I recently did a track workout at a local park in my city of Newark, NJ. My running partner and I chose Weequahic Park instead of the one in our neighborhood because the slightly farther away park has a regulation 400m track, where the local one is some odd shorter distance that makes it harder to measure laps.. When I say workout I do mean attempting to run fast, but, as this piece hints, I’m certainly not setting any land speed records. The last time we ran at the Weequahic track, we were there right before youth football practice. This time, we were in luck! Football practice was under way.
We shared the track with some football parents and a few younger siblings, and a coterie of Black Men Run, enveloping the 11- to 13-year old kids and their coaches playing “America’s Game.” Of the coaches on the field, all appeared to be African-American, and about 95% of the players were, too.
This football practice took me way back to so many evenings when I was young, from the time I was six years old and I begged my father to sign me up, too, as he registered my older brother for Pop Warner football.
I played soccer like nearly everyone was doing in the suburban New Jersey town where I did a good portion of my growing up. I sometimes think about myself wearing that bright yellow team t-shirt and wonder, what would have happened had I stuck with soccer? I remember being bored playing soccer on the hot field, and then, when football registration time came, I followed my brother.
What if? Well, for one, I would have better foot-eye coordination and ball skills today, and that would be a welcome thing for any comrades with whom I have played soccer over the years. (Sorry, everyone!) But, as a six-year-old, I ditched the most popular game in the world to play the game that was steadily overtaking baseball and becoming America’s Game — perfect for TV viewing, the rhythms of the work week, betting, and so much more. I wasn’t aware of any of the sociological or geopolitical factors, though; I was just following my older brother, and that, to paraphrase Frost, has made some of the difference in who I am today.
I have a love-hate relationship with American football. It was very important to me for a long time, from when I was six until I was 21 and in my last year of college. But it’s not my favorite team sport and hasn’t been for a long time, and it’s not even particularly close (that’s reserved for Canada’s game). It’s not even my second or third, or, after recently attending my first ever professional football match (Go Red Bulls!), even my fourth favorite team sport anymore.
Football is America’s game, bar none, and in many ways that’s kind of the greatest turn off for me. However, there’s that story related by the great Afro-American history scholar John Bracey about C.L.R. James, the great Trinidadian Marxist and keen observer of sport and society, who, when watching an American football game on television, shouted, “Black men beating up white men on television? The bourgeoisie is finished!”
Well, I have always loved and mostly shared James’ revolutionary optimism, but his prediction was well over 40 years ago, and alas, the capitalist mode of production still rules over every fucking thing. Football has become so ingrained into U.S. society that it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if the push to make the day after the Super Bowl a federal holiday actually came to fruition. Hey, you take the gains where you can get ‘em!
I do really know football, though, and something in me still loves it, or many aspects of it. And watching these kids–the Lions–practice as my running partner and I ran a fairly strenuous workout did bring me back to my youth.
Except, there were a bunch of things missing!
First, the smell of fresh cut grass. I mean, I’m not trying to sound like Marcel Proust, but smell is very important for association. I associate fresh cut grass with football practice, and vice versa. Nearly every ball field in Newark, however, features artificial turf. From Independence Park, where kids play soccer on big and small fields and even on baseball fields while Portuguese-speaking men play volleyball tournaments late into the night; to Nat Turner Park, which sits across the street from Central High School; to Weequahic Park, perhaps the nicest of the city’s sports parks, there is very little natural grass to be found. This turf all over creation seems excessive, but it probably saves the city a lot of money on maintenance in the long run, while also making the city’s parks look good in a superficial way.
I’m sure I sound crotchety, but it ain’t right. These kids I was watching won’t have that same association of fresh cut grass with their youth football days.
Of the other things that were missing, more importantly, I didn’t hear much yelling by the coaches. Granted, I did hear a coach give a tepid chewing out to a group of players who seemingly weren’t paying attention to him, and he sent them for a couple of laps. As a former football player who was ordered to run many laps around the field, and as an adult runner who now was choosing to spend his free time after work running 1,000-meter repeats, this made me smile, and made me want to say to the Black Men Run group, “Hey, our sport is their sport’s punishment!” I did not.
Overall, however, I saw a lot less yelling by coaches than I was used to back in the day, and less than I’d been expecting this day. Yes, kids have more recreational choices than ever before, and you don’t want to drive them away from the game by yelling. But in class society, not everyone has all the same choices. I haven’t been to the fields where I grew up playing in a long time, but I suspect there aren’t quite as many kids out there playing football as there were in the past. In 1981, my dad and few other people had any inkling of the potential long-term effects of the head trauma we associate with football nowadays. That head trauma is caused by the type of head-to-head contact that was a natural result of the tackling drills we did, and it was encouraged in those days. Parents these days are more aware of the risks of playing football–at an early age or at all–and those with more choices are mostly keeping their kids away.
