What is the purpose of Football?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With the Ravens now sitting on top of the football world and their marquee player suspected of using Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) the question arises; does it matter?

I participated in football, and a couple of other sports, through high school and for a couple of years in college. The physical residue of that experience has been a damaged shoulder and a couple of balky knees. I also have some memories, the greatest of which was a undefeated championship season that few people have heard or cared about.

Yet I consider my time participating in the game to be one of the greatest developmental experiences in my life. As a trained educator and counseling psychologist I've had plenty of professional opportunities to influence the development of others. But some of my most effective work came as a youth football and basketball coach. Some may find what I just wrote puzzling depending upon how they define the purpose of sports. And it is in addressing this question that we can put the PED issue, and several others into proper context.

If you believe, as I think many do, that the purpose of participating in football or any sport is simply to win and hopefully be entertaining while doing so, then the only relevant arguments against PEDs is that they aren't available to all competitors and whatever long term health risks we may fear to be associated with their use. But it is exactly on this fundamental question of purpose that I part company with many who play and follow the game.

The proper purpose of sport in a healthy culture is transcendence. To transcend is to surpass or exceed ordinary limits (dictionary definition). I learned how to block and tackle, how to get into a proper stance, how to memorize plays and read keys, and how to dial up an appropriate level of belligerence in order to successfully compete. But I also learned some things that I was not receiving anywhere else, certainly not the classroom that have benefited me to this day. I went from an overweight kid who could not reach a level of fitness that would be above the line for normal folk to being an "athlete" and all that implies. I learned about commitment to training and preparation both within the parameters of organized activities and the necessity to incorporate those things as part of my everyday living. I learned how to compete and win with grace and dignity. I learned how to lose with grace and dignity. And I learned that my self worth and self esteem was tied to neither winning or losing. I learned how to push through pain and even injury, how to continue to show up even when my mind and body were looking for every conceivable excuse not to. I learned how to cooperate with a diverse group of people. I learned how to rely on others and how to be reliable. How to trust others and how to be trustworthy. I learned the liberating benefits of subordinating my self absorption and petty interests to a larger purpose. I did this in groups where under more conventional circumstances we would be indifferent to each other or even enemies because of the differences in age, ethnicity, race, class, politics or temperament. I learned that a shirt could be given or received off of one's back with barely a thought; 'teammate' sometimes having a greater meaning of loyalty and fellow feeling than 'friend'.

In sum, what I received was a practical course in the art and science of transcendence. Under such a perspective winning and losing have considerable value as markers of progress, tests that indicate how far we have come and how far we have to go. This explains why we approached our most difficult opponents with a sense of excited anticipation rather than dread. It can explain why sometimes great players and coaches can be disconsolate even in victory because process and performance can often be a more meaningful and significant measure of progress than results. In this sense the manner in which the 49ers lost the Super Bowl may be of greater benefit to that team long term than if they had managed to win assuming, of course, a perspective that focused upon transcendence.

Unfortunately, for many the ultimate value of sport is no longer, or never was, transcendence. It is winning (and also entertainment for its own sake). Cultures always find themselves in deep trouble when symbols become confused with the things that they are purported to represent. While the statements sound similar there is a vast gulf between 'The pursuit of winning is the only thing', and 'Winning is the only thing'. In the first statement the recognized value is that transcendence is paramount. It is possible to lose and be transcendent and also to win without being so. In the latter case transcendence is either incidental or irrelevant.

This brings us to Ray Lewis (Bill Simmons addresses Lewis here), as well as Lance Armstrong and others. In a culture and value system based upon transcendence what sense does taking PEDs make? Why not treat depression with heroin? This becomes a cheat on two levels. The first, and in my opinion the least important, is that since all players don't access PEDs for either legalistic or ethical reasons Lewis skews the competition in his favor. But there is a violation of a deeper value here. What does it mean when you address the most fundamental challenge of sport; the development of the character necessary to confront and overcome limits by using a counterfeit methodology? At first glance the statement about heroin must seem over the top, but actually in this context its not. If the only goal is to feel better than heroin does the job as well as (probably better, but I wouldn't know) anything else. But if the goal is to be healthy, well that's another matter entirely.

