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Football: America’s new pastime. But for how long?

  George Bellows’ “Dempsey and Firpo” (1924, oil on canvas, Whitney Museum of American Art).  Will football go the way of boxing?

George Bellows’ “Dempsey and Firpo” (1924, oil on canvas, Whitney Museum of American Art).  Will football go the way of boxing?

Interesting article in the Nov. 4 edition of The New York Times by David Leonhardt, “The Upshot” columnist, about the decline of youth football among liberal, well-educated families

Leonhardt points to boxing and horse racing – once household sports – as well as to smoking and seatbelts as examples of how public opinion can change culture.

Technology can change sports and culture, too. In the 1970s and ’80s, tennis was dominated by teenagers. Then the rackets became larger and graphite and tennis turned from a touch serve-and-volley game to a power baseline one played by adults.

Football changed, too. Improvements in the helmets and padding meant that the body could withstand greater hits. The problem is that the brain can’t, with concussions and sub-concussive experiences leading to early on-set dementia and no doubt playing a role in the NFL’s domestic violence crisis.

The neuroscience on football has also spurred parents to say “not my child." And if enough parents say that, experts note, the sport is dead.

“Football isn’t doomed to that path (that boxing took),” Leonhardt writes. “But the sport is not invulnerable either.”

I can’t imagine football going the way of boxing. For one thing, it has become as Leonhardt himself notes – and as one of the characters says in my forthcoming novel “The Penalty for Holding” – a secular religion in this country. For another, it’s still a ticket out of poverty for many of its players.

But perhaps more important, football speaks to something primal in the human animal as do all blood sports and war itself. And that visceral response transcends politics and education. No one would deny the intellectual prolificacy of writer Joyce Carol Oates, who’s also a professor of creative writing at Princeton University. One of her best books is her long essay “On Boxing,” in which she acknowledges its brutality but calls boxing “America’s tragic theater.”

There is poetry in ferocity or maybe it’s just that the mind justifies what the heart wants.