Johnson's poem, below. It's new to me, and I think it's an interesting take on the ways football can be more meaningful than it seems to those fans or anti-fans who see it as little more than kill, kill, kill.

I'm adding James Wright's classic, "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio," even though I posted it last fall. Like Johnson's poem, it plays beautifully into the . . . meta-discussion . . . of what football is: frolic, fight, art, and minor tragedy, among other things.

Last Sunday, October 17, there were some nasty helmet-to-helmet hits in the NFL, some injuries as a result, and some hefty fines ($75,000 in one case), which led to an orgasm of commentary from the . . . dare I say it? . . . Talking Heads. Should the rules be changed? Would it be enough to simply enforce the current rules?

From there it's a short, obvious step to the question: What can and should be done about the criminal element (as it was once called) among football players at all levels?

After last Sunday's disputed hits on sometimes vulnerable players (especially receivers jumping to catch passes), there were some troubling comments from TV's Talking Heads and some visitors at a blog I visit regularly, Ohio River Life, which is located in an Ohio town near the Pennsylvania border. Some Pittsburgh Steeler fans there were vocal about defending their linebacker, James Harrison, against charges of a cheap, dangerous hit. Some folks were defending recklessly violent contact that seems intended to injure an opponent rather than simply preventing him from getting his way--catching a pass or running for yardage.

From there, it's another short step to worrying that the old, old charge against football might be valid: fans want to see violence, not ballet or strategy or courage or grace under pressure or speed or the arc of a ball in flight or the hometown colors.

The corollary charge, of course, is that there are plenty of players who are happy to oblige, who would just as soon injure an opponent as tackle him, who couldn't care less about another guy's multiple concussions or career-ending injuries or even paralysis. If they were allowed to use sledge hammers and scalpels, would they? If Tommy told you to jump off the roof, would you? If Coach told you to get hold of that guy's injured knee in the pile-up and twist it, hard, would you?

If, in order to win, you must cripple the other team's players, rather than beating them with the skills that define the game, yours must be a piss-poor team. Dude. Psycho.

There is a moral difference between intending to rattle or even hurt another player and intending to injure him. Hurting him means shaking him up, intimidating him, letting him know you are not going away, you will be there any time he invades your territory, you will not give him one inch more than necessary, "you're mad as hell and you're not going to take it anymore," and your refusal might cause him some discomfort. That has almost nothing to do with trying to injure that other player, intending to put him out of that game for the rest of his season or to cripple him forever.

Football is a metaphor for war, not war itself. Fans and players who crave injury need to examine their inner lives. Or simply enlist.

Where does that rage come from? What can you do about it that's more purposeful for you and less damaging to others? Someone should write a post titled "Football, Introspection, Morality and Self-Improvement."

Football will never be injury-free; that's a sad fact about a game that requires of its contestants so much in the way of speed, strength, character, and, yes, brains. But to make injury your objective is stupid and criminal.

There might be no way to know a character's intent, a kid's heart, his sense of what it means to be human; but officials in football must try to do just that, and it is often, not always, possible to determine that leading with a helmet, especially aiming at the other guy's helmet, is avoidable.

Spearing with your helmet is also less effective than a low, hard, shoulder tackle and wrapping up with your arms. Unless you intend to injure a man, or you lack the skill and courage to tackle low and hard, there's no need to go after an opponent's head. It's his legs that speed him down the field, and it's his arms that hold the ball. If you're not a psychopath, why do you want his head? What are coaches telling players? And the younger the players are, the bigger that question is.

So when you have players who want to be the next Jack Tatum (see video clip below--a few seconds will make the point), yes, fine 'em, kick 'em out of the current game, and suspend 'em from X number of future games, without pay. That will make a statement to the criminal element on the field and in the stands--and to little kids of all ages, who need such guidance, whether or not they realize it.

As for bloodthirsty fans, don't share a beer with them. Don't join their slobbering bloodlust. Make sure you're happy enough with your life that you don't need to pin your identity on a football team's success and violence. Shun those fans, who are fans of violence more than football. As far as I know, shunning works for the Amish.

Why I Might Go to the Next Football Game by Denis Johnson : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio by James Wright : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Jack Tatum Darryl Stingley Video | Jack Tatum Video | Darryl Stingley Hit Video | Oakland Raiders Jack Tatum | Buzzy Times

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14 comments:

altadenahiker said...