There is also what to me is a very practical consideration that goes beyond the treason of dethroning transcendence in favor of winning in sport and football. We are not only cheating systems here, we are also trying to do an end run on nature itself. Have we taken into consideration that perhaps we are seeing more injuries and other pathologies precisely because we have essentially sought to short circuit so many of the natural safeguards that are in place to preserve the health of body and mind? When you artificially boost the weight bearing capacity of a body or artificially accelerate healing, strength and speed skipping over developmental and integrative steps in the process then connecting dots on a number of issues troubling the game becomes rather easy.

What we have here are two cultures at war. And from where I stand the good guys are losing. We can see the struggle being played out on BTSC and throughout the football and sports universe. In a culture based upon transcendence the dictionary definition of a fan is operative and accurate. A fan is an "admirer". Yes, we want our teams to win as much as anyone, but there is an appreciation and admiration for the challenges faced and hopefully overcome by the performers individually and collectively. There is an element of empathy as we recognize symbolically how this drama in ways mirrors the dramas and challenges that we all face in our own lives. This is what great art accomplishes and at its highest levels, at least in theory sports approaches and equals high art. In this sense football and other sports have more than earned their place in our schools, community recreation and at the center of our entertainment culture.

But in the culture of winning the fan is replaced with the client or customer. The performer is viewed as an employee and the effectiveness, and if possible the spectacle of the performance is all that counts. In such an environment a Mike Tomlin can be a hero one year and a fool who needs to be fired the next. The nature of the struggles and challenges faced are neither recognized or understood. If the customer understands anything at all about transcendence in their own life the disconnect is too great for them to overcome. If they have any understanding of these things on a personal level (it doesn't have to have anything to do with football) then it is not evident in their expressed world view. Ignorance and arrogance goes hand in hand. It can become tedious. Kind of like taking a child to the opera or ballet and all they want to do is go home and play Halo ('They don't even sing in English'). Fantasy football represents the absolute nadir of this culture. Everything of transcendent value is removed from the process and is reduced to performance separated from relationship of any kind (notice also the inability to quantify defense) in exchange for winning and cash.

In such an evolving culture the Steelers are an inconvenient nuisance to anyone, including many of their own 'fans' who are wedded to the culture of winning. The institutional culture is such, and I suspect as long as Dan Rooney is still alive it will be difficult for the Steelers to ignore the legacy of a game that was basically invented in Pittsburgh and surrounding areas. They remain competitive embracing values and methods that are inscrutable to alien cultures. It should not be considered a coincidence that many of the major rule changes embraced by the NFL over the years were aimed specifically at the Steelers and designed to enhance the entertainment values of the sport. The 1976 Steelers, arguably the greatest defensive football squad ever (with due apologies to the '85 Bears and other pretenders) would not be welcome in today's NFL. Who wants to see a shutout? Just like we now prefer home run derby type play in baseball over a no hitter. ('They don't even sing in English').

In continuing to embrace the culture of winning Bernard Pollard is right. The NFL will probably be gone in 30 years, or like boxing become so irrelevant that only a few die hards will even care. The logic that drives this entertainment makes this more or less inevitable. Like boxing (and the military) it will be a refuge for poor kids who have limited options elsewhere. The elevating values and processes that made for an arguable, if not a convincing case against the games natural shortcomings will disappear. An increased hardening to violence totally disconnected from any higher purpose will contribute to further coarsening of the broader society. All that will be left is a high risk spectacle that a rising number of responsible families will opt out of in favor of more justifiable pursuits. Football programs in middle class communities will be as common as boxing gyms in upscale suburbs. Someone will declare it dead at that time, but the game that had such a positive influence on my life may already be on its last legs.

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