I’ve been reading Mark Edmundson’s short memoir Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game, which was published this fall.
Mark Edmundson teaches in the English Department at the University of Virginia. He’s published numerous works of cultural criticism, including Why Read?; Literature Against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida; and Teacher. I’m not familiar with those writings, but I am familiar with Edmundson’s book Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education.
Why Teach? was published in 2013, and Edmundson was interviewed on the PBS NewsHour on September 4, 2013. You can watch that interview here, which has a running time of seven minutes, thirty seconds.
Mark Edmundson asserts that “a real education” is “humanities-based,” and since I’m a graduate of a liberal arts university, of course I agree with him. I’m someone who adamantly needs to find my own truths in all things, so swallowing perceived wisdom and rote memorization is simply never going to work for me. It’s why I drifted away from my biology courses in college, and found myself in the religious studies and philosophy departments. Being able to argue in class, for me, was a very good thing.
Like Edmundson, I also believe all people are better off finding their own truths than regurgitating someone else’s ideas without question. Though I do understand not everyone agrees with this opinion. For some, toeing the line as a mindless salary person, or running a corporation making millions upon millions of dollars to buy a house to beat the Joneses and die with a large inheritance is the height of success, the best life has to offer, but I would rather live a life of creation and service and (gasp!) humility, and leave the life of cutthroat wealth amassment to someone else.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy having money, or think money is evil, I just don’t think accumulating money is my mission in life. I keep writing books, and I sure would like to sell them, but even if my books don’t sell, I will keep writing them. Creation is the driving force, and making a profit is an ancillary concern.
Since I agree with Mark Edmundson a great deal, I like him a lot, so when I learned he’d written a new book about football, I put in a purchase request for the Durango Public Library. The library acquired the book, and I read it this week.
The President of Wesleyan College, Michael Roth, wrote a summary review of the book for The Huffington Post, published September 4, 2014, which you can read here. It’s a nice enough summary and covers the major points. It’s also completely banal.
The book has something very edgy and dark to say about football and race, so startling and true I felt a bit sick with the horror of it. Nothing of race was mentioned in Michael Roth’s trite book review. Sadly, this doesn’t surprise me. If people knew Mark Edmundson was discussing race in his football memoir, and not simply giving everyone a feel-good golly-darn-gee-isn’t-football-just-super-for-helping-turn-unruly-teenage-boys-into-men — well, I think we all know a lot of consumers are happier with books that don’t leave them with horrified truths in the pits of their stomachs.
James Trefil, a professor of physics at George Mason University, wrote a more thorough review of Why Football Matters for The Washington Post. Trefil does mention that Mark Edmundson brings up race in his book, and that he does so by making an analogy with a scene in Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man. But Trefil simply mentions these things. He doesn’t point out that Edmundson is showing a dark, disturbing, and sick side of football at the NFL level, where almost 70% of the players are African American, though African Americans are only about 13% of the United States population.
You can read Trefil’s review here.
I agree with Trefil and Roth in saying that Why Football Matters is a good book. It’s short, easy to read, reflective, and memorable.
But what gives it a measure of greatness is what it has to say about race.
As Edmundson summarizes the opening scene, called the Battle Royal, in Invisible Man, he describes the scene as one “no one who encounters it forgets” (p. 171). Simply reading a summary of this novel’s brutal opening was enough to horrify me.
In the Battle Royal, rich “white grandees of a certain Southern county gather regularly for a ritual.” At first, “there’s drinking and cigar smoking” and “a beautiful tall woman, naked, there to be ogled by all. But then comes the main event. Ten young boys, all black, stripped down to their shorts, wearing boxing gloves, get shoved into a ring. They have blindfolds on.” When “the signal sounds” they “go to work in the Battle Royal, trying to beat the life out of each other.”
Edmundson summarizes the brutality of the fight scene, which “goes on an unbearably long time,” noting that the narrator of the scene, one of the young black boys, is waiting “to deliver” an “edifying speech on the Negro and his future in America” (p. 172).
Then the finale arrives.
“Finally the pummeling is over and it’s time for the boys to get their reward. The white men roll out a mat covered with treasure. There are dollar coins, high-denomination bills, gold pieces. There are gold pieces!” (p. 172)
The bloodied and broken boys leap onto the mat to grab up their treasure, but as they do, they suddenly reel back. “The mat is wet; there’s an electric charge crackling through. But the boys want the money anyway. They dive and they take the shocks. They squirm and shake with pain, but they gather what they can from the buzzing floor. The white men on the periphery roar with pleasure. This is almost as amusing as the Battle Royal. It’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful, what kinds of entertainment these boys provide” (p. 173).
Since I can’t even type that without crying, I’ll pause to dry my tears and share that Invisible Man was published by Random House in 1952. It won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1953. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Invisible Man nineteenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
Face dry now, I’ll return to Why Football Matters, and the comparison of the Battle Royal with the modern-day NFL.
Like the rest of his book, Edmundson’s use of this analogy is nuanced and graceful.
