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In Defense of Male Aggression: What Liberals Get Wrong About Football

Maybe hearing that story confirms all the horrible things you suspect about football — the mindless hate, the way violence blends seamlessly in its participants’ minds from sanctioned scholastic activity to assault. I see it very differently. The assault infuriated us not because the physical injuries were so much worse than something that could happen on the field but because it violated a code of behavior. Football players signal their acceptance of risk by their presence and expect to be hit. Within the sport, there are rules limiting the scope of violence. You can’t be ganged up on. The ethical difference between tackling a fullback at midfield and sucker-punching him at a party is not very hard to grasp. We saw it clear as day. And football gave us a way to vindicate our irrepressible teenage-male sense of honor; none of us contemplated staging an ambush of our own.

Now, my adolescence in comfortable suburban Michigan might not translate perfectly as a model for helping underprivileged teenagers elsewhere — say the boys who lived miles south of us in Detroit. But football just might be one way it does. The problems facing many of those kids were real — are real — much realer than the ones that I faced. But that doesn’t make a regimen of discipline and structure directed toward self-improvement any less relevant. Quite the opposite. And for many of those kids, identification with football supplies the vouchsafe of masculinity that might otherwise need to be demonstrated in far more dangerous ways. Football may be the safest way for a boy in a crime-ridden neighborhood to prove he is tough. If sports seem to a teenager the only plausible path out of the underclass, that’s not a failing of the sport but the society it’s embedded in.

“Why do Americans not only accept high-school football, but, in certain regions, worship it?” asks Almond in Against Football. “I think there’s some kind of shame mixed up in it, the shame of men whose dreams have collapsed.” The current wave of indignation has revived this old archetype, which Bissinger himself probably did more than anybody else to etch upon our landscape with Friday Night Lights. That harrowing book followed a Texas high-school football team and its sad dénouement of the former jock-God spending the rest of his life reliving youthful glories. The archetype manages to capture something real, at which point the reasoning goes horribly awry. One of the guys I played with, Vishal, swung through town a few months back. We went out to dinner with my kids, and he told them what I think of as the red-hatchet story — or half of it, anyway. It is a story I have been turning over in my mind for the past 25 years.

My senior year, I had moved from wide receiver, where I was a bit too slow, to outside linebacker, where I was stuck on the second string. In the third game of the season, I came in during the fourth quarter against Troy. On one play, Troy sent its fullback in motion to the left slot, and I knew from watching previous games and film that they always did this in order to give the fullback a better angle to block down on our strong safety for a toss sweep to that sideline. On the snap of the ball, I launched my body just where I knew the ball carrier would be. He had managed to take a couple steps laterally when I hit him, all my momentum firing straight upfield, square in the chest, flattening him probably before he even saw me coming, just as I had been flattened as a freshman. Every week, when my coach reviewed the previous game, he would recognize the best individual plays by handing out little stickers to affix to the back of the helmet. The most cherished prize, for the most punishing hit of the game, was a red-hatchet sticker. Only one was awarded that week. When he singled out my tackle with the red-hatchet sticker, it served as my validation before the whole team. I still have it.

That was the part Vishal told my kids. Here is what happened next. Having mostly ignored my play until then, the coaches became completely enthralled with me. The red-hatchet tackle had so impressed them they announced in front of everybody that they planned to move me to middle linebacker and center and start me at both positions. I should have told them right away their plan couldn’t work; learning a newer and more complex position in a single week, let alone two of them, was impossible. During practice that week I could see the excitement drain from their eyes, and by the time the next game came along they had given up and sent me back to my old position, where I made a number of tackles that were more difficult than the red-hatchet play in spot duty and practice but never again made it past the second string.