Game's Not Over

Financial Times
January 31, 2016 7:48 pm
‘The Game’s Not Over’ by Gregg Easterbrook
Review by Gary Silverman

In the history of the world, there have been few books quite like this one by Gregg Easterbrook. In a mere 222 pages, including the index, he touches on issues ranging from the legitimacy of sociology as a science and the implications of neoclassical economic theory for hotel taxes to the relative progress of orthopaedics and neurology and the best nickname for the city of Chicago, while also offering up one haiku each for all 32 teams of the US National Football League.

His main subject is the importance to US society of the sport Americans call football — the violent game played in helmets and pads by super-sized young men, some of them better-known for hitting their domestic partners than their opponents. Americans can’t resist the spectacle, as the massive television audience for this Sunday’s NFL championship — the Super Bowl — will surely attest, and the world deserves an explanation.

The problem with Easterbrook’s work is that only folks with a thorough grounding in football esoterica and related Americana are likely to catch his various drifts. This is a book for people who will understand a haiku such as his Bruce Springsteen-meets-Joe Pisarcik at the Meadowlands mash-up: “Set, hut, Hackensack: /‘Somewhere in the swamps of Jersey.’/New Jersey Giants.”

Easterbrook, a former fellow of Washington’s Brookings Institution, who has written 10 books, surveys the US scene in the manner of a quarterback looking over an opposing defence. He notices a lot of things at once, which results in more than 100 footnoted asides. He overwhelms the reader, which is too bad, because his apology for the sport makes some interesting points.

His central insight is that the game is an irresistible morality tale for Americans trying to make sense of our place in the world. American football is “too loud, too ferocious, too expensive, too subsidized, too superficial, too self-aggrandizing, too hypocritical, too protected by political favours, just too much”. All of which, in his view, makes the sport ideal viewing for “a muscle-bound superpower that’s never sure how to behave”.

“In the structure of football, we see a reflection of America’s incredible complexity and power,” he writes. “When we watch the NFL, the most muscular of sports, we are watching a game in which the players wrestle with the proper exercise of their strength. The NFL is an athletic interpretation of a core issue facing the United States: how to use incredible power with self-restraint.”

The results are often no prettier on the gridiron (as Americans call their football pitch) than on the battlefield. The NFL, Easterbrook argues, is run by fat-cat club owners so craven that they manage to solicit millions of dollars from the government to stage patriotic displays during games. Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner, he writes, is the owners’ highly paid “water boy”, who reflects “what US society seems to want from leaders — to see them squirm in public, hear them give lip service to reform, then go back to business as usual”.

The trickiest question for Easterbrook involves the number of brain injuries suffered by American football players. He argues that parents should bar boys from full-contact sport until they are in middle school, citing scientific evidence that former players who started out in pads before age 12 were more likely to suffer cognitive decay than those who did not.

But Easterbrook grows relatively sanguine about older sportsmen. Despite presenting evidence that high-school football players suffer 148,000 concussions a year, he makes the case that operating at this level teaches such virtues as self-discipline. It “can be a lot of fun”, too, he writes. “Life goes by so quickly — fun matters.”

In the NFL, Easterbrook argues, rising awareness of concussion risks has led to rule changes — such as penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits — that make the game safer. He maintains that fans can now enjoy professional football without guilt.

“The games are fabulous; the players know the risks and are well compensated,” he writes. “Watch away, without regrets.”

After all, it’s the American way.

The writer is US national editor of the Financial Times
The Game’s Not Over: In Defense of Football, by Gregg Easterbrook, (Public Affairs, £17.65/$24.99)