Football was my first love in the sporting world. I was introduced to rooting for the 49ers in 1981, when I was in 6th grade. Like so many 49ers fans that season, I was treated to a storybook season that made me a lifelong fan of the game and the team.
Social issues weren’t part of the fabric of sports at the time, or I was very shielded from them. The focus was never on the culture of the game or the locker room, just on the performance of the team. It was a blissful ignorance.
Colorful characters made for good press, of course. Gene “Hacksaw” Reynolds, so named because he purportedly used a hacksaw to cut a Jeep in half. Ronnie Lott, who cut off a digit so he could play in an important game. But their stance on civil rights issues was never a measure of their character.
As I got older, I would become intimately more familiar with the macho culture surrounding the game. My high school football team locker room was a treacherous place to be anything but part of the herd, and the herd was not accepting. Hazing took place frequently, and it was hard to stand up for yourself, let alone anyone else.
Freshmen were forced to compete in head-butting competitions with upper classmen. Two guys in full pads would line up in 3 point stances 15 yards apart, and then charge headfirst at each other, full speed, until you either proved your worth or “had your bell rung”. It was stupid. And dangerous. And the coaches looked the other way.
I didn’t play football in college, but I had my share of run-ins with the UC Berkeley team between 1987 and 1991. One red shirt defensive lineman in the stands near me didn’t like the fact that I was lamenting how badly we got our asses kicked in the big game in 1987, and hit me in the face. Forget the fact that I was a fellow Cal student, or that it was assault.
One night, a Samoan guard was on the verge of beating up some poor kid 200 pounds his junior outside of my favorite bar. When I pointed out what an unfair fight it was, he turned on me, picking me off of the ground by my throat and shoving me against the wall.
“Oh yeah,” I gasped, “this is much more fair.”
Football is a game of violent poetry, played by men who are often sheltered from personal responsibility by authority figures with a vested interest in their on-field success. By the time a player reaches the professional ranks, he has at least a decade of validation for who he is – bigot or otherwise.
So how can I root for them? How can I support their product? How can I encourage my son to become a fan of the game, knowing what I now do?
I’ve been wrestling with this question all season, as my 7 year old son becomes more aware of the nature of the game. But it was brought into more poignant focus the week of SuperBowl XLVII when 49er safety Chris Culliver revealed what a sheltered life he has led by espousing horrifically homophobic statements.
I don’t have any easier answers. I love sport, and I love their sport specifically. I believe that the positives of participating in and rooting for sports outweigh the negatives.
The culture of sport isn’t going to change overnight, and it certainly isn’t going to change as long as we as fans continue to support The Product.
But how many products do you support that are made in questionable ways, or by less than stellar humans? Do you shop at Wal Mart? Do you buy products produced in sweatshops or inhumane factory conditions? Is there a difference?
Something to ponder as you watch the SuperBowl on your made-in-China TV, tweeting on your iPhone this Sunday.