Football, Body and Mind

A sportswriter looks back on his history with America's favorite pastime.

Baltimore Ravens linebacker RayLewis, top, will end his career after Sunday's Super Bowl. (AP Photo/G. Newman Lowrance)
AP Photo L ike many sons of the South, my father introduced me to The Game at a young age. Some of my earliest memories are of running around our living room with a Nerf football tucked under my arm, him playfully chasing after me. I spent plenty of time playing tackle football in the backyards around our suburban Houston neighborhood when some parents convinced my father to sign me up, at the age of ten, for the local Little League team. In Texas, ten years old is a little late for a boy wanting to play organized football. But I took to the game quickly, starting out as a quarterback (where I had the distinct skill of being able to remember all the plays), moonlighting as a defensive back for a couple of seasons, and then settling in as a running back in high school. Just like my father had. By my senior year, I had performed well enough to draw interest from a few small colleges. My parents nudged me to Texas Christian University, which was only four hours away. Two years later,...

Homophobia in Sports and Changing Hearts

49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, celebrating his newfound respect for gay people. (AP photo by Paul Spinelli)
Almost all of us, at some time in our youth, had the experience of saying something that turned out to be way more inappropriate than we thought it was, whereupon people turned to us and said, "Dude. Not cool." In most cases, it concerned something we just hadn't thought that much about, and it often occurs when you move from one milieu to another with different mores and ideas, like going from high school to college. Or existing in a world of football players and suddenly finding yourself quoted in the media on a sociopolitical topic because your team is in the Super Bowl, which is what happened to San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver. When it happens in your dorm room, someone will explain to you why the joke you made or the term you used was out of line, and you'll probably say, "Huh—I hadn't thought about it that way, but OK." And armed with that knowledge, you'll adapt to your new surroundings and the changing times. But Culliver found himself in hot water when he was on...

Superbowlistan, Louisiana

A dispatch from New Orleans, home to the Super Bowl for the first time since Hurricane Katrina

Perry Knotts/NFL
Perry Knotts/NFL A giant football on display in New Orleans on Tuesday, January 29, 2013. M y friend Shyman keeps complaining that we're living in Superbowlistan. Understand, like many here, his business depends on tourists. He's a co-owner of a bike-tour company that TripAdvisor will tell you is the cat's pajamas, recently augmented by bicycle rentals and a knickknack shop. The ex-English major in me thinks the latter could brag a bit more about being located at the self-same street address Tennessee Williams assigned to Stanley and Stella DuBois Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. But Shyman's pride is that his customers will see post-Katrina NOLA as it really is. Not the theme park on temporary steroids that CBS, the NFL—and our own city fathers, in a position to kowtow to both corporate entities and make it stick—have been driving locals nuts with. That includes an NFL-prescribed "Clean Zone" prohibiting unsanctioned signage in the Quarter and environs, an edict that had to be...

Austin Loses Its Hometown Hero

AP Photo/Laurent Rebours
AP Photo/Laurent Rebours Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong rides down the Champs Elysees in Paris with an American flag after the 21st and final stage of the cycling race in 2000. F or a short time, when I had brief dreams of gaining muscle mass, I was a member at one of Austin’s Lance Armstrong 24 Hour Fitness centers. The seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor was inescapable at the place. Above the check-in table was a gigantic yellow “Livestrong” bracelet, a nod to Armstrong’s beloved foundation that offers support to those with cancer (and did much to market the Armstrong brand). As I used to struggle to lift a few pounds over my head, I stared back at a huge poster of Armstrong, next to his famous quote from a Nike ad: “Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are YOU on?” He seemed to be with me throughout the workout, and when I left, usually sweaty and exhausted, there was yet another Armstrong...

Building a Respect Culture

AP Photo/A.M. Ahad
So much is disturbing about the Steubenville video , released by Anonymous, in which Michael Nodianos makes horrifying jokes about the raped woman, that I can hardly begin. Here’s one: the guy saying “that’s not cool.” Oh, I’m glad he’s saying that rape, and joking about rape, aren’t funny. But “ that’s not cool ” isn’t enough. If two football players took the body of a drunk and unconscious young woman and used it as a plaything all night, why didn’t someone intervene? For god’s sake, even if it was too hard to take her body away from them, why did no one call the police? I know, that’s easy for me to say. I wasn’t there; I don’t have to live in that town where football is the primary industry, where football is the central social currency, where standing up to football bullies could mean social death and physical danger, not just at the time but later as well. Those social norms were already in place—enforced, Jessica Valenti at The Nation contends , not just by the town’s football...

