Wednesday, August 24, 2011

10-and-Under football

There is a small track and stadium behind our apartment, and during football season have junior league football games there on Tuesday nights. These are often interesting to watch. Here are the thoughts that went through my head as I watched a game last night:

Watching little children play football often seems to be a surreal Kafka-style black comedy. Often, more yards were gained and lost due to fouls and errors than actual plays. During one possession, the ball was snapped way over the quarterback's head, and then two defenders broke through the line, so the quarterback had to run back and dive on the ball to prevent a turnover that would have resulted in a goal. Then the offense lost more yards to a foul. Then there was another bad snap just like the first. Then another foul against the offense. At that point, the announcer said, "Third down, and, um, about two and a half acres."

During one play, two players collided with enough force to make an audible noise. I winced at this while most people were cheering, and it turned out that this had caused a minor injury. Both of the players ended up stunned. The tackler got the worst of it, and after a while I saw that he was a tiny little guy. It was kind of surreal. You see this massive helmet, and huge shoulder pads, and hanging from this is a tiny little matchstick arm. The whole thing felt wrong, and I felt sorry for the kid.

Passing and fancy plays never work. Running back or to the side is a sure way to lose yardage. Even if the kid manages to evade one defender, the rest of the people will converge on him. The only way to make a big play is for the ball carrier to charge straight at the defensive line in the confused first few seconds when they are not sure who has the ball, and hope that nobody manages to grab or tackle him. Even if they do, the momentum will usually gain yardage.

But even with the pointlessness and risk of it all, it is a good thing. If not for this activity, they would probably be rotting away their minds and bodies with television or video games. The children are learning how to think on their feet and follow rules and function as a team in a chaotic and stressful environment. I like the way that everyone respected law and order, nobody ever yelled at the referees and it was always made clear that the children had a responsibility to follow the rules. There was very little negativity; the focus was on good sportsmanship and pride in honest effort rather than winning the contest.

Still, I would prefer that our society glorified something other than a brutal zero-sum physical contest reminiscent of tribal warfare. There was a massive government subsidy to this event in the form of the venue and the time of the multiple police officers and EMS people present. In an ideal world, we would be supporting events and contests that build up science or engineering skill.

But human nature is what it is, and most people enjoy football, no matter how pointless and irrational it seems to me. If we are going to have sports like this, then we are doing a good job of accenting the positive and making it a good thing for the participants. I felt like an anthropologist watching an odd tribal ritual, but in the end I liked what I saw. Little league football is a little slice of America, and even with all of its craziness and flaws I feel better about our country after watching those games.

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