As more reporting about the links between football and traumatic brain injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) have been in the news, youth participation in full-contact tackle football has dropped precipitously. Indeed, since 2009, the year in which reports about football and brain injuries increased dramatically, there have been fewer and fewer kids playing football every year.
But here was a field absolutely overflowing with kids playing football in this predominantly Black section of Newark, a predominantly Black city, with adjacent fields–baseball fields and generic fields–also full of kids playing football in full pads. My running partner and I laughed when we noticed a field being shared by younger kids playing football and a group of older (also Black) kids playing soccer. Having been raised in a football-obsessed, small, mostly white Pennsylvania town which never would have granted any space for kids playing soccer near football players, my partner thought maybe this concession represented progress.
Regardless of “allowing” a few kids to play soccer nearby, to what does one attribute the fact that there were so many kids still playing football? Don’t Black parents hear the stories about the risks of youth football, too? Because it’s not just at Weequahic Park in Newark, NJ where Black kids are playing football. Indeed, despite the overall decrease in youth football participation, this trend has not been widely observed in Black communities. Is this just a situation where the potential rewards–a college scholarship, as one shining example, or, beyond that, a professional contract–outweigh the risks? Are Black parents, who care as much about their children as anyone, keenly aware of the facts and simply making a risk assessment?
That would seem to be the case. In the year 2000, Black athletes made up 39 percent of all Division I college football players. Today, that number is up to more than half. In the National Football League–the pros–where most contracts are not guaranteed as in other pro sports but there is still a lot of money to be made, people of color comprise 71% of the players. Should a possible future of concussions and potential CTE give their parents pause when their children might walk in a literal minefield of violence and police harassment, or at least in a barren landscape of disinvestment, on their way to school or to the practice field?
In considering all this while I was running and in the days since, I realize what was definitely the biggest thing “missing” from my little remembrance of things past.
The sound of hitting. Thumping pads. Helmet to helmet contact. In a word, violence. And, exhortations toward violence by coaches and parents and teammates.
Because when I think about football practices from my youth, I can smell the grass, and I can taste my own sweat. I remember “bringing it in” at the end of practice and losing myself in the team on either side of a call-and-response cheer. But, I also remember the countless tackling and blocking drills against other humans, who also happened to be my teammates. I remember “Bull in the Ring”, serving as ball carrier in the center of a circle of players waiting to hear whose number would be called to try to annihilate me.
I remember tasting my own snot and my own tears as I fought them back. I remember lying on my back and getting up at the sound of the coach’s whistle, to either hit or be hit. I remember coaches casually calling kids, the other team, my teammates, and me “pussies” for not hitting hard enough or not being tough enough to take a hit.
And I didn’t hear any of that at Weequahic Park that evening. Now, I’m not saying there was no masculine and patriarchal bullshit going on at all, but it did not seem to be front and center. These kids were throwing the ball and catching the ball and blocking each other and it was something to behold. As a former quarterback, watching these kids throw and catch was a joy. And a bit surprising, given how risk-averse so many youth football coaches traditionally have been when it comes to ball possession. I remember our teams rarely throwing the ball downfield at all until the last year before high school. Yet, these 11 and 12 year olds were fully “vertical,” throwing slants and fades and posts and crossing patterns, and their coaches were teaching them to recognize the defensive coverage and base their pattern upon it. Hopefully, if one of these kids ever makes it to the pros someday, they won’t have a special clause written into their contract stipulating they have to watch film a certain number of hours per week, as the super-talented Kyler Murray did earlier this year.
I’m not sure that the Newark Lions youth football coaches do not drill the glories of unabashed violence into their charges. I am only sure of what I witnessed on one evening: the absence of excessive hitting and full contact, which exponentially increase the chance of players making contact with their helmeted heads.
Even if this evening was a reprieve, that would be a good thing, and something for which to applaud them. But I have a feeling it was probably the norm. These coaches may understand the long-term benefits of having fewer or no full-contact practices, and it doesn’t make them any less enamored of the game. In fact, if it makes them greater advocates for the kids, and their communities, then it makes them greater advocates for the game. The farther we can get from the feeling that American football is not much removed from the days of the Roman gladiators, the better it will be for everyone, including spectators.
Now, I am not against hitting. Tackling and blocking are an integral part of the game, they are an art of their own, and they must be taught and learned over time. Among other things, football is controlled violence, and the incredible ways that players channel emotion to be able to sacrifice their bodies and deliver hits in the service of their team is laudable. But, that shouldn’t mean helmet-to-helmet hits, or “blowing someone up” coming across the middle. It should not mean multiple concussions and a precarious future for those who get paid to play, or the youth who emulate them.
There is a lot to appreciate about American football, and on that evening a few weeks back, watching kids play I felt myself deeply appreciating it again. Even if it didn’t mean the end of the bourgeoisie. At least not yet.