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The Conservative Case for Football

After major Republican gains on Election Day, we examine the political right's views on concussions, NCAA amateurism, and the Washington mascot

Ladies and gentlemen, we’re here today in the spirit of open-minded inquiry. To get answers to urgent questions. I’ll begin. Congressman, do you recall your game-winning kick in the 1988 Freedom Bowl?

“I can still vividly see it,” said Jason Chaffetz, a Republican Congressional representative from Utah.

You were a kicker for BYU. Did you hold any sort of partisan grudge against your opponent, the Colorado Buffaloes?

“The sweet part for me was, I graduated high school in Colorado,” Chaffetz said. “But CU would not recruit me. They would not look at my tapes, nothing. It was a little payback time for them.”

Thank you. Tell us, were any sports clichés going through your mind as you approached the ball?

“‘Slow and steady,’” Chaffetz said. “The hardest part for a place-kicker is you don’t do anything for an hour and a half. And then you get one swing of the leg. This whole idea of icing … that is the biggest help a kicker could ever get. Think about it. If you were playing basketball, if you sat on the bench for an hour and a half and they called you in for one free throw  do you want to dribble it or do you want to just walk up to the line and shoot?”

Congressman, as you’re no doubt aware, the ball you kicked against Colorado traveled through the uprights. BYU won by three points. Please, describe for the committee how you celebrated.


Let the record show that the gentleman from Utah has formed dorky-looking pistols with his hands and is pumping them in the air.

Jason Chaffetz still keeps his BYU helmet in his office on Capitol Hill. Compared to today’s barbutes, the helmet feels as fragile as an eggshell, and has the telltale double bar of the late-’80s kicker — the mark of Rich Karlis.

Chaffetz’s former teammate, Ty Detmer, once inscribed an autograph, “Jason, Get a new face mask …” Which isn’t to say that Chaffetz didn’t take his share of licks. One Saturday against Wyoming, his kickoff fell short of the end zone and a Cowboys blocker laid him out during the return. “I’m sure he got a sticker on his helmet,” Chaffetz said. Another time, when Chaffetz was playing for BYU’s JV squad, a guy on the return team fooled him by not retreating after the kickoff but running straight toward him. Chaffetz remembers his hand being crushed between the guy’s helmet and his own pads. Somehow, it wasn’t broken.

So the Subcommittee on Football’s Never-Ending Existential Crisis would stipulate that Chaffetz knows something of the game. Although he’s not Steve Young, Chaffetz has been knocked around. Congressman, would you call federal hearings on head injuries?

“I’d rather not,” Chaffetz said. “We have enough to do in this world. If you don’t want to get a concussion, don’t play football.

“You take the basic principles of what government should and should not be doing,” he continued. “This is a classic example.”

Chaffetz was making what we might call the conservative case for football. Arguments once restricted to Roger Goodell can now be found nesting in book-length tracts and Politico op-eds. It’s not just that football has been politicized — everything in the known universe has been politicized. It’s that football has been placed in a familiar political frame. The conservative frame is thus: A cherished American institution is being dogpiled by nanny-staters, media elites, P.C. dogmatists, trial lawyers, union organizers, and — for conservatives, this covers most of the former — those who would make us a softer, wussier people.

“We don’t need flag football,” Chaffetz said. “We’re turning into a society of wimps. Politically correct wimps.” As football’s critics close in, Chaffetz and other conservatives are standing athwart the goal line, yelling, “Stop!”

True, the “war on football” (the title of Daniel J. Flynn’s 2013 book) hasn’t yet reached a pitch that would rate it a regular segment on The O’Reilly Factor. But in a recent New York Magazine story, Jonathan Chait wrote that football has become a classic left-right wedge issue. With a little prodding, conservative machers will zone block for football as they have for other seemingly endangered pillars of American life: the church, the flag, “family values.”

“It’s being nibbled away at, chipped away at,” said Bill Bennett, the conservative author and President George H.W. Bush’s drug czar. “Too many calls, too many penalties.”

“I think any attempts to make football a safe family sport, sort of like a low level of volleyball, are absurd,” said Stuart Stevens, who was a senior strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “I don’t think real football fans want that.”

“I guess we could just walk around with bubble wrap and watch a bunch of people doing aquatic dance all day long,” said radio talk show host Laura Ingraham.

“I love football,” said Andrew Klavan, a conservative screenwriter and novelist. “We all love football. And all of a sudden these wimps come along …”

If the rhetoric sounds like it comes from another, pre–League of Denial time, it’s because it first appeared more than a century ago. In 1905, football faced a similar existential crisis. Eighteen people died playing the game, and a group of university presidents and muckrakers called for the sport’s abolition. “The Progressives tried to address the problem of football by turning to their favorite solution: They sought to regulate it out of existence,” John J. Miller, a National Review contributor, wrote in his book The Big Scrum.

