I have a football problem and I think it’s affecting my daughter. As a kid, I remember Dad explaining to me the gravity of the moment when the Iowa Hawkeyes won the right to play the Washington Huskies in the 1991 Rose Bowl. Dad wasn’t a huge sports fan, which added extra weight to his explanation. If he was taking the time to describe to me the magnitude of this game, it must have been a pretty big deal. These moments lead to my utter disappointment when the clock hit 0:00 and the Hawks were sent home with a Rose Bowl loss. It was that season that started my on-again off-again relationship with football for the next 24 years.
During my middle school years, my cousins and I would play football in the yard reenacting the plays of athletes like Desmond Howard and Bo Jackson. We’d dive for catches, juke and spin, and boisterously sing a generic fight song as we entered the imaginary end zone. Even though I had extensive backyard championship experience, it never translated to the real gridiron. After three years of middle school and junior varsity football – I was 0-23 as a football player. Never. Won. Once. – I hung up my cleats and retired from the game. Left only to wonder about the impact this 135 pound Asian running back with 4.9 speed would’ve had on the varsity game. I digress. After my retirement, football existed on the periphery for the next decade or so. I’d occasionally attend a game, watch bowl games with my friends, read an article here or there, but my position and opinions on the sport reflected general ambivalence.
My love for the sport was reignited when my wife and I moved to Oregon in 2005. We were 2000 miles away from our friends and family, and in an attempt to stave off homesickness, I started paying very close attention to Iowa football. Each season, I’d become more and more invested in the team, the individual players, and the incoming recruiting class. Then I’d start to study the opponent’s teams in similar ways, and before I knew it, I found myself waking up early Saturday mornings to watch ESPN’s College GameDay that…kicked off (see what I did there) a full day of televised college football. Good old-fashioned American entertainment that reminded me of home.
Despite my obsession with the game and living in Eugene, home of the perennially contending Oregon Ducks, the past couple of seasons have been harder to watch with a clean conscience. As time goes on, it’s difficult to ignore the cultural tropes the game perpetuates, e.g. aggressive Black males, the brilliant white coaches executing strategy, females relegated to the sidelines as “analysts” or cheerleaders. This doesn’t even begin to touch the challenges of the student athlete, the money colleges choose to spend on football programs, or the inherent physical danger of the game. And even though I’m acutely aware of these dynamics, I can’t stop watching.
I have a football problem.
This whole crisis of conscience arose as I noticed how much football my daughter, Tae, was seeing; she’s almost three. She was born and is being raised in Eugene, OR, so naturally, we’re cheering for the Ducks. This year’s team touts a Heisman Trophy winner and several All-Americans, but if you ask my daughter to name her favorite football player, she’ll respond, “Joe Walker.” He’s a talented, but relatively unknown Oregon Ducks inside linebacker. He also happens to be white. When I realized the probable impression Tae was getting of African American men due to hours of football, I got nervous. There aren’t many African Americans in our lives, and even fewer that we see with any regularity. That means Tae’s biggest African American influence is college football. This means her first thought of the African American community goes directly to athletics. After that, it moves to big, showy, aggressive men who are rewarded for hitting other players as hard as they can. After that, she sees the authority and power the white coaches wield over said strong and aggressive athletes. I didn’t know how to explain to a toddler the racial dynamics of major college football. Where was I supposed to begin? How much could she possibly understand? In a scurry to find the solution, I panicked. And in that panic, I decided to cheer loudly for the first white player I noticed. The irony of my flawed approach doesn’t escape me. But ultimately, cheering for Joe Walker served as a red herring, buying me some time to figure out how to balance the issue at hand; that casually observing the game of football sends clear messages to my toddler daughter about Black men and their role in society.
I suppose the simple answer would be to stop watching college football. But if I’m being honest with myself, that’s probably not going to happen. Not all at once, anyways. Next year I’ll try to be more vigilant about discussing race when watching football. We’ll talk about the players’ athletic talents, challenge popular perceptions, and discuss why football isn’t representative of an entire community. We’ll keep reading books and watching cartoons with diverse characters and we’ll make sure to enforce her uniqueness while being part of a whole. It’s a tiny drop in the media and social influence bucket, but it’s better than nothing…or perhaps I’ll just have her cheer for the kicker.
~ Steve Kalb