Lib Campbell: It is football. And there are problems.

My love for football started in high school. In the 1960s, coaches Stuart Tripp and Tommy Lewis led the Ayden High School Single-A football teams to many winning seasons and state championships. Following our teams, many in our small town took buses full of athletes, fans, and supporters to faraway places. It felt like living the movie “Hoosiers”.

As a cheerleader, I started to learn the game. A cheerleader needs to know the difference between a “Hey, hey, let’s go!” cheer for offense and a “Push ’em back” for defense. We learn firsthand “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”.

In the fall of 1964, my freshman year at East Carolina, from a row atop the stadium, I watched the subtlety of the single-wing attack that Clarence Stasavich had introduced. It was an exciting time to see the football program grow and expand. Carl Davis, in his book, “My View from 20 Rows Up”, reminds me that “in 1963, 64 and 65 Coach Stas took the Pirates to three bowl games and won all three”.

I married a play-by-play announcer who called local football games and got to watch a lot of football. WGTM, in Wilson, broadcast Fike High School games in the Carlester Crumpler years. He was tall and thin and could run like the wind. Fike has won three consecutive state championships. Busloads of fans followed them wherever they played. We never get tired of cheering.

In 1966, the first NFL-AFL championship game was played between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs. We saw it on TV right after we got back from our honeymoon. The following January, this matchup was renamed the Super Bowl. For years, there have been Super Bowl parties with cheese balls and chili. Many games weren’t that great, but the ads almost always were.

When our son was in eighth grade, he played on the high school football team. He was a big boy and played center. Around the third game, he came down from the room carrying the shoulder pads and said, with quivering lips and almost crying, “Mom, I’m not bad enough to play football.” Coach encouraged him to snarl at the person across his line of scrimmage. Richard is not a growler; he didn’t last long on the team.

When the family started playing fantasy football, I loved football even more. In the early years, we would put posting sheets around the room to track player selection. We bought ESPN’s pre-season magazine with promising players, we studied and I got really lucky on my “Rev-It-Up” team. Wes Welker and Joe Flacco did well for me. It was the first and only time I met most of the NFL players. Our granddaughter called her team “All Crims”. She selected only those who were under indictment, had been convicted, or were simply bad news. Michael Vick was on his team.

If baseball is America’s pastime, football is America’s obsession. That’s a lot of money for colleges and NFL franchises. Only television revenue fills pockets and brings fame to teams, schools and players. Our contemporary gladiators provide great entertainment. Yes, there are risks to gambling, but many find the rewards worth it. I’m less and less sure of that.

In the early 2000’s, we were learning more about concussions and the long-term brain damage players suffered. In 2013, the targeting protocols and rules addressed a growing problem as players got bulkier and the game more brutal.

We were watching the Bills-Bengals game when Damar Hamlin passed out on the field. It was a terrifying reminder of how quickly life can change. Hamlin’s cardiac arrest nearly ended his life and will certainly affect his career. Fortunately, the trainers knew about CPR. Fortunately, a defibrillator was available. Fortunately, the game was cancelled. We realized that we care more about the youth than the game.

We learn perspective in the face of great pain and suffering. Young people playing in the NFL find great opportunities that they probably wouldn’t have anywhere else. A few years, a few wins can give you a good life, at least until the bruises, broken bones and targeted headers start to take their toll. It seems reckless to find sport when injury is so prevalent.

In Andy Griffith’s 1953 record, “What it was, it was football,” Andy said, “as quick as one of them got hurt, they’d pull it out and throw another one!”

The Georgia-TCU championship brought another consideration. Georgia, No. 1 in the country, against TCU, No. 3. It should have been competitive, but Georgia thrashed TCU 65-7. The New York Times calls Georgia the “Blue Chip University,” a “school of finishing Football” sending 15 players to the NFL in April 2022.

Where money reigns, mercy eludes. Sports priorities, especially football, come with the responsibility of safety, fair play, mercy and appreciation for those who risk it from Friday night lights to the Super Bowl. If we want to keep football in the game, we have some problems to solve.

Lib Campbell is a retired Methodist pastor, retreat leader and host of avirtualchurch.com. She accepts comments at libcam05@gmail.com.

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