A Moment Of Truth

by Richard Macintosh

November 17, 2003


"You have to want to hurt somebody in order to be a good football player."
—Bob Ghillotti, Freshman Football Coach, Stanford University, autumn, 1952. (1)

Disclaimer: I have a love-hate relationship with the game of football. I played it in high school and at Stanford University, before becoming a teacher and a coach. I went on to coach football at various levels and in various capacities for over thirty-five years. While the game left me with a few broken bones and minor injuries, it also paid for my college education and gave me a springboard into a career. It also sifted my acquaintances and provided me with some life-long friends and a few enemies. Some of the best people I know played and coached the game. Sadly, some of the worst ones I know played and coached it, too. I used to think all of this was for the best. Now, in my later years, I'm not so sure.

Furthermore, there is no intent on my part to praise or rebuke Coach Ghillotti. We players knew what he meant, even if his words put us on edge. We were, after all, young men right out of high school; many of us thought we were playing football to have a good time. Well, that wasn't the case and it was Ghillotti's job to put us straight. When he told us that "we were not out there to have a good time," he was reaffirming that college football was (is) a business. If you win, you keep your job. If you lose, you're out. It was (is) as simple as that. Now if that isn't a life-long lesson on capitalism, I don't know what is.

This short essay, then, is to merely reaffirm what is, in a culture of violence and pretense. Football is a war game, period. Whether people want to admit that, or not, is beside the point. No, it isn't the kind of war game played these days on computers, where one player ("combatant" if you will) pushes a button in a remote location, sending a missile to blow up a target. Football is different. It is the last cultural remnant of traditional warfare, where soldiers have to fight "up close and personal." (2) It is a war game where the object is not to kill, per se, but the emotion to do so resides below a thin veneer of respectability. For example, maiming an opponent is "OK" as long as it is done within the "rules." "Cheap shots" are another matter, being "no-no's" for the sanctimonious to cluck over. I used to think the hypocrisy of the sanctimonious separated football from real war. No longer. In both venues, the hypocrites and sanctimonious hold forth. The difference is that in real war there are no longer any "no-no's" and cheap shots are the norm.

Big time football (as war) has little time for sentiment, except after the fact. Former football players, like veterans of wars, can get sentimental, because they are no longer at risk. However, sentiment in the midst of action can get a player badly hurt. Coaches seek to quickly damp sentiment, because it takes away from the players' concentration and saps their will. A coach does not want his team thinking about the fallen and will often resort to a "macho" comment intended to silence those who seem too "soft." (3) If sentiment is projected into a real war, instead of a war game, lack of concentration can get a soldier, killed. This is not a new problem. Consider the warning of Aiás in the Iliad:

     "Friends," he cried, "respect yourselves as men,
     respect each other in the moil of battle!
     Men with a sense of shame survive
     More often than they perish. Those who run
     Have neither fighting power, nor any honor." (4)

Enter a modern version of an ancient warrior: Kellen Winslow, Jr., tight end for the Miami Hurricanes and football player extraordinaire. The All-American opened his mouth at the wrong time and was "sandbagged" by John Saunders -- an ABC Sports announcer -- who ought to know better. One could argue that Winslow should have known better than to be honest with a reporter, (5) but back to the issue at hand:

On November 8, 2003, ABC Sports aired a brief interview with Miami tight end, Kellen Winslow, Jr. The interview was held in the locker room following a stunning loss to Tennessee. The TV clip was introduced by John Saunders who said, "You're not going to believe what you are about to see and hear!" What followed was an up-close, in your face video of a very angry and bitter college football player. Winslow vowed vengeance on the Tennessee team and one player he accused of trying to hurt him. At one point he said "I'm going to kill him!" Some of the words were censored at this point, but the full meaning was not. Following the brief clip, Saunders and his co-anchors shook their heads and held forth on what a bad example Winslow was. Then there was a brief mention of Winslow's father, a Hall of Famer who co-anchors a rival sports show on FOX Sports Network. It was so sad, crocodile tears and all.

After listening to the ABC report, one might conclude that Kellen Winslow's outburst was an atypical remark from a frustrated athlete.

No. Not even...

It was an unwise outburst of typical feelings. The player's emotion was no way atypical and it was not out of character. As mentioned before, football is a war game. Winslow's sin was that he said what he was thinking. He didn't hold his thoughts in and keep his mouth shut in order to facilitate the silent-assertion lie. I'm sure that Winslow will be forced to apologize and that his coach will go through the motions to censure him, but off record, both player and coach know what is going on.

