Saturday, September 12, 2015

A New Season

September is upon us and it's the start of a new season. School starts, vacations end, so it marks the beginning of an academic year and a new work year too. More important, it's the start of a new football season. Of course I'm referring to American football, although I believe that European football, i.e. soccer will be getting started about the same time.

The start of a new season is another unwelcome reminder that our time here is limited and the clock is ticking. While we occasionally acknowledge our mortality, for example when we attend funerals of people our own age or younger, we don't care to be reminded about it. Institutions, whatever else they've been established for, serve to impart a sense of permanence to our lives. Thus, we resist changes to our governments, our political parties, churches, and schools, or else we fail to acknowledge that they have in fact changed. When the all-male college that I attended started admitting women a few decades ago, the considerable resistance by the alumni was fueled not so much by misogyny as by the concern that a beloved institution would no longer be what it had been, seemingly forever.

Among the institutions that have lent stability and continuity to my life are spectator sports, many of them. Besides football, there are baseball, hockey, boxing, and auto racing, just for a start. New athletes come up, play out their brief careers, retire and die but their teams seem to go on forever. Sports do change though. When I was a kid, baseball was known as the national pastime., a status it had earned during the Great Depression, when thousands of unemployed men could spend their afternoons in the bleachers for less than they'd spend in a saloon. The game was long, slow and fairly boring but it was out in the open air and it did pass the time. I got a taste of it at my first summer job, working at a small hotel at the Jersey shore. I was there seven days a week, twelve hours a day, but most of the time there was nothing happening and nothing to do. Most days, the 93 year-old proprietor of the hotel would settle into his big easy chair in the lobby in front of the large TV set, brass spittoon by his side, and spend the afternoon watching baseball games. I got to join him and was indoctrinated into the finer points of the game.

Ted Williams, pitchers' nightmare
Lots of kids played the game or its poor cousins, softball and stickball. I had a catcher's mitt and managed to overcome the terror generated by the curve ball of the left-handed kid who lived down the street but while I learned to catch the curve, I couldn't hit a baseball if my life depended on it, so I never developed much of an attachment to the sport. After the war, baseball became very popular in Japan but where it really took off was in Latin America. Cuba and the Dominican Republic now seem to provide a disproportionate number of players in the major leagues. Perhaps it's no coincidence that those countries appear to be in an extended period of economic depression. Baseball seemed eternal when I was a kid. I became a Boston Red Sox fan for life. My loyalty remains, although I seldom pay any attention to the game. My early hero, Ted Williams, had his body frozen when he died so he could eventually make a comeback when technology permits. Now that's something that would get me out to the ballpark. I wonder how many American kids still play the game. The economy being what it is, maybe baseball will make a comeback, even without Ted Williams.

My Rangers
Hockey was once a Canadian sport and while four of the six original NHL teams were in the US, about 99% of the players were Canadian. The other two were from Minnesota. Now the league has thirty teams, twenty-three of them in the US, and the players come from all over the world. I barely know who any of the players are but I still feel lifted in spirit when I hear of the NY Rangers winning a game or a cup.
Tony Zale and Marcel Cerdan

Boxing was another enthusiasm of my youth. When my favorite fighter, Marcel Cerdan, died in a plane crash, it felt like I'd lost a member of the family. For a time it seemed that “Heavyweight Champion of the World” was a title on a par with “President of the United States” but having three or more sanctioning bodies each offering their own titles did nothing to help the sport as an institution. When the best of the best, Sugar Ray Robinson and Mohammed Ali hung up the gloves, my interest left with them.

Toughie floors a rival
Other sports have failed to achieve institutional stability for a variety of reasons. In the eighth grade I was briefly a big Roller Derby fan, even gathering autographs of stars such as Mary Lou Palermo and my favorite, Midge “Toughie” Brashun. This sport featured women with status equal to their male counterparts long before the NCAA push to encourage women's sports. The action was fast and rough enough but the sport had an aura of a staged exhibition, not unlike that of professional wrestling, and it vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared.

