Thursday, September 26, 2013

football culture

Lubbock is a town of about a quarter million in West Texas, football country. It loves the Red Raiders of Texas Tech, but it's even more seriously taken at the high school level, where boys throughout the city and throughout West Texas suit up and go out and smash helmets every weekend. They love the game at every level, though, and people still play touch football out here, in the parks, at the university, just about everywhere.

At a soccer game recently I said to another dad, "I'm glad our boys are playing soccer and not football." That's because they've been doing research on concussions, besides the multiple leg injuries, and I've come to the conclusion that it's better our kids not be involved in it. Much to my surprise, he didn't agree. He was on his way to a tailgate and then the big Tech football game that very afternoon. Sure, his son was in soccer, but he had older brothers who were in football, and would be in football if he were a little more aggressive, probably.

It turns out his friend has a successful business, and was told by his tax accountant, find a tax writeoff, so, he invested a couple of thousand into a tailgate. These are serious business here; big money is involved. You pay for a parking space or two, or three, and you bring thousands of dollars of beer, food, barbeque roasters, etc. down to your parking space. If the game is at six, the tailgate starts at about noon, and all day, people are out there, sitting around, eating, drinking, talking football, wearing red and black. Stories abound locally of people stopping at the liquor store to get hundreds or thousands worth of supplies to take down to the game. The whole campus and area around the stadium is taken up with these people basically enjoying the parking lots.

The heck of it is, the vast majority of students are underage. Students get to go to the games free or at least at reduced cost, but they technically are not allowed to accept alcohol in the parking lots on the way to the game. Hundreds or thousands manage to get very drunk anyway, and they have been causing problems at the games. One problem is that they are rude to the opposing team's fans; sometimes these fans have driven up from Fort Worth (TCU) or Dallas (SMU) for the game. The police have begun arresting some of them for public drunkenness. My question originally was, if you were out in a hot parking lot for six hours, in spite of whatever barbeque you'd eaten, who would not be drunk? Wouldn't you have to arrest pretty much the entire stadium?

The updated stadium, which they spent millions on, now holds 60,000 fans, and was sold out at the last game, which wasn't even a crucial game. Rumors had it that they would be making people take breathalyzer tests on the way into the stadium. My friend said that at the last game, lightning forced them to tell everyone to wait outside the stadium for ten minutes. One student got mad and threw a bottle of water at the stadium employee. He had her arrested for public drunkenness. The behavior of today's students bordered on unacceptable, he said.

There is actually nothing amazing about the story I've told so far. My friend might not like it that I turned around and wrote about it, but hundreds of stories just like it happen at every game. Hundreds if not thousands of students binge drink, and do it around the game; in some places it's a fatal mistake though we've been lucky so far this year. People invest heavily in bringing adequate supplies to the parking lot, setting up camp, entertaining their friends, drinking to their heart's content, and going to the game. Football being what it is, games are aggressive, hard-hitting, involving many injuries, and big enough to be talked about for an entire week; because this is "bye" week for the Red Raiders, we'll be talking about that last game for two weeks. People live for it. If they're not bound up in the high school results on Friday, they watch several Big Twelve games on Saturday and for some, throw in the Cowboys on Sunday and you have the whole weekend, easily. Most families have some young boy somewhere playing on these teams. They consider the injuries to be the price of involvement. If they worry about the concussions, they don't say anything about it. Or maybe they do.

From what I can tell, none of the other sports hold a candle to football. People like baseball, and soccer, and basketball, even hockey; they love all sports. But none of them compete to football. My friend is an example. He'd take his kid to a soccer game, an hour or two tops, but he was spending eight, nine hours on the football game. It was his day, his night, his weekend.

People are proud to be able to handle the alcohol; the students may be the exception to that. They drink plenty and still go to the game, and I'm sure the vast majority of the 60,000 managed not to be arrested for public drunkenness. They take pride in being able to watch every move, being familiar with the players, collecting information about the coach. The coach is like the god. He makes more money than anyone. He is ultimately responsible for the choice of quarterback (a big issue here, even though the team is 4-0). He is the man.

