Thursday, June 21, 2012

Death of football watch: Why 'Friday Night Lights' isn't quite as much fun

A New York Times feature on how even professional football players are saying they won't let their kids play, for fear of long-term health problems:
"Jay Coakley, a sports sociologist at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, said: “Football is really on the verge of a turning point here. We may see it in 15 years in pretty much the same place as boxing or ultimate fighting.” 
In other words, less a lucrative American colossus and more a niche sport beloved for its brutality."
On a related note, I (finally!) watched the pilot episode of "Friday Night Lights" last night, after years of hearing worshipful hubub from my friends. I was particularly struck by an early scene in which Taylor Kitsch's character--having shown up to practice half-drunk--is put at the center of a circle of teammates and tackled by each of them, taking turns, while the coach yells at him for his transgression.

The coach in the series is supposed to be a good guy. And the scene is meant to be a tough scene. But something has changed in the six years or so since it first aired: The scene felt cruel. Like I was watching "Hostel" or "Saw" or some other movie in the torture porn genre.

Granted, this is the same episode that (spoilers!) sees the star quarterback paralyzed with an in-game neck injury: "Friday Night Lights" doesn't shy away from the idea that the game is inherently violent. What's striking, though, is that after the kid is carted off the field, the game resumes, and we're treated to an underdog-comes-back story designed to give us goosebumps. And through the first two episodes, at least, nobody questions whether the game is worth the sacrifice of a young man's life and health. It's a tragedy, yes, but...tragedies happen?

Hey, it's just a TV show. And I intend to keep watching, for now: I'm told it's a good show that isn't about football, but which is set in a football milieu. OK. But the culture has shifted ever-so-minutely since these episodes first aired. Given what we know now about brain injuries and the number of football players who have committed suicide, it's initially hard to see "Friday Night Lights" as anything but the gasp of a dying era, and a dying sport.

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