Last month, I wrote a story for the Voice about the many ways in which sports pundits serve as shills for the Football-Industrial Complex. The story began with a rant by ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd against America’s cult of violence, which, curiously, did not include football, our most popular and profitable sport.
On Wednesday morning, Cowherd reacted to a new PBS report about the medical dangers of football by unleashing a diatribe of unparalleled athletic ass-licking. In six brisk minutes, Cowherd managed to make so many ignorant and misleading statements that he earned a standing ovation at Fox News.
Actually, I just made that up. Why not? Cowherd does it all the time.
See Also: ‘Against Football’ Author Steve Almond Blasts the NFL and Its Hypocritical Media Machine
The gist of his “argument” is that football has gotten a bum rap in this country. Yes, everybody’s always ganging up on poor, defenseless football! It’s so hard to find any media venue these days that promotes the game for what it truly is: “a gateway to opportunity.”
Let Uncle Colin explain. See, all these meanie doctors doing meanie doctor stuff like trying to determine whether football causes brain damage have “an agenda.” So do the survivors of the 76 deceased players whose brains showed alarming signs of decay. Fear not, fans! Colin knows the malign motives that lurk within these mourners. They are seeking “closure and perhaps compensation, to be part of a lawsuit. Ahh! Ever been asked to be part of a class-action lawsuit?”
Did you get that, family members of dead NFL players? Colin Cowherd is implying on national radio that you’re gold-diggers, that your desire to figure out why your beloved husband or father or son was suffering at the end of his life stems not from compassion, but greed.
Uncle Colin does concede that football can be dangerous. Which is a good thing, because the NFL recently admitted in federal court — after years of cover-ups — that it anticipates nearly a third of all its ex-players will wind up with brain damage. But he didn’t mention that story.
Instead, he said this: “That’s not to say there’s not dead football players. You can find 76 players with [chronic traumatic encephalopathy]. Let me find 250,000 football players who didn’t qualify for the colleges they attended, and had a better life because of football. That’s the narrative nobody’s saying in the media.”
Yes, nobody wants to give football any credit for saving lives. You absolutely never read stories about football as a “ticket out” for poor kids. That’s why when you enter the phrase “football was my ticket out” into the Google machine, you come up with only 5,000 results. And heck, hardly anybody in America read that Michael Lewis bestseller, The Blind Side, or saw the movie!
As for those 250,000 players Uncle Colin promises to find, don’t hold your breath, folks. The truth is that fewer than 8 percent of all high school players wind up playing in college. Many of them don’t receive scholarships at all. Up to a third of those who play for top programs never graduate. Many wind up with debilitating injuries and few opportunities outside of football.
But wait. Uncle Colin isn’t done. He goes on to cite a study showing that 10 percent of the football players at the University of North Carolina read at a third-grade level. “Don’t think football helped them?” he says, in his favorite insinuating tone. “How’d that life be without football? Third-grade reading level.”
It’s hard to explain to people this ignorant how life in America actually works. But let’s try: See, Uncle Colin, despite your lovely racial fantasy that football players are “regular kids from regular citizens,” most top recruits do not come from “Main Street, America.” They come from economically vulnerable communities. Most are African American. As kids, they’re singled out and hammered with a single message: Your economic destiny resides not in learning to read or write or do arithmetic, but in getting good at football.
This is why recruits show up in college unable to read, Uncle Colin, because guys like you don’t give a shit about their minds. You just want to see them bust a few heads on game-day. Here’s how Michael Lewis explains it: “What the NFL prized, America’s high schools supplied, and America’s colleges processed.”
I realize it’s painful to face your own complicity in anything. (Heck, you’re in the business of blame.) But part of the reason so many college players can’t read really and truly is because guys like you sit in front of microphones every day selling people on the fraudulent myth that football is a form of economic salvation.
The truth: One in 500 high school seniors who play will make the pros. Most will be gone within a few years — and broke shortly thereafter. This is your version of economic opportunity, Uncle Colin: not better schools and safer streets and job training, but a lottery ticket handed out to those boys who might someday be physically gifted enough to entertain you.
But wait. Uncle Colin has even more evidence of how awesome football is. See, when a doctor graduates from college, he’s $300,000 in debt. But a football player graduates (if he graduates) with no debt. That’s how you know that football is a better career choice than being a doctor. After all, how’s a dumb doctor going to earn money for the rest of his life?
Not convinced yet? Uncle Colin also has one final trump card. He knows a lot of football players! (Not that he’s bragging. But he does.) And they’re all really happy. So everybody just shut up about football players getting brain damage or whatever, because, like, none of my friends have brain damage. They play in celebrity golf tournaments every weekend!
I have no doubt Uncle Colin will read this column, because he’s the kind of insecure propagandist who lashes out at critics. So let me suggest — as one longtime bullshit artist to another — that you consider expanding your pre-show research a little bit, Colin.
Why not interview the parents of Tom Cutinella, Demario Harris Jr., and Isaiah Langston, three teenagers who died in the past week playing football? See how those mothers and fathers respond to your claim that “football enriches lives as often and much more often than it takes lives.”
If you don’t have the courage to talk to them, at least check out your colleague Gregg Easterbrook’s meticulously researched book, The King of Sports (specifically the chapter “Used Up and Thrown Away”), which will introduce you to just a few of the thousands of disposable humans created by the football industry you so revere.