#NoKaepNoNFL, weeks 12 & 13

Week 12: More than a game…

Going into the first week of December, I was mentally preparing myself for the anniversary of the death of my friend Harold.

Harold passed away early last December after a hard battle with cancer. He left behind his lovely wife, three boys, and friends and family who thought the world of him.

I remember the first time I saw Harold.  We attended seminary together and e was walking up the hill to attend a chapel service. He caught my attention because he was wearing a Steelers sweatshirt. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Football was the foundation of our friendship. We watched Super Bowl 40 together with a group of friends in seminary. Later, after we had both graduated, he came to visit Pittsburgh and I took him to Jerome Bettis’ restaurant. Later still, after I have moved to Ohio, he and I connected to go see the Steelers play the Broncos at Invesco Field outside of Denver. It was an awesome game, the Steelers won, and by the end the place sounded like Heinz Field. We Steelers fans travel well.

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By the time football season rolled around last year, Harold was already pretty sick. The last time that I saw him, I went to hang out with him during one of his treatments, then we watched a preseason game against the Saints. On the day of his funeral, the Steelers beat the Bills on a snow covered field. I think Harold would have loved that!

Football was the foundation of our friendship, but church was the substance of it. He loved the church and served it faithfully. Even in the midst of his struggles, he couldn’t help himself but be a pastor. the first time I went to visit him after I learned about his illness, he took the time out to talk to me about my situation and my relationship with the church. I told him I didn’t know if I was still called to the church, still called to ministry. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that he knew that I still had a call, but that maybe it wouldn’t look like what I expected. He never lost his faith in God’s ability to use me for good. I keep a picture of Harold on my nightstand. When things feel rough, I look at and remind myself that I still have more to offer.

While I was emotionally prepping myself for Harold’s death, my friend Elizabeth died. To be honest, I’m still pretty stunned. Liz and I knew each other first from church. Her dad was my pastor through junior and senior high and there were times when she and I were the youth group in total. We got to know each other better when I made the inexplicable decision to join marching band during my senior year. We butted heads a lot. I was more arrogant in those days and she called me out on it. A lot!

Southwestern PA is one of those towns where high school football is a big deal. Maybe not quite Texas big, but a big deal nonetheless. Unfortunately, my high school didn’t field a very competitive team. I remember during games being one of the few band members who actually watched the games. I remember Liz making a joke about my being the only person to ever go from playing football to being in the marching band. Though I doubt she was right, it certainly wasn’t an upwardly mobile move in terms of high school hierarchy.

But football was the backdrop for that friendship as well. There may have been as many people in the stands to see the band as the football team. Marching band is one of those things that forms lasting friendships at best or, at the very least, grudging respect. By the end of that school year, Liz and I were pretty good friends, and we spent a lot of time together as we both had difficulties adjusting to college life in our freshmen years. It was interesting to hear at her funeral service that people loved the things about her that I did: her love of living things, her creative spirit, and her wicked sense of humor.

It’s strange for me to think about how football was a part of the connective tissue of both of those relationships. It wasn’t the heart of either, but in some ways, neither happens without it. As I’ve struggled through this boycott, a big part of it has been that I have so many good memories connected to watching football and the game has brought me in contact with amazing people. No matter what happens to my relationship to the NFL after this year, I will always cherish the role the game has played in my life.

 

Week 13: A Violent Game

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It used to be that the Ravens/Steelers rivalry was the one that was known throughout the league for its brutality. In recent years, the shift has been made to the Bengals/Steelers rivalry. Going back just a couple of seasons, the games took on a new intensity. At the center of a lot of this was Vontaze Burfict, the Bengal linebacker who seemed to relish in injuring other players. His excessive play almost single handedly cost the Bengals a playoff game two years ago.

While I didn’t watch, it seems Monday night’s game was another ugly game between the two AFC North teams. I say “ugly” because, while I enjoy physical football, these teams push the barrier when they play each other. The penalties go through the roof and slow the game down. It looks personal and not all professional. It’s not good football.

That my team is at the center of many of these ugly games is yet another disheartening aspect of my fandom. I love my team, yet they are often in the middle of controversy for playing in an unsportsmanlike fashion. It’s not fun to feel like I’m rooting for the bad guys.

