STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The National Football League is making news on and off the field. On the field, Atlanta, San Francisco, Baltimore, and New England are preparing for conference championships, one step away from the Super Bowl. Off the field, researchers came to a conclusion in the case of NFL linebacker Junior Seau. They say he suffered from a disease likely caused by multiple hits to the head. He committed suicide last May.
That is one reason that commentator Frank Deford calls football our indecent joy.
FRANK DEFORD: This may sound far-fetched, but football reminds me of Venice. Both are so tremendously popular, but it's the very things that made them so which could sow the seeds of their ruin. Venice, of course, is so special because of its unique island geography, which, as the world's eco-system changes, is precisely what now puts it at risk.
And as it is the violent nature of football which makes it so attractive, the understanding of how that brutality can damage those who play the game is what may threaten it, and even as now the sport climbs to ever new heights of popularity.
Boxing, another latently cruel sport, has lost most of its standing, so it is often cited as the example of how football too must eventually be doomed in our more refined and civilized society. However, the comparisons between boxing and football don't fly because there is a huge difference between individual and team sports.
Football teams represent cities and colleges and schools. The people have built great stadiums and the game is culturally intertwined with our calendar. We don't go back to college for the college. We go back for a football game. And yes, we even call that homecoming. It would take some unimagined cataclysmic event to take football from us. Concussions for young men are the price of our love for football, as broken hearts are what we pay for young love.
Indeed, part of boxing's decline may well be because football has exceeded its display for blood lust. When George Bellows was painting those graphically gruesome boxing paintings a century ago, he noted that the atmosphere around the ring was more immoral than the brutality within it. The thrill of watching football is not that players perform with such incredible precision, but that they do so even as they dance in the shadow of collision. Enthusiasm for sport can be a convenient cover to excuse the worst in us.
Of course the difference between the Venice of Italy and the football here is that everybody loves Venice, but only Americans care about our gridiron. Football is, and always has been, sport on the edge of that immorality that George Bellows saw when he painted men cheering pain, but then, football is also - and always has been - the presumed proof of American manliness, the sport that was the beau ideal of what was called Muscular Christianity.
Way back in 1896, after the president of Harvard wanted to ban a sport that he called more brutal than cock-fighting or bull-fighting, Henry Cabot Lodge, senator from Massachusetts, responded by declaring that the injuries incurred on the playing field are the price which the English-speaking race has paid for being world conquerors.
No, have no fear. Football is still our own indecent joy. The fighter jets will long fly over the Super Bowl.
INSKEEP: Commentator Frank Deford joins us each Wednesday from WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.