My life-long fascination with automobile racing got its start with midget auto racing, which was very popular up and down the east coast before and after WWII, with events scheduled every night of the week on mostly quarter mile tracks. The sport may have been even more popular in the Mid-West but trailers carrying the cars were everywhere along the eastern seaboard.. Typically, each night there would be three ten lap heats, two fifteen lap semi-finals, a consolation race, and the main event, a twenty-five lap final. The better drivers would participate in as many as eight such sessions per week, usually in minor cities such as Paterson, NJ, Freeport, NY., or Thompson CT. It couldn't last. Whether it died out from over-exposure or from the fact that so many of the top drivers were killed in crashes, I don't know, but by the early 50's the midgets were being replaced by modified stock cars, which had more frequent and spectacular crashes in which nobody usually got hurt. It could be compared to introducing toothless lions, or gladiators with clubs in place of swords, into the Colosseum of Rome.
Bill Schindler and Al Keller

Midget racing continues in some parts of the mid-west, but the cars now have large roll cages, which impart safety while totally eliminating the sleek, racy look of the cars. Formula 1, IndyCar and Nascar have fared better, establishing a tenuous institutional presence, which so far has lasted through extensive technological changes. The speeds keep going up but ironically the cars keep getting safer. Still, just last month, Justin Wilson, an IndyCar driver from England, was killed in a race in Pennsylvania. He was the first to die in the IndyCar series in four years. That's a big change from the days of the roar of the mighty midgets. The biggest threats now to auto racing are high costs and environmental concerns.

In America every high school with at least twenty-two boys enrolled has a football team. Nearly every college has a football team. It's been that way forever. “Forever” started in 1869 with the first intercollegiate game between Princeton and Rutgers, played in New Brunswick, NJ, although that game was played with rules more like soccer. By 1875 Harvard played Tufts in the first game more closely resembling football as we know it. Schools and colleges may have other teams for basketball, baseball, track and even tennis, golf and hockey in affluent communities but, except for basketball, few people go to watch them perform. People flock to football games everywhere and pretty cheerleaders urge the crowds on in rooting for their teams. Most kids want to play football. It appeals to the violent nature of the American character and it's a wholesome alternative to gang wars, as well as offering supplementary benefits, such as winning cheerleaders' hearts and college athletic scholarships. For the supernaturally endowed athletes, there's also the remote chance of becoming a professional football player, the only hope for mediocre students to become millionaires at twenty-three, other than by winning a lottery, starting a, or being born into the Walton family.
Crazylegs Hirsh in classic Rams gold

Since my own college gave up semi-pro football the year I enrolled, my football loyalties have remained with the professional Rams, whose existence started the same year as my own. While known mostly as the Los Angeles Rams, they started out in Cleveland before moving to LA, an altogether logical move since Cleveland had anothe team, the Browns, and the Rams' quarterback at the time had starred at UCLA and was married to Jane Russell.  High-jacked to St. Louis twenty years ago for a new tax-payer financed stadium, it looks like they'll be returning to their natural home city of Los Angeles next year. While I have little interest in traveling to the US if I can avoid it, that might tempt me to a trip to the West Coast.
LA Rams cheerleaders

Pro football predates me so it feels as though it's been around forever but until the NFL and the upstart AFL merged in 1960, its popularity never rivaled that of college football. This season will see the fiftieth edition of the Super Bowl, certainly the biggest sports event in the USA and the biggest single sports contest on TV throughout the world. How long will it continue? The NFL, and the whole world of football, faces some challenges. Too many over-privileged young players have been beating up their girlfriends or engaging in other anti-social off-the -field activities. There is a Byzantine history of the Commissioner dealing with alleged cheating by the New England Patriots. The NFL's 40 million dollar man, Roger Goodell, has modeled himself after Oliver Cromwell (or Barack Obama) to deal with “actions unbecoming” to the league. The latest tempest in a teapot involved star quarterback Tom Brady allegedly ordering game footballs to be deflated below the prescribed pressure. For this, the football czar ordered suspensions and fines running to millions of dollars, despite a lack of pre-announced sanctions for “crimes” of this nature, or anything resembling proof of guilt. The penalties were recently struck down in court, leaving open the question of how much of the Commissioner's discretionary power will remain.

A much more existential threat to the game comes from the on-going study of its contribution to brain damage among players. In the off season, the San Francisco 49ers were hit by a number of voluntary retirements among their star players. The most striking of these was by linebacker Chris Borland, who after just one year in the NFL, in which he played at an all-star level assuring himself of a very big future contract, decided to quit the game, citing concerns about the impact of the sport on his future health. His health may be assured but that of the game is not.

My own concerns for the future go beyond that of football. I wonder if the planet will remain habitable for the anticipated lifetimes of my grandchildren and I wonder if they will live to see democracy restored in the United States. Those are things I'll never know. Just as a beloved gas-guzzling finned Cadillac may no longer have a place in our society at a time of energy crisis, the violent game of football may not deserve to survive, but for better or worse, I love it, and I celebrate the start of a new season with the hope that it will survive me, and that the Rams spend the rest of their years playing football back in Los Angeles where they belong.  

While writing this I became aware that the New York Tennis Open will have two Italians in the women's final.  Brava Vinci!  Brava Pennetta!  If football falters before I do, maybe I'll transfer my allegiance to tennis.