Enter Teddy Roosevelt, the GOP’s stand-up defensive end. “I think much of the outburst about it hysterical,” Roosevelt remarked of football. Anticipating Goodell’s talking points by 100 years, Roosevelt argued that football wasn’t innately deadly but could be fixed by “severe refereeing.” He convened a White House summit of top coaches. He punished a negligent ref by slow-walking the man’s appointment at the Naval Academy. Underlying Roosevelt’s push was the idea that men unshaped by rough sports were “mollycoddles instead of vigorous men.”

Roosevelt’s words, with only a slight update for modern slang, form the first plank of the current conservative case for football. Bennett told me, with no small measure of pride, that he got two concussions playing in high school and at Williams College. When Bennett went to the University of Texas for graduate school in the 1960s, he befriended a Longhorns lineman named Gary Shaw. One night, they had an off-campus scrimmage. “It was after a few beers …” Bennett said. “I admired the hell out of his Orange Bowl ring. I wanted to see what a Southwest Conference guard does. I went up against him. That was my third concussion.”

Bennett is still entranced by watching college linemen crack heads. “I told my wife, ‘We’re not going anywhere Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to midnight,’” he said. “And I’m theoretically a serious person. I’m writing three books.”

Republicans, Democrats, and their generals have long known football’s symbolic power. But it was conservatives who polished the metaphorical connection between football and national grit. And in an age of wars fought without conscription, some conservatives see the football team as more than just a proxy of the military platoon. It’s a literal substitute. “A society of men,” Bennett explained, “where you have to measure up and where toughness means something and standards mean something. You don’t get anywhere on self-esteem.” Coaches are the closest things most boys will know to sergeants. “Coaches are getting more important, not less,” Bennett said, “because of the softening of the culture.”

Minus the dig at the culture, it’s an echo of a point that Chait, a liberal, made when defending football from lefty critics: “Football channels boys’ chauvinistic belligerence into supervised forms, shapes them within boundaries, and gives them positive meaning.”

In other words, in the conservative view, football is a national finishing school for boys, who then ooze the toughness and self-sufficiency they acquire into the culture at large. “Who is going to teach boys the stuff Charlie Strong is going to teach those guys?” Bennett asked. “Where do they learn that? Sociology class?”

Klavan said: “When the evil hour comes, men of all sorts are what you need. In all kinds of places, not just battlefields. In politics, in the press — it’s the aggressive, uncompromising attitude of raw masculinity.”

Here we arrive at the second plank of the conservative case for football, which is almost a libertarian plank. It puts the right to play football on the same moral plane as the right to ride a motorcycle without a helmet or chug a 32-ounce Mountain Dew. Sure, football can give you a concussion. Perhaps even graver maladies like CTE and Alzheimer’s. But conservatives argue that to ban or restrict football is to needlessly squeeze the risk out of American life.

As Stevens put it, “You take your average player and say to em, ‘You have a chance to be in the NFL, or be a star on Saturday in college, but it may screw you up when you hit 50.’ They’d say, ‘What’s the catch?’”

Most Democrats who hold office, of course, stop well short of calling for an emergency ban on football. They’re more likely to blast away at the NFL over domestic violence, or demand transparency on brain injuries, or simply try to educate the populace — the message beaming out of President Obama’s White House concussion summit in May. (There’s an electoral benefit: According to the New York Times, less than one-third of Obama voters with a bachelor’s degree want their sons to play football.)

It’s sportswriters who venture further and label football a public-health risk — that is, something the government should regulate. In October, the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins wrote that “concussions are the black lung of the NFL” and argued that Congress should administer “monetary and criminal penalties” unless the NFL cleans up its act.

To understand why conservatives balk at this argument, I called Geoffrey Norman, the only Weekly Standard contributor who has been to an SEC boosters’ breakfast. Norman read me a quote from George Orwell that he thought illustrated the liberal-conservative split over football: “the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working towards a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past.”

On this side of the scrimmage line: the liberal holding the latest research from Boston University neuropathologist Ann McKee and wondering whether there ought to be a law. On the other: the conservative who knows he’s on the wrong side of history, at least as determined by the New York Times, but can’t help but be attracted to football’s primitive-romantic hum. “I think the campaign against football, to the extent there is one, comes straight out of that,” Norman said. “Football is an irrational thing. And it’s violent. And it’s supposed to be.

