Bear With Me, It’s Worth It

I once had a brother-in-law who played for the Chicago Bears. The Bears were in the Super Bowl and it was amazing and wonderful even though we are serious Packer fans, oh wait, live in Packer nation and have his and her Green Bay Packer stock certificates filed somewhere around here. If you have a relative who plays in the NFL, it seems like a very big deal. The reflected glory has to go through a lot of opposing mirrors, like the tiny image remaining at the tail end of the fun house, but it’s still shiny and we liked it.

A year or so ago, I was in a meeting with a young psychologist carrying a Chicago Bears coffee mug with the signatures of all the Bears from their historic Super Bowl year. “I bet my former brother-in-law’s signature’s on there.”

“Really?” He was awed. I took the cup from him and found the signature. “Yep. There it is.”

I’m cool. I know football. I was once related to a Chicago Bear. What can I say?

Today, in the car, I asked my husband if he thought the NFL was as screwed up as people were saying. Was it corrupt beyond redemption? He surprised me by agreeing that it probably was and then trying to make a tortured case that the NFL was  sparking research into brain injury that wouldn’t have happened without the impetus of hundreds of former players filling up the rehab wards in NFL cities. I sighed. Maybe so, but it seemed like a stretch.

At that moment, we pulled up to a light next to a central city park that was full of young kids in football uniforms, some on a field and others huddled, apparently waiting their turn to play. They were young, maybe 9 or 10 years old with their little shoulder pads and their helmets, gathered around their coaches, their anticipation showing in their little muscled legs. Meanwhile, the adults, the parents, the spectators were hauling out their collapsible chairs, food trucks were sliding open their windows and the smell of barbecue was in the air.

“Isn’t that what we want, though?” my husband said, nodding in the direction of the park. Indeed it is. I want parents and kids doing things that make everyone feel happy and healthy and part of a community. And, I thought, bless these guys who coach little kids and try to teach them football and probably a lot of other things. To me, it is like the best of the best to see this on a beautiful fall morning.

Then he asked me if, knowing what we know now about football, would I still let our sons play. And I said yes, almost right away even though the time for that decision is long past, 15 years or so ago.

I said yes because I wanted them to really love something. I wanted them to have a coach who wasn’t also their parent. I wanted them to learn how to be part of a team. I wanted them to be gracious sitting on the bench and totally committed when they got on the field.

I remembered that one of the most conflicted but probably educational moments I had as a mother was watching one son endure an entire game, no, nearly an entire season, suited up and standing on the sidelines of the football field waiting for a call to go in that very rarely came. Football really wasn’t right for him, but he loved practice and he loved being on the team. He never complained although I often wanted to. My husband explained to me that now that he was in high school, the time for ‘everyone gets a turn’ was over. So I watched as my son cheerfully supported his team, patted his teammates on the back as they came off the field, and ran in like a locomotive when the coach finally turned to him  (he later became an actor with no time for sports).

As a parent, I wanted the lessons of sports for my kids and I wanted them to feel belonging and pride. And purpose. When you’re in high school, being on the volleyball team or the football team or even the marginal butterfly swimmer on your school’s medley relay team gives you purpose. Is it your life’s work? No. But I think it’s preparing you for that.

Maybe the NFL doesn’t deserve those suited up kids at the park today or my sons or yours. Maybe what all these kids offer is too pure and hopeful for an enterprise as crass and greedy as the NFL. No, the NFL doesn’t deserve these kids or need them.

But we do.




8 Comments on “Bear With Me, It’s Worth It

  1. I too have sigh, I love my Sunday family Packer viewing parties. Cheering like it could make a difference. I suppose where there is money, there is trouble. And there is big money there. My nephew is on the high school team, after working up from 7th grade and I love to go and cheer! I have my own personalized stadium chair. Is it his life work or even ticket to college? No way, but fun.

  2. Great post. Our son played for one year in high school and didn’t see much action. He always told people he played guard and tackle–“I guard the Gatorade and tackle anyone who tries to take it.”

  3. Football has never interested me or really even been on my radar. As a NYC kid – my brothers played basketball – city school yards don’t have football fields. And I have a daughter. But I picked up a slim little book at a publishing event – something to read on the train rid home – and was riveted from page one and on. Steve Almond’s Against Football. It’s about more than just the injuries. Think gladiators. I highly recommend it.

  4. Thanks, Jan. I loved playing sports as a kid. I excelled in sandlot sports. I sucked at organized/school sports. But I so enjoyed the social aspect of it, that it made it worthwhile. Then I just enjoyed ‘playing’ when I was a camp counselor–new games, non-competitive games, all sorts of games. The illusion of sports and the entertainment industry is strange. It looks so glorious, seeing all those people play or act or sing. We see them on talk shows. But they business end is hidden. I still love playing, I enjoy watching sports. I’m reflecting on your comments about preparing us. I think it rings true.

  5. I agree entirely about the value of sport, team games, community involvement etc. But I cannot love football. Maybe it’s coloured by the fact that a kid I’d known most of my life died from a football kick in the head. I’m glad my grandson is a basketball fanatic instead.

  6. Your son’s experience reminds me of that old competitive v fun sports debate. Honestly, it bugs me to all hell if kids only experience of sports is competitive. We all need to move, regardless of so called natural talent(some kids take a while to let that talent show anyway) and everything should be done to encourage that. Including losing the odd damn game just so all the kids can have fun.

    As for NFL. I know very little about it-apart from having a son who plays American football, yes, here in Ireland-but I expect rot sets in very quickly among any group of humans who are treated like demi-gods.

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