The James Wright is a stunner. Gosh, that's gorgeous, in a "city of the shoulders, hog butcher to the world" kind of way, but more. Also reminds me of some of the British kitchen sink dramas -- This Sporting Life, for example.

As not one for team sports, football holds no personal appeal. But I can't think of a single sport that isn't dangerous. Surely, skiing and gymnastics pose far greater risks than football. I read somewhere that equestrian sports result in the most injuries.

Jean Spitzer said...

"their sons grow suicidally beautiful"

Other things being equal, I'd rather watch basketball. All sport is dangerous, but in football one stops the other player by hitting him.

BANJO52 said...

AH, I like that comparison to Sandburg. Also, team vs. individual sports and the element of danger in sport sound like promising topics . . . I'm surprised about equestrian dangers, but it does make sense.

Jean, nothin' wrong with hoops. It's probably a matter of what you grow up with and what you're good at (or once were).

Brenda's Arizona said...

Banjo, I am lost on your sentences of hurting someone vs. injuring someone. My brain does not see the difference. Have you ever been hurt but not injured? Even in affairs of the heart, a hurt is a cut; it is an injury. Or not?

So Denis Johnson - since he is a guy, he shows he likes the sweet girl by tackling her and punching her? I mean, DJ describes the ballet of the 'romance' - and then gives a punch for those of us who believe the ballet WAS the story.

We watch Football on Sundays. I love the ballet of the players - makes me want to be more balanced and graceful! Makes we walk en pointe to the frig for more beer or soda. These are GUYS inspiring me!

I cannot fathom jumping forward, landing on my face, skinning my body, having the wind knocked out of me, just to get 'more yardage'. But the way a player jumps in the air and catches a spiraling ball, only to tiptoe just fair of the out of bounds line for 7 yards before regaining balance... I'm hooked!

No violence, more ballet, please!

M. said...

Banjo--
Enjoyed this post immensely. I agree with you on most points to be sure. Yes, football, more than any other popular sport, is symbolic warfare--old-style warfare, where one army meets another on the battlefield, someone "blows the whistle," and everyone runs at each other. The kickoff is that opening dash, but the strategy involved in jockeying for field position and ultimately penetrating the other team's castle (end zone) is the real goal. As a game, football is a way for cities to conduct mock warfare. It is a realization that cities (or tribes) must compete with one another.

I also agree that trying to injure another player in a game should be regarded as criminal, but Jack Tatum aside, I really don't think too many modern players try to injure other players.

What I do worry about is that the rules do not protect a receiver's legs. In the Steelers game yesterday, a safety pulled back from an upper body hit and decided to go low on Steelers receiver Hines Ward after a catch. Although Hines went off the field for a play, he didn't appear injured. Still, he could have been. Many current players said last week--and Ward was one of them--that they'd much rather take a high hit than a low hit because there is much more of a chance of sustaining a career-ending injury to the knees than above the waste. In the end, I think the NFL is just trying to cover its butt in preparation for when and if players begin suing the league for brain damage in later life. The league needs to be able to say that it did what it could to safeguard the players.

BANJO52 said...

Brenda and M, thank you for such thoughtful comments. I really appreciate them. I'll respond more completely in the a.m.

For now, Brenda, hurt vs. injury might be a connotative difference only, but it's commonly used, at least in sport, or at least in football. I'd say "hurt" means you can still play in that game and subsequent ones, no matter the pain. But "injury" is a real health issue; you're out for the game when it occurs and maybe for several more, or a season, or a career, or a lifetime (paralysis, to use an extreme example). It sounds as if these guys play "hurt" with a pain that would be an "injury" to most people--one more facet of the athlete to appreciate.

And Brenda, even though I've never seen you, I'll now . . . perceive . . . you as you walk en pointe toward the beer. GREAT image. (Got Guinness?).

M, welcome again. I hope you're right about modern players' sense of ethics. They do seem friendly after each game, and it would seem beyond stupid to be otherwise.

Excellent point about the legs, and coming from Hines Ward, or any active player, it has authority. But where they're thinking season or career, I'm thinking paralysis or brain damage. Maybe it's tomayto tomahto?

BANJO52 said...

Brenda, about affairs of the heart, what an interesting variation on football, doncha think? -- which of course Johnson's poem invites.

Maybe the short-lived cuts were "hurts" and the life-long ones "injuries"? Or . . . broken banjo strings, quickly replaced vs. permanent stains on the head (the round white cover). (Can I sustain a metaphor or what!).