That said, the picture above makes me smile. Rookie wide receiver sensation JuJu Shuster-Smith laid out Vontaze Burfict while blocking for Le’Veon Bell. It didn’t look like a cheap shot to me (I saw replays in bars… I probably spend too much time in bars). I know I’m biased. I also know that one of our players went out in a stretcher earlier in the game and the emotions were probably off the charts. Yes, I take some satisfaction in seeing Burfict knocked on his ass by a smaller wideout and I love that the Steelers receivers aren’t prima donnas afraid of blocking.

If it sounds like I’m waffling between two different emotions, I am. As a lifelong Steelers fan, I take pride in our team playing in a physical manner. And a lot of times, it feels like we win because we’re the tougher team. Growing up with guys like Jack Lambert and “Mean” Joe Greene as the icons teaches you that there is a way that the game is supposed to be played and that way is physical, violent even.

On the other hand…

Hi, I’m Derrick. I’m a pacifist.

Yeah, it’s weird. The internal conflict that this game has created for me over the years is kinda ridiculous. Being away from watching the games brings some clarity to that feeling, but also additional confusion.

How does a peace-loving me justify watching, and loving, such a violent game?

I have a Facebook friend who often decries that those of us who bemoan the violence of the world are also the ones who love violence in our entertainment. I’ll be honest, it annoys the hell out of me every time he brings it up. I confess that some of that annoyance is conviction. Can I enjoy a violent sport, violent movies, or violent video games and still “preach” what I do with authenticity?

While I could easily sum this up with my favorite Walt Whitman quote:

Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes. 

But there is more to it than that and here I might lose some of you:

I think we need violence in our cultural images, even though it is a slippery slope.

The Apostle Paul uses the image of the armor of God, one of the earliest images I learned in Sunday School. The idea is that we are in a spiritual struggle, but that our “weapons” are things like faith, truth, and righteousness. As prevalent as violence is in our culture, it was more so in Paul’s.

I think Paul wrote this language to remind his audience that life is a struggle and more so when you are striving to live a good and upright life. I think we need stories of good vs. evil to inspire us in our daily lives to resist evil wherever it may appear in our lives. I think what’s important is to relegate weapons like swords and guns to our fantasy lives and fight with the weapons that Paul prescribes in our real lives.

Am I stretching here? Maybe. Perhaps I’m simply justifying my vices. If that’s what you believe, see the above quote from Mr. Whitman. But I look at my team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who came to prominence during the 70’s when the city’s major industry was beginning to collapse. As men were being laid off from the steel mills, a thankless job to begin with, they would watch their team battle on Sunday afternoons and be inspired to keep fighting for their families. I grew up hearing stories of how the games lifted up an entire city that felt like it was in a downward spiral. The toughness of the players was the toughness of the city. Maybe I’m giving too much credit here, but I think this mentality is a big reason why Pittsburgh has been able to reinvent itself.

What can’t be ignored, though, is that football is not a work of fiction. It’s a real sport played by real men who can do real damage to themselves and their opponents. It can’t be ignored that players risk paralysis, brain damage, and lifelong pain and debilitation. Some see it as a foolish risk, but for many of the players involved, it is a testament to their manhood.

And I think this speaks to one of the real struggles that we are having in our culture right now: what does real strength look like? And what does strength look like for men in an age when the cultural norms of what is appropriate for men is changing so rapidly?

A friend of mine shared this video, the thesis of which is that we men need new definitions of toughness. We need the strength to go inside of ourselves, explore our emotions, and tackle our demons. If you ask most men, they’d rather get hit by a linebacker than do that kind of work. Justin Baldoni challenges men to be more sensitive, more vulnerable, and more in touch with our inner workings. As someone who has put in this kind of work in therapy, I know how exhausting this process can be. Looking inside is hard. Being vulnerable is hard. Admitting weakness is hard, especially when we are told over and over again that what we see in the NFL (or in the military) is what is supposed to be the gold standard of masculinity. The epitome of strength. I encourage you to share this video with the men that you know and have a conversation about what it means to learn new scripts as men.

 

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