I once had a brother-in-law who played for the Chicago Bears. The Bears were in the Super Bowl and it was amazing and wonderful even though we are serious Packer fans, oh wait, live in Packer nation and have his and her Green Bay Packer stock certificates filed somewhere around here. If you have a relative who plays in the NFL, it seems like a very big deal. The reflected glory has to go through a lot of opposing mirrors, like the tiny image remaining at the tail end of the fun house, but it’s still shiny and we liked it.
A year or so ago, I was in a meeting with a young psychologist carrying a Chicago Bears coffee mug with the signatures of all the Bears from their historic Super Bowl year. “I bet my former brother-in-law’s signature’s on there.”
“Really?” He was awed. I took the cup from him and found the signature. “Yep. There it is.”
I’m cool. I know football. I was once related to a Chicago Bear. What can I say?
Today, in the car, I asked my husband if he thought the NFL was as screwed up as people were saying. Was it corrupt beyond redemption? He surprised me by agreeing that it probably was and then trying to make a tortured case that the NFL was sparking research into brain injury that wouldn’t have happened without the impetus of hundreds of former players filling up the rehab wards in NFL cities. I sighed. Maybe so, but it seemed like a stretch.
At that moment, we pulled up to a light next to a central city park that was full of young kids in football uniforms, some on a field and others huddled, apparently waiting their turn to play. They were young, maybe 9 or 10 years old with their little shoulder pads and their helmets, gathered around their coaches, their anticipation showing in their little muscled legs. Meanwhile, the adults, the parents, the spectators were hauling out their collapsible chairs, food trucks were sliding open their windows and the smell of barbecue was in the air.
“Isn’t that what we want, though?” my husband said, nodding in the direction of the park. Indeed it is. I want parents and kids doing things that make everyone feel happy and healthy and part of a community. And, I thought, bless these guys who coach little kids and try to teach them football and probably a lot of other things. To me, it is like the best of the best to see this on a beautiful fall morning.
Then he asked me if, knowing what we know now about football, would I still let our sons play. And I said yes, almost right away even though the time for that decision is long past, 15 years or so ago.
I said yes because I wanted them to really love something. I wanted them to have a coach who wasn’t also their parent. I wanted them to learn how to be part of a team. I wanted them to be gracious sitting on the bench and totally committed when they got on the field.
I remembered that one of the most conflicted but probably educational moments I had as a mother was watching one son endure an entire game, no, nearly an entire season, suited up and standing on the sidelines of the football field waiting for a call to go in that very rarely came. Football really wasn’t right for him, but he loved practice and he loved being on the team. He never complained although I often wanted to. My husband explained to me that now that he was in high school, the time for ‘everyone gets a turn’ was over. So I watched as my son cheerfully supported his team, patted his teammates on the back as they came off the field, and ran in like a locomotive when the coach finally turned to him (he later became an actor with no time for sports).
As a parent, I wanted the lessons of sports for my kids and I wanted them to feel belonging and pride. And purpose. When you’re in high school, being on the volleyball team or the football team or even the marginal butterfly swimmer on your school’s medley relay team gives you purpose. Is it your life’s work? No. But I think it’s preparing you for that.
Maybe the NFL doesn’t deserve those suited up kids at the park today or my sons or yours. Maybe what all these kids offer is too pure and hopeful for an enterprise as crass and greedy as the NFL. No, the NFL doesn’t deserve these kids or need them.
But we do.