My mother died on Friday, August 26, 2016, after a long illness. She was 88 years old.
Over the years, she and I watched a lot of football games on TV together, and she became something of a fan. Initially, I think it was just an indulgence to me as the youngest of four children and only male in a household of older sisters and a single mother, to let me have “my shows” on TV (kind of like how women in those days had their “stories”). Eventually, since she and I shared a pretty friendly relationship, she would join me and get into the games. She was very intelligent and so she developed “tastes” in football: she didn’t like blow-out games, and she really didn’t like blowhard coaches (she might say something like, “who does he think HE is?”). I’ll think of her later in the 2016 season when big old blowhard Rex Ryan gets fired in Buffalo. “Who does he think HE is?” A twice-fired NFL head coach, I’d say.
I will always think of my mother whenever I see reruns of The Rockford Files on TV. She just loved James Garner, and she really shared Rockford’s sardonic sense of humor and core sense of decency. (Click here for that great theme music!)
I’ve just told the core story of my book Farewell to Football?, in a way. In watching NFL football on TV, I thought I had found a way to invite myself into the world of men. I would later discover that this was a somewhat false conclusion, and that all I’d really encountered was a simulacrum of masculine community, a media invention designed to sell consumer goods. Fortunately, I learned to discern
the difference when I passed through legitimate male initiations with teachers, military officers, and college professors, who “brought me inside the practice” of whatever profession I was entering, to use an expression from one of my most recent mentors, Dr. J. Kastely (a big fan of Rockford, too).
It took longer, though, to realize the bigger problem: by inviting the NFL on TV to enter my home, I was allowing in a lot more than just pro football. They sell you consumer goods in the commercials woven into the game telecasts, and they sell you the network TV shows, and ultimately they sell you a simulacrum of life that can prove very appealing–the excess and illusion I try to uncover throughout my book. I open the first chapter with an epigraph from Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes in which he describes having what he takes to be a heart attack watching a New York Giants game on TV. Later in the book, Exley describes a depressed year he spent on his mother’s “davenport” watching daytime TV shows (especially the soap operas which the women in my family used to call “their stories”). He peels away the surface gleam of the shows and taps into the decadent heart of the matter–the subjective emotional drama and transgressive values those “stories” uphold, such as extramarital affairs, divorce, and endless deception.
If you learned about domestic life, as I did to some extent, by watching the daytime “stories,” you grew up with a rather debased sense of family life, expecting (and getting) a lot of divorces and affairs. And if you learned about masculine life through the commercials accompanying football games on TV, you grew up with a distorted impression of the manly values of toughness, independence, and endless action. It took the great writers working on AMC’s Mad Men until the series’ premiere in 2007 to work out a compelling story critiquing that myth of debased masculinity, with Don Draper as their exquisite corpse.
In Farewell to Football? I spend the first chapter rambling, and occasionally ranting, through a series of considerations of what good things and bad things come through that cable along with the football game. In chapter 1.A., though, I make what I hope is an unexpected and productive move–instead of criticizing something well beyond my control, this abstract called football, I take a cue from Dante and from the Gospel according to Luke and turn the book into an examination of conscience. “Why do I not judge for myself what is right?”
I will be conducting an author-led “micro-retreat” for men at St. Thomas More Catholic Church parish later this fall, and I look forward to exploring with “men who dare” the question at the heart of the book: “Why is football such a big deal, such a quintessentially American big deal, and how important should the game really be?”
You can see where that question led me by reading Farewell to Football? in either paperback or Kindle format: to order a copy, click on this link.
Postscript: my Mom was legally blind, but she was having a Catholic volunteer read her my book. She was getting started on Chapter 3 when she died, but I’m pretty sure she knows how it turns out. She liked football, loved “The Rockford Files,” and she was my biggest fan.