Jane Coaston hosts the podcast “The Argument,” and recently she was discussing football, as in, is it ethical to be a football fan? She had two guests, one a sportswriter who covers the NFL, the other a former pro football fan who’s written “Against Football.” They all became football fans as children, watching games with their fathers (it was always the father). But as grownups, they began to wonder why they liked this game, which can be brutal and violent, and takes a huge toll on the bodies of the players.
All of which got me thinking about when I was a football fan.
No one in my family was a sports fan of any sort. So I didn’t grow up watching games with my father or my brother. I went to high school in Pennsylvania, however, and I think Pennsylvania rivals Texas in its devotion to football, especially high school football. As it happened, my high school had a powerful football team. Neshaminy High School was Lower Bucks County champion for most of the 1950s. In 1958, we even played the state champion, Allentown, and beat them, 18-0! I was on one of the buses that traveled from Langhorne to Allentown for the Friday night game, nervous after the hour ride to the strange city, and ecstatic on the ride home.
Football at Neshaminy attracted everyone. There was no split between the college prep kids and the business or general track kids. Many of the college prep boys were on the team, and others were in the band that played at games. And everyone went to the games. We all bought an activity pass so we could take the school buses to home or away games. And some games were even broadcast on a local radio station; for some reason I couldn’t go to the game on Thanksgiving weekend, but while shopping with my mother that Saturday afternoon, I listened to part of the game on the car radio.
Rooting for Neshaminy’s football team taught me the truth of Yogi Berra’s saying: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” In one game, we were behind by 10 points, with maybe three minutes left. I decided I might as well get a seat on the bus. I was past the bleachers and behind the scoreboard when a roar came from the crowd. Something was happened. I ran back in time to watch the miraculous plays that gave us a victory. I never left a game before the end again.
Then we moved after my junior year. Still in Pennsylvania, but at a new school, new not just to me, it was only two years old, and its football team was pathetic. Harriton High School’s first year, 1958, its team won one game, lost 5, and tied one. The fall of 1959, my senior year, was worse, Harriton losing all nine of its games. I lost all interest, not only because the team never won, but I knew none of the players, though a couple were in some of my classes. Worst of all, the football coach, Mr. Wilcox, was my Social Problems teacher — and he seemed one of the stupidest adults I’d ever known. One of our weekly assignments was to read Norman Vincent Peale’s newspaper column in the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer to discuss on Mondays. (Peale was the author of “The Power of Positive Thinking,” and positive thinking wasn’t helping Harriton’s football team.) Mr. Wilcox also believed in abstaining from alcohol. When someone in class mentioned that wine is in the Bible, Mr. Wilcox assured us that the Bible used “wine” to refer to “grape juice” — it was the same thing.
I went to a college with no intercollegiate sports, and no football of any sort. I had no more interest in that sport.
Then came 1968 and the 1969 Super Bowl. We had just bought a TV, which my husband had decided he needed as a new reporter at the New York Post; he was often assigned to interview the latest TV sit-com or drama star, and without a TV, he had no idea who these people were. In the runup to the third Super Bowl, there were plenty of interviews with the New York Jets quarterback, Joe Namath, and he was gorgeous. The Jets were also distinct underdogs, and having been a Philadelphia Phillies fan in the 1950s, I had learned the moral courage of rooting for the underdog.
One day Jack came home from the Post to announce that the pressmen at the paper were taking bets on the Super Bowl, and was I interested? Why not? Put $5 on the Jets, I said, and we watched the game, exhilarated as Namath and the Jets overcame the heavily favored Baltimore Colts. That clicked my football attraction back into place, and for the next several years, we followed the Jets closely, even as they slipped down in the standings. Along the way we finally bought a color TV with what then counted as a big screen, 19 inches.
Then came 1986. The New York Mets won the World Series, and I was fully back in baseball territory (that's a whole other story), reading the sports pages in the off-season for the first time. For a few more years, I watched baseball games between February and November, and football between September and February. That overlap in the fall was a bit difficult to navigate. Did I really want to keep doing this?
One day I was watching pro football, probably a playoff game. It had snowed earlier, but warmed up enough to leave the field frosty and muddy at the same time. Players were slipping and sliding, getting hit and falling into mud. I was enjoying this — and caught myself. Was this why I liked football, to watch grown men who must feel cold and miserable running and banging into each other? Was this game bringing out the sadist in me? It was time for me to stop.
(The stories about concussions and brain injury came out later, and sealed my decision.)