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Football’s grip on America is a double-edged sword

September 1, 2014 at 8:28 PM EDT
By far the most popular sport in America, football instills a spirit of resilience and teamwork. But the sport also continues to garner headlines for its violence, health risks from concussions and cases of domestic abuse by players. Jeffrey Brown talks to Mark Edmundson, author of "Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game," about the good and the bad of playing football.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The football season is just getting under way, with huge interest, big bucks, and lots of questions.

Jeffrey is back with our look at how football relates to our culture.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s by far the most popular sport in America, but football also continues to garner headlines beyond the sports page, for its violence and health risks from concussions and for cases of domestic abuse by players.

Last week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced a tougher policy to deal with players involved in such cases. Just this weekend, there was another case, as San Francisco 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald was arrested for domestic violence against his fiancee.

What to make of this sport that has such a grip on American culture? Well, the new book “Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game” is one response. Its author, University of Virginia Professor Mark Edmundson, joins me now.

Football, as a kind of training ground — you started this as a personal thing — a training ground for you.

MARK EDMUNDSON, Author, “Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game”: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Teaches you when you’re knocked down to get up.

MARK EDMUNDSON: Knocked down, to get up.

I mean, I think there is a lot of truth in what the coaches say, that it can help you develop courage, it can help you develop loyalty, it can help you develop character.

But there’s a downside to all those things. There’s a dark side to the game. And some of what my book is about is trying to let the better stuff come through and make people more away of the dark side, so they can be a little vigilant about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the better stuff starts with your own experience.


I was in pretty rough shape when I was a junior in high school. My family was in very, very rough condition. My sister just died. My father was taking it hard. My mother was very close to breaking down. And, you know, we needed something. And I’m not saying football saved my life or anything, but it was darn helpful to have someplace to go where I could try to improve, try to get better at.

I didn’t care much about school. But football gave me some focus and gave me some attention and really helped me to develop at a time when I didn’t have much else going on for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: So part of the book is about your own personal experience and then you get big, football as our national pastime…


JEFFREY BROWN: … but also signifying a country that is a more warlike country now, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: Has it changed from when we were — when baseball was the pastime…

MARK EDMUNDSON: Well, you have hit it. That is the Mary McGrory quote. You know, baseball is what we were; football is what we have become.

And what is that? You know, a country more perhaps willing to own to its own warlike nature. And that’s a little bit distressing. At the same time, you know, the preparation to be a soldier, the preparation to be brave, that can be valuable for a young man or a young woman. There is a lot of paradox involved in football at this point.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the kind of headlines that I was referring to, the domestic violence, do you see things like that as part of the culture or the breeding ground of the game?

I mean, how do you…

MARK EDMUNDSON: I think there’s — you know, Plato talked about this quality thumos, spiritedness, passion, intensity. And he valued it, but he saw that it really needed to be educated.

And when you send people out in the field and say hit as hard as you can, block as hard as you can, they are going to develop a strong dose of spiritedness. And you have got to help them to understand that there is an on the field and an off the field, and it’s not easy.

But there’s a good side to it. Spirited people are the sorts of people who, outside of football, they get things done. They write books and they start businesses and they teach school and they become physicians. And so you are getting a really important quality into play, this thymotic thing, this spirited thing. But it’s also really dangerous.

JEFFREY BROWN: So do you see the culture inside football trying to address things like that? And the larger culture, looking in at it, does it — is there a chance of people turning away from that violent culture?

MARK EDMUNDSON: I think it’s a tough one, you know?

I think that progress is getting made. There’s more thoughts about — you see the headlines about domestic violence. You see the NFL taking some steps. There’s a lot more thoughts about concussions and how to deal with those and how to limit them.

I think the NFL could probably go further, though I’m no policy — no policy expert. But, at the same time, you do see people sit down on Sunday afternoon and watch other people do extraordinary deeds and watch those people be very brave in certain ways that can be moving to everyday people.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the argument — and here I’m thinking about high schools.


JEFFREY BROWN: When I have talked on the program here to people about the crisis in public education…


JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m thinking in particular of the book called “Smartest Kids in the World,” where she was — Amanda Ripley was comparing high schools around the world, and where kids do better in high schools where in most cases there’s not much emphasis on sports.

So, one argument is, we need less sports in high school, not more.


Well, you know, it may be that you can develop your intelligence better isolated from sports. But we’re not just human intelligence, right? We’re more than intelligence. We’re also that spirited part. And you have got to develop that too and help wake it up and then help channel it. And that’s what sports does. I would like to see a little more dialogue between sports and the academic life or the intellectual life, but I wouldn’t want to lose the sports part.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, but that — that is both sides of your life, huh?


JEFFREY BROWN: Because you are an English literature professor…


JEFFREY BROWN: … writing a book about football and about your past playing in high school.

MARK EDMUNDSON: Yes, that is both sides of my life.

And, you know, I continue, and I owe it really a great debt of gratitude the fact that I can still get out there and exercise and have a good time. I play basketball three or four times a week, or, as I tell people — they say, did you go play basketball? I say, the other nine guys did.


MARK EDMUNDSON: But that’s part of — that’s part of the legacy of having trained my body a little bit and seeing what benefits can come from it when I was very young. It stuck with me. And I’m grateful for it.


The new book is “Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game”

Mark Edmundson, thank you so much.


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Watch an extended conversation with Mark Edmundson. He talks to Jeffrey Brown on why football players should be reading Homer and Plato.