Again re: Johnson, I don't remember committing the folly of love-tackling a grade school girl, but I couldn't swear to it, and I did other things just as dumb. Admit it, your males flopped around in dumbness too. That’s what we’re for, you know. Floppers. Caught fish on mud gone hard.

Are you too young for the old cliche of dunking the beloved's pigtails in the inkwell? (Our desks, which our parents had used, had inkwells, but they were obsolete by the time I was in that building).

Brenda's Arizona said...

Amazing your comment on inkwells in desks. Our desks in Argentina had such wells, as we all wrote with fountain pens. But our school/desk/books were pre-Peron (IE, Peron with Evita, not Peron with Isabel). I was born long after Peron/Evita, but our school never moved on.

You have visually defined 'hurt' vs. 'injury'. Thank you! A child gets a boo-boo, a hurt. Stick a band-aid on it, serve up milk and cookies, and all is well. But a child gets a broken arm - that is an injury. A band-aid doesn't cure it nor take the sting out.

M's comments on unprotected legs - hmmm. How can one dance ballet if legs are injured (have you seen Mao's Last Dancer (a movie)?).
Anyway, M, you have some excellent points. BTW, M, do you work with James Bond? You portrayed by Judi Dench is my favorite M to date!

BANJO52 said...

M, you might have sprung me into a new post in a day or so -- on "tribes."

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Remember how I told you that I crossed the street to avoid "those boys" (Dennis Johnson).

"Floppers. Caught fish on mud gone hard"

I want that as a post title, or something. That line alone deserves an audience

I don't know much about football. I've heard it said that players take dance classes. I'm not so sure I want to apply "art" to the game. Art seems to be thrown around so easily and in the end , if they can't find a place to put something, a category to name it after, they call it art. I think we need a different name cause I'm starting to think I might not know what art is anymore unless it's someone's first name.

"Art is Art. Everything else is everything else."
Ad Reinhardt

The second poem. Football dads wishing they were their sons. Happening in the adjacents


My cousins kid Chad J and of course he was injured last weekend.

Jean Spitzer said...

Nope, Banjo. I'm actually good at football--at least throwing and catching. Hate the contact aspect.

Brenda's Arizona said...

"Happy feet in the pocket"?
Now, is that poetry or something else? PA, this is quite a write up on your relative. It could be a poem. Or a music video.

Barbaro said...

I prob shouldn't publicize my feelings about football for fear of being run out of the country, but you seemed to ask... I don't mind the blood--in fact, I'd like more; that might justify all the hype, make it more honest, like bullfighting. My objection to football is that it's the ultimate spectator sport: hardly anyone who watches it can play it, and many of the positions can only be filled by freaks of nature who will be ruined by 35. Is that sport, or euthanasia, eugenics?

BANJO52 said...

PA, you’re right, and I like the Reinhardt. But the way we use “art” sloppily tends to honor art, doesn’t it?

I think of the dad-son-football triad as a small town, blue-collar, Midwestern phenomenon, but with all the talent coming out of California and Florida, I should’ve known it was there too. In the Wright poem and in life, maybe it’s better to have had some moments of glory and “suicidal beauty,” even if the rest consists of beer in Tiltonsville, esp. if the alternative is beer in Toltonsville without memories of glory (call it beauty?). Whaddya think?

Jean, I hope PA’s cousin’s son isn’t hurt too badly. That contact part of the game is hard to ignore, esp. if we’re looking for ballet, although I’ve been noticing that a lot of injuries result from little or no human-to-human contact, just a quirkily wrong step or fall.

Barbaro, I’ve submitted your name to the Joe McCarthy Anti-Communist Memorial League. Expect a knock on the door.

But several times I’ve thought of chess and boxing the way you speak of bullfights, as the most nearly pure games, where the better player wins, period.

That’s not foolproof, esp. if a boxing ref is crooked or there’s a fix, but is that the KIND of thing you have in mind for bullfighting, with the added . . . attraction??? . . . that it’s literally a fight to the death, glorified by pomp, circumstance, shiny outfits?

However, wouldn’t your last two sentences apply to most sports? Hoops and height; tennis with tennis dads and ruined childhoods; Olympic sports and steroids, delayed menstruation, storm trooper coaches?

Maybe there’s a price to pay for pursuing PERFECTION, or at least excellence, in any human activity, including the arts. (By the way, I think the Wright poem gives that point at least a glancing nod, too).

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