As he writes, “you can’t say the guys out on the football field are being exploited, can you? Pro football players are rich. They live like royalty. They buy blazing cars, palace dwellings; they throw parties the way Darius of Persia did. No one glues their dollars to the carpet; no one puts counterfeit currency in their hands. They live like kings.” (p. 173)
“Or they do if they last. A five-year career in the pros is a triumph. A running back averages two and a half. Every week in college ball and the pros there are career-ending injuries. A kid works his whole life with the dream of playing big-time football.” (p. 174)
“What does NFL stand for? Ask the players; they know: Not For Long.” (p. 174)
“Some players emerge with princely wealth, sure. But will princely wealth give you back the knees you had as a boy, before other men stoked on steroids decided to knock them out from under you time after time? Will it return the grip to a hand that’s been stepped on repeatedly? Most of all, what can wealth do to repair a brain that has been concussed a half-dozen times?” (p. 174)
Mark Edmundson does not ever mention the horrifying Frontline documentary League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis — but anyone who has seen that documentary can certainly answer the question: Can money repair concussive brain damage? No. Without a doubt, no. What League of Denial proved, with a massive amount of medical research, is that it is not the “big hits” that cause the horrible, debilitating brain damage many NFL players (both former and current) suffer from — it is the repeated “sub-concussive” hits that are doing the most damage to the brain. Repeated sub-concussive hits are far more dangerous than five or six “big hits” in a player’s career. And this goes doubly for young players, whose brains are still developing. Even high school players (when they die young and their brains are studied) can have an incredible amount of brain damage by the time they’re eighteen.
Why Football Matters made me reflect on brain damage, and racism, and the NFL. And crying over the Battle Royal in Invisible Man made me think about how I write about race in my own books. Namely, that I don’t write about race very much.
Of my two point of view characters in The Etiquette of Wolves, one (Kim Korra) is Korean-American, but the other (Jimmy Fairchild) is a straight-up white girl, with blonde hair and blue eyes to boot.
And in Love and Student Loans and Other Big Problems, my point of view character (Mary Jane) has a black best friend (Hanna), but Hanna is dead before the story begins. Mary Jane is coping with the loss of her friend, but Hanna doesn’t play an active role in the story. She lives in memories, and the memories are those of a white girl.
As far as the men go, in both of those novels — either the reader can assume they are white, or their race isn’t mentioned at all.
This suddenly seemed like a huge failing. Like such a missed opportunity. I could have made it clear those men had more diverse backgrounds than “straight-up white guys,” but I didn’t. I was more concerned with staying focused on the plot than taking “extra words” to describe secondary characters.
The fact that the people with diverse backgrounds were all secondary characters is actually the main point.
Two months ago, while editing my work in progress, Mark of the Pterren, I went through the manuscript to make it clear certain characters are black. But while I read Why Football Matters this week, I realized none of my point of view characters are black. Two of the most pivotal characters, a king and a warrior child, are Hispanic/brown-skinned, and I have struggled from the beginning to convey this in a way that doesn’t sound overtly racist.
But none of my main characters are black. My next book (after Mark of the Pterren, which will be a vampire story) will star a girl who is Middle Eastern and Muslim, and my book after that (a YA fantasy story) stars a black main character, but the fact that I currently have no black main characters hit me with a crushing sense of despair. I read Why Football Matters while walking the river trail, and I stopped walking several times, I felt such an awful sense of lack.
As a writer, my characters are found, not invented. They pop into my head the way Greek deities show up in myths, as fully-formed people ready to have sex with virgins and start petty wars and cause mayhem.
But I realized, as I thought about race in my books, that I can work harder at finding ways to diversify my characters. To look for avenues to portray them as more than saying “dark-skinned” and “black-haired,” and to find ways for more characters to be black in the story.
Why does this matter? I can hear people saying this is a useless endeavor. A black man is President of the United States right now, so African American boys have a new “measure of success” to emulate that doesn’t involve being a rapper thug with gold chains and hos, or being a handgun-toting gang member, or being an NFL football star — right?
I wish the world was that easy.
But it’s not.
Race is such a pervasive, creeping darkness in life. Easy to deny because it’s so hard to confront. And when you live in white communities, as I have my whole life, it’s even easier to shrug and say, “that’s someone else’s probem.” Someone who is black.
And that is the whole damn dealio.
I want more for myself. I want more from my writing. I have to demand it of myself, I have to be fierce and vigilant, or I am just shrugging and sliding along, saying, “Let someone else worry about black boys and their role models. There’s nothing I can do to change that. I’m white, I’m the majority in this country [for now], and these African American boys growing up in poverty and hopelessness can get bent. I don’t live in the inner city. I don’t have anything to do with ‘those people.’ If they want stories about black people, let them write them.”
I can hear those words. I can hear the excuses. All the reasons I should “just write white people” because we’re supposed to “write what we know” and what do I know, as a white girl, about “being black.”
Truthfully, I don’t know what it means to “be black.” But I know what it means to be human. I know what it means to love and hurt and sacrifice and fail and fail again and sometimes achieve awesome things.
Skin is a wrapping around a human heart. And all of us have hearts. That’s how I step into any character, by knowing their heart, and then hearing their thoughts. What we believe about skin comes from thinking. Thankfully, the meaning of humanity runs a lot deeper than thought. We all know people are more than their wrappings. Like icebergs and oceans and the earth’s crust — the exposed surface is just the tiniest, tiniest fraction of the whole. That is my truth as a writer, and that’s why I want more from myself, from my stories, from my life. We have to be the change we want to see in the world. It all starts with us.