Indeed, one key difference between liberals and conservatives is that the latter tend to describe football’s violence as a feature rather than a bug. “You look at a game like Ole Miss–LSU,” Stevens said. “People were falling in the fourth quarter. It was brutal. But that’s the essence of the game. It’s called Death Valley. It’s not called Eternal Life.”

Ole Miss players can choose to enter Death Valley. You could argue that a kid whose dad shoves him onto the field in Pop Warner doesn’t have the same free will — he’s not choosing to risk his brain. Conservatives are skeptical of this claim too. “Even at 11 years old, I knew what I was getting myself into,” said Brett Lindstrom, a former University of Nebraska quarterback who won a seat in the state legislature on Tuesday. “I knew full well it was tackle football. Kids are going to get hit. That’s the way it is.”

Daniel Flynn took the free-will argument and did an end zone dance in The War on Football. Flynn aimed at the ex-players suing the NFL — the guys cast as the most sympathetic actors in the concussion drama. He called their suit an “attack upon the game that once made them rich.” A victory in court, Flynn wrote, “would incentivize a litigious culture that absolves individuals of responsibility for personal actions in favor of punishing an organization that didn’t compel the personal actions.”

It’s like being on the headset with Goodell’s id. But for all of his swagger, Flynn cast the conservative case for football as a rearguard action. “The War on Football is perpetual …” he wrote. “It won’t end the day after tomorrow. Football’s opposition fights ultimately for unconditional surrender.”

chaffetz-jason-republican-utahChris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call

Jason Chaffetz cuts an unusual figure on Capitol Hill. He grew up a Democrat — his father was once married to Kitty Dukakis. When he was elected to Congress in 2008, he became one of the GOP ascetics who tried to impose on their own lives the leanness they demanded from government. Chaffetz slept in his House office. He rolled his eyes when Steny Hoyer, the Democratic whip, filled the Congressional record with hosannas to the University of Maryland for merely making the NCAA tournament. “It was so ridiculous,” Chaffetz said.

Football has a funny way of cutting the legs out from under conservative doctrine. A Republican who wails for an unfettered free market might, in his next breath, ask the feds to tinker with the college postseason. “Politicians, especially Republicans, don’t believe in affirmative action unless it’s for their football team,” said J.C. Watts, a former Oklahoma quarterback and GOP congressman.

But heterodoxy, at least in terms of sports, suits Chaffetz just fine. For him, the conservative case for football isn’t just one of overweening machismo. For instance, Chaffetz nodded along with Connecticut point guard Shabazz Napier’s comment that he went to bed “starving” thanks to the NCAA’s lousy stipend. “I was just a measly, skinny kicker but I would go eat a burrito every night at midnight,” Chaffetz said. “I was starving.” His BYU stipend barely covered rent and left him to pay for extra food and laundry expenses out of pocket. “The other thing that really bothered me was you couldn’t get a job,” Chaffetz said. “That’s a problem. As a kicker, I had time.”

Before Goodell became a toxic asset, Chaffetz demanded that the NFL surrender its tax-exempt nonprofit status. “How do you say that the NFL is a nonprofit with a straight face?” he asked. The issue is one of the few that can be said to “stretch across the aisle”; it now boasts, at varying levels of buy-in, senators John McCain and Tom Coburn on the right and Richard Blumenthal and Cory Booker on the left.

It’s an interesting feature of our newest front in the culture wars. Football’s worthiness may still be up for debate. But checking the power of the NFL has become a bipartisan concern.

The third plank of the conservative case for football relies as much on annoyance as it does on ideology. Football is being attacked by a number of the GOP’s traditional enemies. It is the United Steelworkers, after all, who have helped the effort to unionize football players at Northwestern. And it was plaintiffs’ attorneys — “trial lawyers” — standing behind the ex-players who sued the NFL.

Few Republicans would shy away from a chance to wallop unions and trial lawyers. But if you talk to conservatives who played football at a high level, their blasts are much more circumspect. “I think [a union] would destroy college football as we know it,” Watts said. “But at the same time, they’re just taking up issues that college football and the NCAA have refused to deal with. They’re just glaring.”

Scott Turner, a Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives, played for three NFL teams between 1995 and 2003. He suffered multiple concussions. “I can remember a few that are very prominent that stand out,” Turner said. “I may have had a couple more that I don’t recall. When you play defense and special teams, the opportunity to have head trauma is there. The Lord has been very gracious. I’m able at this stage of my life to operate and work and lead my life. It’s not to say I don’t have symptoms and issues at times. I do. If you play this game long enough, you will.” Turner didn’t join the suit against the NFL, but said he wouldn’t begrudge a teammate who did.