Marvin Miller's Lasting Legacy

The first leader of the MLB players union helped dramatically transform labor relations not just in baseball—but in all of America's professional sports. 

(AP Photo)
While he was alive, the baseball establishment five times rejected Marvin Miller, who freed players from indentured servitude, from its Hall of Fame. The Major League Baseball Players Association, which Miller headed from 1966 to 1983, sat on its hands, failing to raise a stink about this outrageous miscarriage of justice. Miller, who died on Tuesday at 95, was never bitter about his exclusion from the Cooperstown shrine. As a staunch unionist, he knew which side he was on and understood that the baseball owners and executives who control the Hall of Fame would rig the rules to keep him out. The baseball moguls have always viewed their teams as personal fiefdoms and are among the most ferociously anti-union crowd around. But what’s appalling is the timidity of the Players Association to mount a campaign on Miller’s behalf. Over the years, many Hall of Fame players—including Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan, Brooks Robinson, Bert Blyleven, Hank Aaron, Nolan Ryan, and Reggie Jackson—have...

Forget the Pompoms

With the development of acro and stunt programs, cheerleaders seek official recognition as athletes.

(Cal Sport Media via AP Images)
If the leaves are changing color, it means all things pigskin hog the spotlight, with the main focus on the football field as gridiron gladiators go to battle. But shift the attention to the sidelines to the cheerleading squad, and you’ll find similar athleticism and the same kinds of debates over safety concerns as those currently at the center of football. It’s a reminder of a question that would appear simple on the surface but is in fact bedeviling the world of athletics: Is cheerleading a sport? The argument in favor sees an activity that requires a great deal of athleticism to perform a host of daredevil maneuvers that include flips, twists, and tosses, not to mention equal measures of control, balance, flexibility, and precision. Competitions for national high-school cheerleading championships are as demanding and heated as the win-or-go-home March Madness in the college Division I basketball tournament. Or, as Adams State College cheerleading coach Valerie Hagedorn put it in...

Lance Armstrong, the George W. Bush of Sports

USADA's report confirmed our worst suspicions about cycling's self-appointed king, finally marking the end of a long era of lying and arrogance.

(AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)
(AP Photo/Peter Dejong) Tour de France winner Floyd Landis, second right, rides during one of the stages July 20, 2006. Eleven teammates of Lance Armstrong on the U.S. Postal Service Cycling Team, including Floyd Landis, have turned on him offering evidence and testimony to back up allegations that Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs in competition, the USADA said. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released a damning report last week containing testimony from former teammates and other witnesses against Armstrong, and has ordered that he be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. The international cycling federation is yet to indicate its next move. T he next thing you know, we'll find out he never even really had cancer. Short of that, it beats me what new revelation anyone would need to confirm the verdict Chicago Tribune sportswriter Phil Hersh delivered recently on CNN: "You can push Marion Jones and Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Rosie Ruiz aside. Lance Armstrong is the...

Holding the Stick

The National Hockey League's low-ball contract offer could cost a lot of games, and a lot of communities their seasonal income.

(Flickr/Tim Shahan)
(Flickr/Tim Shahan) The San Jose Sharks face the Washington Capitals, October 2009. It seems like lockouts are as ubiquitous in professional sports as the thumping chords of “Seven Nation Army.” Labor disputes led to lockouts in basketball last year, football last year and this year (players and officials), and now the National Hockey League is experimenting with the strong-arm tactic. Owners locked out players on September 16, one day after the collective-bargaining agreement expired. So far, with the season canceled through October 24, 82 games are lost. The cancellation of the preseason and the regular season’s first two weeks translates into a loss of at least $240 million for the NHL. But don’t think it’s inevitable that the season will swiftly come back to life: this is the fourth NHL lockout since 1991, and the third lockout presided over by the league’s current commissioner, Gary Bettman. Half the 1994 season was lost. The entire 2004-05 season, including the playoffs, was...

Open Playing Field

The professional sports world is slowly beginning to loosen its rigid intolerance toward gays.

(Flickr/loweonthego) Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe has become a vocal proponent of marriage equality efforts in Maryland. The professional sports locker room can be a scary place, with unwritten rules and political rankings that include which players get lockers next to each other—or far, far away from one another. There are cliques, hazing, pranks, and outsize expectations of toughness. It’s the ultimate site where the stereotypes of what it means to be a man get played out, and the challenge is to fit in and not shake up the coveted “chemistry” teams strive to create. So it isn’t surprising that not a single active gay athlete has come out in American baseball, hockey, football, or basketball. But as the gay-rights movement makes strides in society at large—including the Obama administration backing marriage equality, more states voting to legalize gay marriage, and the military ending its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy—the sports world is starting to change, too, with more...