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

This story sounds deeply pathetic, which is the point. I have never stopped regretting it, never stopped constructing scenarios of how I could have persuaded the coaches to give me a more plausible chance to crack the starting lineup. And there are millions of American men like me.

I recently tracked down an old teammate named Mark, whom I’d seen only once since high school, at our ten-year reunion. Mark was an average athlete, mostly stuck to the bench, and, like me, lacked natural ferocity. He was a smart, thoughtful, funny kid. We used to share a lot of sardonic, Catch-22 jokes in practice about the absurdities that come with having to follow unquestioning orders from authority figures who are not brilliant. I assumed high-school football wouldn’t have much meaning for him, that he was too gentle for the sport and probably on the team just to placate his father or hang out with some buddies. Instead Mark told me he had still harbored bitterness toward the coaches for not giving him a chance. He had constructed his own march-into-the-coaches’-office scenarios, turned the various permutations over in his own head a million times. Eventually he got into weight lifting — he told me he could lift 225 pounds 27 times, an NFL-linebacker-like amount — and dabbled in martial-arts fighting.

In this way, Mark resembles the cliché. Except he has also started a highly successful ­private-equity firm. And Vishal is a surgeon, married with a beautiful family in San Diego. As for me, my own post-high-school life is not a story of collapsed dreams, either.

And yet in this way we are not much different than the sad, washed-up jocks of West Texas. Football is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me. Absurd as it may sound to say this about a career as a second-stringer for an average team, nothing I’ve done in my life felt as important at the time I was doing it.

This is not because my life is a failure, and it is not because football stole my youth. Football’s enemies have an accurate sociological observation, but their conclusion is backward. Nothing else pumped so much adrenaline through me that I couldn’t feel my feet underneath me as I ran and could barely remember my name, or made me weep or scream uncontrollably. It is the adventure of your life, a chance to prove yourself as a man before other boy-men who, even if you never see them again, you will always regard as brothers-in-arms.

This is an increasingly antiquated conception of male socialization. George Orwell, the old socialist, was well ahead of his time when he scribbled out an angry rant against the sporting ethic, which, he wrote, “is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.” That is all more or less true. But shooting is precisely the problem with war. War minus the shooting is actually pretty great.


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