Local Lifestyle

Wednesday, Dec 12 2012 04:10 PM

VALERIE SCHULTZ: Hate violence but love football - how can that be so?

By The Bakersfield Californian

Although my father raised me to be a committed fan of the New York Giants, my heart has belonged to the Green Bay Packers since I was 11. In fifth grade, I followed my best friend's lead and became a supporter of the legendary quarterback Bart Starr. The rest is history. I have rooted for Green Bay through triumph and defeat, and my friends know not to say anything bad about Brett Favre in my presence, ever.

Football is out of character for me. It's an obsession that most people wouldn't figure me to have. I don't know how a peacenik like myself ever became, or still remains, attracted to professional football. I do not follow any other sport. I am an advocate of nonviolent resolution of conflict. So why does my blood quicken when fall arrives and another football season gets under way? My television stays on all day long Sunday, and I get very little done as I bask in football coverage and cheer for my favorites and yell at the refs and crave guacamole and chips. I even try to plan social engagements and other commitments around the kickoff times of games I want to watch. I believe God invented Saturday evening Mass just for football fans.

But lately the violence of the game gives me pause. While there is nothing like a good solid tackle, as I get older, I feel somehow more sensitized to the extreme wear on the players. Every game seems to see its share of injured warriors taken from the field, and I sometimes think that I shouldn't be watching what amounts to a modern version of Roman gladiators. Of course, football is not played to the death. Football players live to enjoy fame and fortune. They earn exorbitant salaries. But their careers are short and their time on the field takes an enormous physical toll.

The National Football League is taking note of injuries, particularly head injuries such as concussions. Top players like Tom Brady appear in ads during games, promoting the NFL's efforts to improve the safety of football. The league itself, at the beginning of this year's season, donated $30 million to the Foundation for the National Institutes for Health to fund research into brain injuries. Tougher standards and sturdier equipment are also being implemented in the push to reduce head and other injuries resulting from playing football.

The attention and research come too late for many retired players, some of whom have sued the NFL for damages related to concussions and other head traumas. Retired players often suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which is linked to sustaining repeated concussions. There is also a suspected relationship between head injuries and the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and other neuro-degenerative disorders later in life. Football is a violent way to earn a living.

Brain injuries are under public scrutiny once again with this month's murder/suicide tragedy involving Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jevon Belcher. The 25-year-old Belcher shot his girlfriend to death and then used his gun on himself, bringing to six the number of NFL players who have taken their own lives in the past two years. Since judgment issues and memory loss often accompany brain injuries, speculation on the role of head trauma in these suicides is logical, and to be expected. Belcher's actions also produced an odd intrusion of the political into the sports arena when NBC sportscaster Bob Costas suggested that our culture's "Wild West" love affair with the handgun played some part in the Belcher double tragedy.

So I ask myself: why do I derive pleasure from watching 22 young men pit themselves aggressively against each other, at risk of injury and certain of pain, all for the sake of winning a silly game? Why is this my idea of contentment on a fall Sunday? Why can't I switch my allegiance to a less violent sport: professional tennis, or swimming? I have no answers. Along with most fans, I regret when any player is injured, and I hope that the technology of protective gear continues to advance. But every fall, I succumb to the spell of testosterone in the air. I devour the sports pages of the paper. I thrive on stats and strategy. I love the communal experience of actually going to a game, and I relish the smaller community of watching games with similarly obsessed friends. I feel a kinship with any stranger who wears a Packers hat or displays a Packers bumper sticker. When Sunday rolls around, I put on my lucky Packers shirt. My vocabulary consists of "Go Pack Go!" It's game time. I'm busy. I'll get back to being my reasonable self later.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at vschultz22@gmail.com

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