This week’s inductee into the “Overrated Hall of Fame” is … being labeled a high school football player.
Every so many months you’ll hear or read a news story announcing the death of some high school boy who smashed his car into a tree, caught a bullet in a drive-by or died in some other devastatingly sad, premature fashion. Even a miserable bastard like me can’t help but feel awful for the kid and the kid’s friends and family. Sure, being a teenaged boy, the kid was probably a total douche-nozzle, but that’s no reason for the kid to die young.
But sometimes, when I hear or read these stories, my sadness can be shortlived, and my normal mood setting – irrational anger and irritation – returns, and then all is right with the world again. What could possibly piss me off about a poor kid dying in a fiery highway death or bleeding out on a city street? It’s when an anchorman or reporter leads the report by referring to the kid as a “high school football player.”
How in the hell can a kid’s entire life be summed up as “high school football player,” as if that was the young man’s entire identity? Oh wait, I know. Because this country has a sick, over-the-top obsession with that lunkheaded sport.
This kid probably had dozens of interests in his life. Perhaps he was a music lover. Or an artist. Could be he was a member of a choir. Or one hell of a gamer. Maybe he was a boyfriend. He was no doubt somebody’s son, and there’s a good chance he was a brother, cousin, grandson and nephew. He was most certainly a friend. And a student. Maybe he was also a cashier or dishwasher.
But the headline in the newspaper or the teaser before we go to commercial is that a “high school football player” has died, which sickeningly implies that out of all the other things he did with his life, being a football player was most important and what sums up who the kid really was, and all the rest was just filler. Then again, maybe it is just stating a sad and disturbing fact. Maybe to most people who knew him, and maybe even to the kid himself, that is what he was.
Many parents start identifying their sons as “football players” when the little shits are playing mite ball. They don’t say the kid “plays football.” Damn it, he’s a football player. At six years old. This insidious molding of a kid’s persona into an athlete above all else only intensifies as he ages and climbs the ladder of crappy kid football. (And let’s be honest, all kid football is crappy kid football and not worthy of our intense emotional investment, unless one of the kids is your close relative, then it’s okay to get into it … but only a little, for even then it’s still just kids football and should therefore serve only as a pleasant diversion from the mundane daily activities of regular life for those of us not actually on the field.)
If a kid goes to the right (or wrong?) high school, this can cement the sad and inevitable evolution of the kid’s false identity. I work at a school in which the two main administrators are ex-football players whose favorite smell in the world is not perfume on a pillow or pussy on their faces; they get off on the sweaty, musky odor of a high school locker room. So, of course, they foster a school atmosphere in which the words “high school football player” are actually supposed to mean something special when it is screamed over the PA. Exceptions are made, corners are cut, schedules are changed, infractions are covered up and unseemly adoration is encouraged. This message is sent loudly and clearly.
Now, I’m not some ex-high school nerd who harbors a decades-long resentment against high school football players. Okay, that’s not completely honest. I was a super mondo nerd. But I was so much of a dweeby dork that I was beneath being bullied or ridiculed by high school football players. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even register on their radars. And I’m not bitter about one of them stealing a high school girlfriend. I had no girlfriends for the stealing. But I do remember a sizable percentage of them had a high percentage of asshole-ishness about them, an asshole-ishness cultivated by fawning parents and coaches. But I didn’t hate them. Just like I don’t “hate” them now, even thought that disproportionate level of asshole-ishness still exists.
I actually admire the kids who play high school football for several reasons. They are willing to give up sitting around the house for the last few weeks of summer for the privilege of sweating their balls off in sweltering, twice-a-day August practices. They lift weights throughout the year. They are willing to go out and bust heads and bodies with kids from other schools who have also lifted weights all year and are looking to knock them into next week. It takes balls and dedication. And at certain times, that affords them the right to be called “football players.” You know, like during the actual football season and especially on Friday nights.
But don’t let that appellation sum them up when they die, especially if they die in March or June. Or even while they are still alive. If you’re a parent, don’t say your kid is a “football player.” Say you have a kid who plays football, and probably mediocre-ly … or, more likely, badly. He’ll almost surely never play for a D1 or D2 school. He might, if he is decent, find his way onto a shitty D3 team, where he’ll have four more years of fun playing a game he hopefully loves. Chances are, because he grew up believing that he was a “football player,” he won’t have the grades or brains to get into a college.
Because a lifetime of playing football might be why so many high school football players are window-licking mouth-breathers. Many of these kids were enrolled in organized football soon after mastering the whole potty training thing. This means they’ve taken a few thousand shots to the head by the time they make the big, bad varsity squad. I don’t care how “safe” today’s football helmets are, ten years of banging your head into knees, the ground and other helmets has to take a toll on a kid’s intellectual development.
Add in the fact that many parents and coaches have sent, throughout the course of a kid’s life, the implicit message that learning and academics aren’t that important, what with a lucrative NFL career surely in the offing, and you can see why too many kids who wear a high school football jersey struggle to read, write and actually give a shit about learning. Not all of them, of course, but a damn high percentage of them.
A teenager who plays football isn’t a football player. Calvin Johnson is a football players. Aaron Rodgers is a football player. Steve with the pimples, who is failing Algebra II and who is having trouble with his girlfriend and who hopes to get his job back at Safeway after the season and who has a sick grandfather he worries about and who wants to go to culinary school because he loves to cook and who can kick every one of his friends’ asses at Madden … he isn’t a football player. He’s just another one of the countless American teenagers who play football.
Ned Bitters is, in fact, overrated. You can contact him at email@example.com.