What happens when people are injured? I'm not sure. It happens almost every game. They haul them off in a stretcher. Their career has a gap in it. Some demand to play no matter what their injury. The coach is ultimately responsible. Sometimes the trainer insists that they rest, but the coach and player demand that they play. You have this tension. Nobody wants to drop out of sight, be forgotten, have to go run a car dealership. They are literally equipped to do very little else. Their college education has been courses like Football 101, designed to keep their GPA up so they can practice more, study less, lift weights, beef up, not worry about academics. Truly worrying about academics would hamper their efforts to win, and winning is everything. In that regard Texas Tech is like every other college.

Oklahoma State, one of our biggest rivals, is being investigated for breaking NCAA rules. It's hard not to give football players favors, when so much rides on their performance. Apparently they are very likely guilty, and will have their hands slapped. But virtually everyone is guilty, it is generally believed. These guys are one step away from the pros. They've been protected and provided for their entire lives. They are eating multiple steaks every night, a culture of abundance surrounds them. They are expected to perform aggressively, passionately, for an hour of playing time each week. They gear their lives toward that. They chose this path; there's no going back. It's so wound up in Texas Tech culture, there's no going back. The only thing better, for a player like those who are here, would be to be at Alabama, or maybe another SEC team. As it is, they are right next to the SEC; our rival Texas A & M just up and jumped over there a few years ago and got to play Alabama on national television just the other week. Millions of dollars were involved in television rights. The kind of money that can keep a program in world-class coaches for a long time. People get hurt, sure, but that's the price you pay, they figure.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

This article about the death of Damon Janes hit home with me, and was accurate in several respects. First, it says that though deaths are rare in football, tremendous damage is done anyway in thousands of cases that involve not death, but just constant concussions. Second was this quote: "We mourn the dead, pray it never happens again, then tune in for the weekend."

Lubbock is just getting wound up on its enormous football culture. It's a good year because of hope brought forward by a new coach, and it looks like we can win a lot of games at the college level. It's at the high school level that I really notice a lot more activity though. It must be everyone in any given high school in the area, that's wrapped up in this stuff. Either as a player, a cheerleader, or a spectator.

I gave up the last part of that quote, tuning in for the weekend, because of the first two parts. I decided that if it's really killing kids, then I just can't keep supporting it. But it's difficult. For one thing, I love people, and all the people, at least in these parts, are wrapped up in it. Second, it's really entertaining to watch; it's made for football. Last weekend, I took my kid to a friend's house, and he had a huge television, tuned into the Alabama-A&M game. A & M had a huge stadium, packed, everyone waving white flags. Both teams were at their best, marching up and down the field with precision and grace. I could hardly help settling in, having something to drink, and watching for a while - but I didn't. Best game of the year, and I passed it up.

College is a little better than high school in the sense that having 20-year-olds smoke cigarettes is slightly better than having 15-year-olds smoke. They get sucked into it before they know any better, and it kills them, and they become hooked on what it does for their heads, etc. I'm also down on meth and war, by the way, as things that kill boys (and girls) even though sometimes they're asking for it. If it's deadly, we should unite as a culture and protect our people from it.

Can it be made "safer"? I'm not sure. Two of the major tragedies are that when the various leg muscles are broken - the knee only bends one way, but people tackle at it from several ways - they don't ever fully recover. ever. But the concussion thing is worse. People are dying at 45 and 50 from having their heads turned to mush, and having lost their ability to control their impulses. Football has really only been popular since the advent of television - they grew up together - so we're talking about a 40 or 50 year experiment in some of these cases. The data is only now coming in. And it isn't pretty.

Don't mean to harp on it. I hate to rain on everyone's parade. And I love the Red Raiders, I don't have any problem with general loyalty to the local school. But I don't want people to keep getting hurt. It's time to get some other sports things happening, and support them.