The Washington Redskins name controversy fits more snugly into the enemy-of-my-enemy frame. In May, 50 Democratic U.S. senators signed letters asking Goodell to support a mascot change. A notable holdout was Mark Warner of Virginia. It was the election-year equivalent of putting two hands on the ball right before the tacklers arrive: Virginia not only has hordes of Redskins fans, but also the team’s practice headquarters. Naturally, Warner’s GOP opponent, Ed Gillespie, ran ads questioning his position on the Redskins name during Monday Night Football. When Gillespie outperformed his poll numbers on Tuesday, conservatives wondered aloud if the ad had actually worked.

“I think it’s nonsense for Congress to try to weigh in on the naming of teams,” Chaffetz said. “Redskins — is that offensive or is it not offensive? The league will figure that out all by themselves.” Minus a few holdouts like John McCain, conservatives tend to think of the anti-Redskins campaign as the long arm of political correctness, or else, as an issue that simply doesn’t deserve a media conflagration.

Finally, conservatives see another familiar enemy casting a blimp-size shadow over football. It’s liberal guilt. President Obama told The New Republic that he and fellow fans were “examin[ing] our consciences.” It’s a sacrament of modern sportswriting to express guilt about watching the game or swear it off altogether.

“I think that’s utter gibberish,” Stuart Stevens said. “It’s like watching a bullfight and feeling sorry for the bull.”

“Guilt?” Laura Ingraham said. “I feel energized watching football. I feel like I need to be in better shape.” Ingraham said if anything gave her a pang of conscience on Sundays, it was promos for network TV series that showed people hopping into bed with one another.

The Ray Rice fiasco may have yielded another wellspring of guilt. In September, National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote a column agreeing that Rice was originally under-punished by Goodell. But Lowry speculated that the sportswriters emptying their barrels weren’t just angry at the commissioner. They were angry at football — angry at how a sport that was so much fun to watch had once again dragged them into its ethical muck. Rice offered writers a moral high ground from which to fight the war.

“The real problem is this concussion issue,” Lowry told me. “And it’s harder for people to get on a high horse about that because everyone who watches is at some level implicated.”

Stare at the conservative case for football long enough and you can find all kinds of tributaries. In February, a Republican lobbyist named Jack Burkman called for legislation to ban openly gay athletes from playing in the NFL. As several writers noted, the footballic version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” got more free publicity than it did traction on the Hill.

Burkman later broadened his sights. It wasn’t just the idea of openly gay players that offended him; it was Rice and Jim Irsay and their protectors in the commissioner’s office. Burkman’s case for football was that it must be saved from … the NFL. “It has morally collapsed in the face of greed,” he said of the league.

“The Ray Rice thing is shocking,” Burkman said. “There’s a collusion. How did that happen? … Rice beats a woman silly and moves the body out. It’s like a scene from an Al Pacino movie and he only gets suspended for a few games. I joked if he kills the girl, does he get an eight-game suspension?”

The idea that the NFL is run by amoral greed-heads is nominally a liberal one. Burkman claimed it for conservatism by making no distinction between being gay and moral indecency, and then by including the NFL’s moral crisis in a narrative of national rot. “We all know America’s in decay,” Burkman said. “But if football is in decay, that’s a shocking symbol to the world. Even our gladiators are declining. That’s what happened to Rome, you know.”

In the new, redder Congress, Jason Chaffetz wants to become the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. It may be the only congressional committee ever to rate regular mentions on sports radio: In 2005, Mark McGwire and his cohorts sat before it and refused to talk about the past.

Chaffetz said he had no interest in using Oversight as a prosecutor-at-large for sports leagues. He said he wanted “relevant people, non-steroid-using people” hauled before him. Is that true, Congressman? You won’t call hearings on brain injuries?

“Are there things the Department of Defense has learned about our troops in combat?” Chaffetz said. “Yeah. Let’s share best practices and some of the science. I buy that. But a congressional hearing to figure out that coming across the middle looking for a pass is going to hurt when you get smacked? Duh. Why do you think I watch the games?”

If there’s a conservative case for football, that is its coda. In the conservative ideal, the NFL and its players will settle the problems of the day themselves, while congressmen will sit in the nosebleeds, watching with interest but without the temptation to intervene. “There’s only so much you can do,” Chaffetz said with a laugh. “The Buccaneers are still going to be a bad team!” 

Filed Under: NFL, Politics, concussions, Republicans, Democrats, Conservatives, Liberals, Jason Chaffetz

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

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