My father was a small time gambler. In Dublin, it was the horses. When he moved to London, it was the football pools and the greyhounds. I recall as a kid the two greyhounds living for months in the bedroom next to where my two brothers and I slept. I can still smell the urine-soaked straw the dogs slept on. My older brother and I were charged with getting up before the neighbors and taking these dogs for a walk. Actually, it was more like a sprint.
My father moved to the U.S. a year before the family to prepare the way for his wife and sons. In one of the first letters he wrote to my mother from the new world, he said that the boys should consider a career in sports in America because athletes earned big salaries. My father was writing from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and was probably talking about the Pittsburgh Pirates. We were dirt poor and he was always looking for ways to make a pound or a buck.
He did love sports, however. I recall when I was nine receiving boxing gloves for Christmas. My brother and I had to put on a show for our parents in front of a modest fire. I recall my first boxing match with the Boy Scouts in north London against a bigger opponent. I won on a disqualification, a low blow. My father was not happy. He seemed to be looking for a clear-cut victory; a show of promise.
I remember when my father was dying from throat cancer and watching with him on black-and-white television boxing matches that were part of the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports. I recall that one of the boxers was Sugar Ray Robinson. I was about thirteen, and this was the first television I had seen, except in store windows.
I don’t know whether my father would consider my professional stints at Bicycling Magazine, Runner’s World, Cross-Country Skier and Backpacker as a fulfillment of his immigrant dream. I do hang on to his love of the Arsenal Football Club that he introduced me to as a kid. But once in America, I was drawn to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates and thoroughly captivated by the muscularity and athleticism of the players.
I’m a Vietnam veteran and became vehemently anti-war after a four-year stint in the service. I thought Muhammed Ali’s refusal to be drafted into a war against a country that was no threat to the U.S. was a profile in courage. From that day on, I became a fan. Once he was allowed to box again for the title, I traveled frequently to his camp in the Poconos Mountains in Pennsylvania to see him train. After watching his fight against Joe Frazier in Manila on a wide outdoor screen I wrote the poem, “With Ali in Ag Hall”: “Your wand of a right chilled the stutter step of the butcher stroke which painted your inside. And we were glad.”
I stopped watching fights years ago, about the time Ali’s health began to decline. With a few exceptions, the heavyweight division had become a collection of big guys who beat each other senseless. Perhaps psychologically I was getting past the attraction of blood sports and moving towards an understanding that there was also “wounding” on the part of the participants. All the old warrior chatter now fell flat.
I was drawn to the Pittsburgh Steelers because they reflected a gritty, hard-working city built by the hands of immigrants. During college, I worked as a crane operator in a local steel mill and the Steelers were part of the fabric of the place. And it wasn’t hard to draw a straight line between this football team and Penn State University that supplied some of the best Steelers’ talent. The teams have had a strong, elemental pull on me. The Penn State Alumni Association reports that eighteen Steelers in the Pro football Hall of fame are PSU alumni. These include Jack Ham and Franco Harris.
One Pittsburgh Steeler player I remember fondly is Mike Webster, who played with quarterback Terry Bradshaw when the Steelers won four Super Bowls in the 1970s. Webster was the immovable center of the Steeler line.
Actually, Mike Webster’s name has stayed with me more for what happened after his glory days, during his slow decline from CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), when he experienced amnesia, dementia and depression. Webster died at age 50.
With release of the movie “Concussion,” Mike Webster is back in the news. The foundation story behind the film is based on Dr. Bennet Omalu’s curiosity about what the brain of an ex-football player told us about his behavior. In September 2009, GQ magazine featured the doctor’s finding and the stonewalling about CTE from the National Football League. The New York Times reported in 2015 that Sony, the film’s distributor, had been pressured by the NFL to soften the movie’s tone.
Given football’s popularity and the amount of revenue generated by this sport, I harbor no fantasy that its popularity will drop off. “Concussion” might speed the technical and medical advances to better predict and treat CTE. But I will try very hard not to watch the game.
Boxing and football are the bloody ends of the sport spectrum. I haven’t found it especially difficult to give them up. And I’ve given up lesser sports that seem to be corrupted one way or the other. For a decade I served as editor of “Bicycling” and my devotion to the sport was intense. I attended a lot of races and had heard all the rumors about Russian and then Eastern European cyclists taking drugs and masking agents. I learned after the fact that some of the American cyclists who won nine medals at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 were blood doping. It wasn’t illegal then, but it was dishonest, unethical and unseemly. “Rolling Stone” magazine broke this news, not the cycling press.
After leaving “Bicycling” I followed the successes of Lance Armstrong, purported seven-time winner of the Tour De France. Though I had no inside information, I never believed Armstrong could have won these victories without the U.S. and international cycling federations and the sponsors looking the other way. The rest is history.
While I love to ride my bike, I won’t watch professional bike racing any more. Professional bike racing has been battling illegal performance enhancing substances for the last century and still hasn’t gotten it right. I just don’t trust the organizations that are supposed to keep the sport clean.
So the options get fewer. In high school I ran the half mile. I have been competing in marathons and other races for the last thirty years. I love to watch track and field on television. However, with recent reports by the World Anti-Doping Organization that Russia, winner of twenty four medals during the 2012 Summer Olympics, actual stole victories through its state-sponsored doping, my appetite for track and field on television has also faded.
During the last couple of years I have watched English Premier League in part because this is the sport of my youth. I’m not sure how long this passion will last. Football’s international governing body, FIFA, has proven to be a bunch of unscrupulous, greedy hacks who have sullied the sport. I have waited in vain for football’s major sponsors to step in and demand change, but I have heard little more than a whimper. It’s about the money, of course. European football is played seriously in about 180 countries. That’s a lot of money, branding and influence. There is no denying that the sport is a great leveler.
It turns out that my father was right about sports in America, even though his sons lost out on tapping that particular money vein. I have simply come full circle in my appetite for spectator sports. I suspect this will become a generational thing, and mothers will have a lot more to say about sports that their sons and daughters participate in. I am fairly certain my grandsons won’t be playing American football.
I do realize that different sport archetypes serve different cultures and countries. I have talked to friends in Europe about the culture of American football. They are absolutely fascinated with the high tech uniforms the players wear: their masks; their mannerisms and their muscularity. One friend could imagine American football as a gigantic video game with players engaging in violent, unrestrained eruptions between quiet times on the bench. American football is made for commercials that appear between staggering moment of artistry and violence. The sport already has a hold in the UK.
Perhaps it’s my age. Perhaps it’s the technological accoutrements that have become part of so many sports. Recently, I heard that a Liverpool football player runs about 12 km during the average game. Players have one fifteen minute rest period. Teams are allowed three substitutions. Everyone is obliged to perform inside a tight physical, chronological and psychological frame.
Perhaps I’m returning to the simplicity of the game, the dance, and the human form at the height of its wizardry.
Run, gentlemen, run, outside of my sight and inside my vision.