What Though the Odds: Embracing the Uncertain Future of Football

Fifteen minutes ago, I found out Ara Parseghian died. The former Notre Dame head football coach was 94, long since retired from both coaching and his second career in broadcasting. He’s described as a class act from almost all corners. He went 2-0 against Bear Bryant.

My dad went to every Notre Dame game, home and away, during his senior year in 1966. Ara and the Irish won the national championship. My late uncle Michael attended Notre Dame during Ara’s 1973 national championship season. The name “Ara” was uttered with something between familial and sacred reverence within my Irish Catholic clan, now three generations deep with Notre Dame alumni.

I didn’t attend the university myself, but if anything, that pushed me deeper into fanhood. Coming out of a small liberal arts college distinctly lacking in spirit and pride, I immersed myself in Notre Dame football with a fervor that surpassed anything else in my life. The Fighting Irish were both family and religion. They were my community as lonely a young man. I knew the players’ names and hometowns and jersey numbers. A loss would send me into a funk that could take days to dispel. Losses to Southern Cal (I hear they don’t like being called that) and Meatchicken (it’s too painful to spell out M*chigan) still haunt me.

For those who know college football, you know that recent Notre Dame history has not been particularly lustrous. Three-and-a-half failed coaches left fans longing for a return to glory, a phrase made popular and then ironic during Tyrone Willingham’s ill-fated tenure in the captain’s chair. Current head coach Brian Kelly enters this season on the hot seat after the Irish went 4-8 last year. Worst of all, a losing season no longer feels shocking. The glory days of Notre Dame football seem so long ago it’s hard to recall exactly what it is we ever hoped to return to.

I think, though, that Ara is the coach who best represents Notre Dame’s glory days. Yes, Knute Rockne holds an immortal place in Fighting Irish and college football lore. Frank Leahy put together a run that would rival present-day Alabama in terms of success. Lou Holtz was the last Irish coach to win a national championship in 1988. But it’s Ara who best embodies on-field excellence paired with personal character. Notre Dame fans are often criticized for thinking they’re better than everyone else. While the fans are likely no better than those of any other team, Ara, at least, represented the best among us. Notre Dame fans want to win national championships and “do it the right way.” I think that standard is carried over from Ara’s tenure. Half a century later, and we’re still looking back to him to guide us.

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Football has reached a crossroads where fans are in dire need of guidance. A recent study has brought to light the potential risk of permanent brain injury due to repeatedly smashing one’s head against the helmet of an opponent. I don’t mean to make light of the problem, but there has been a limited response from fans, and I wonder if that’s partly because the name of the condition in question, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, creates a clinical detachment where the colloquial “bashing in brains” should have long ago sounded an alarm. While the study in question has received legitimate criticism from some corners, the problem isn’t going away. Even a flawed study can draw attention to a topic that needs addressing.

I can’t speak for Ara, but I know that doing it the right way, in light of this study and others on the long-term damage caused by repeated blows to the head, requires addressing the subject.

Every time a sports reporter interviews a football coach and fails to ask about CTE, that reporter has done a disservice to players. The same players whose daily efforts provide the sports reporter with the subject from which they earn their livelihood. Every time a coach, league official, athletic director, general manager, or other representative of the sport gives an interview or press conference and doesn’t bring up CTE, they betray the players they supposedly represent.

Ignoring this subject is betrayal. It is deliberate, knowing, outright betrayal. When a university like Notre Dame fails to honestly address CTE, then it’s clear that doing the right thing is less important to the institution than paying for upgrades to the stadium. The cost of a jumbotron should never be measured in students’ lives.

If we want to call ourselves fans of the sport, then we must honestly ask ourselves where our loyalties lie. Am I loyal to the interlocking ND logo? Or am I loyal to the kids who take the field. If my answer is not the latter, then I’m kind of an asshole. If you’re a fan of the sport and your first loyalty isn’t to the players, then you are a bad person. Period.

Author Steve Almond has addressed the problems of the sport in his book Against Football and in other writings. He’s abandoned his fandom, and I’m not sure I can argue against his conclusions. CTE isn’t the only problem inherent to the sport. But I also doubt that my leaving the sport behind will make a difference. I need to do something, however, and there’s one area in which sports fans excel: making noise.

I’ve spent four hours at a time screaming in Notre Dame Stadium. I’ve shouted profanities at televisions. I’ve bellowed the Victory March in my dad’s front yard at midnight after finally ending a decade-long losing streak to Southern Cal.

So this is what I’ll do as a fan. I’ll lead a cheer. Both for the sport and against its problems. The institutions and coaches and administrators behind football, at all levels of play, must be held accountable. Football must change. And I want it to change now, before another player suffers at the hands of my passion. The sport will one day look different. As hard as that might be to swallow for the purists among us, I would remind them that it’s been almost 50 years since Ara last coached a game, and even he would never have seen a player don a leather helmet. Tradition is not the same thing as the absence of change.

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Ara Parseghian lost three grandchildren to Niemann-Pick Type C Disease. He spent the rest of his life helping to find a cure, with the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation raising more than $45 million. I’ve always looked at this as Ara’s greatest mission, something that transcended all he accomplished on the sidelines. Now, football itself is the disease. I can’t speak for Ara, but I like to think that he would see this problem and lead the fight to rectify it.

My next sports hero will be the first coach who speaks up on CTE. The next legendary sports reporter will be the one asking the hard questions about the welfare of football players. And not just once, but in every interview and press conference. As fans, we should bring up the subject every time we talk about football with friends. Did you see the game? Yes, what are we going to do about CTE? Each moment of our silence is an act of violence against the young athletes we claim to admire.

Being a fan is to love something. To love something is to care for it. Right now, almost all of us fans are failing to care. So make some noise. This is one opponent we should all be able to rally against together.