At point: there isn't a coach in America who doesn't know his players carry such emotions. Many coaches foster them. They would deny doing so, of course. It's a neat little lie perpetrated on the public, but in reality, it is a two-way lie. The coach piously lies to the public about morality and "sportsmanship" and they return the lie, nodding, bowing and scraping, knowing all along that the players -- the good ones at least -- think as Winslow does. As for the coaches, I would say that any coach of a successful football team who claims he hasn't raised or at least pandered to the hatred-violence level in his players is a liar. The populace understands this, so you can forget about a major outcry over violence in sport. Why? Because people love violence almost as much as sex and a little hypocrisy (in both) goes a long way. Think this assessment is wrong? Turn on your TV. You can either watch football, sexy "reality shows," or the war du jour. I mean, what more could you want?

In fact, with our government carefully sanitizing wartime events, TV violence -- including violent sports and faux sports -- seems almost tame. We are shocked when a football star "loses it" and threatens mayhem (or worse) against a competitor. YES, SHOCKED! (6) But we are rather "ho-hum" about massacring thousands of people, elsewhere, many of who are innocent. And if the connection between sport and war seems contrived, remember the military color guards at the games and the overflights by military aircraft, including the "Blue Angels," the "Thunderbirds" and an occasional B-2 "Stealth Bomber." It's all part of the same thing -- propaganda for all -- the "whole enchilada."

And from the packed stadium the roar: "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!"

Followed by...


Yes, we are number-one, but not necessarily in a good way. We do have the number-one killing machine and most Americans take pride in it, but the thing to remember is that people love violence as long as it is happening to someone else. That's also why so many people like violent sports. Football fits the bill almost perfectly. It is violent, dangerous and that violence (which includes an occasional death) happens to others -- gladiators, contained in bright, colorful armor.

It is all so romantic, isn't it? I mean we even have sparkling music, face-painted fans and a bevy of cute dancing girls.

Yet, sometimes our gladiators don't follow the script. Sometimes our Akhilleus longs too publicly to kill his Hector and we are brought face-to-face with ourselves. Are we turned on by the prospect of violence, as was the immortal Helen of Troy? (7) Maybe. The magnificent, angry face of Kellen Winslow Jr. comes back to mind. . .

Then toward the town with might and main he ran,
magnificent, like a racing chariot horse
that holds its form at full stretch on the plain.
So light-footed Akhilleus held the pace.
and aging Priam was the first to see him
sparkling on the plain, bright as that star
in autumn rising, whose unclouded rays
shine out amid a throng of stars at dusk—
the one they call Oríon's dog, most brilliant,
yes, but baleful as a sign. . .
—Homer, Iliad. (8)

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References and Resources

1.  As Kurt Vonnegut is wont to say when someone questions his version of what happened at Dresden in 1945: "I was there!" I was a member of the Stanford Freshman Football team in 1952. I will never forget the words of Coach Ghillotti.  (back)

2.  There are still soldiers who must fight in a traditional, up-close, "in your face," manner. Fighting a guerrilla war is an example. American armed forces are now fighting one in Iraq.  (back)

3.  When I was in junior high school, I (along with a bunch of my friends) went over to UCLA to watch spring football practice. At that time, the coach of the Bruins was the legendary "Red" Sanders, assisted by Tommy Prothro, who later became a legend at Oregon State. On an "inside" running play, a player suffered a compound fracture of his lower right leg, with the shattered bone sticking out through the skin. The player was moaning in agony. We kids were bug-eyed and scared senseless (but we stayed). Sanders, who was directing practice from a high wooden platform, shouted over his bullhorn: "Move the ball or the body, Mr. Prothro. We don't have all day."  (back)

4.  Homer, Illiad, Fitzgerald Translation, Anchor/Doubleday, New York, 1975, p. 367.  (back)

5.  "The one thing you have to know about reporters is that they're not your friends." Words of NBA star, Charles Barkley, when questioned about an alleged affair with Madonna.  (back)

6.  I suspect that this "shock" is feigned, especially when put forth by sports announcers and former coaches who have been party to this sort of thing for many years.  (back)

7.  Op. Cit., p. 72. To wit:

"It seems Aléxandros [Paris] and the great soldier,
Menelaos, will meet in single combat
with battle spears, for you! The man who wins
shall win you as his consort.

                      And the goddess [Iris]
even as she spoke, infused in Helen's heart
a smoky sweetness and desire
for him who first had taken her as bride. . ."  (back)

8.  Ibid., p. 516  (back)

America the 'beautiful' on Swans


Richard Macintosh on Swans (with bio).

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Published November 17, 2003
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