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William C. Altreuter
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Friday, September 08, 2017

Bill James is tired of the NFL. Big deal. Who isn't? Fact is, James's interest has probably been sustained for this long because he fancies himself a degenerate gambler, and the NFL is great to gamble on. Since football gambling is only legal in one state you might not think that this would be at the heart of the sport's appeal, but stop and think about it: the only other sport that newspapers run odds for is horse racing. Why do you suppose that is? We know it's because a $2 bet makes a horse race interesting-- without skin in the game it's just animals running.

Horse racing and boxing were the most popular sports in America at the beginning of the 20th century, and now boxing has been reduced to a freak show, and the ponys have become a two minute diversion on the second Saturday in May. There are a number of reasons for this-- but I'd say that boxing reached its point of no return when the world watched Mohammad Ali shuffle through the torch lighting ceremony in 1996. There was no denying it after that: Ali: beautiful, righteous, a hero, had been destroyed by the thing that had brought him to greatness, a sport which has as its point the purposeful infliction of neurological damage upon the adversary. A crippled  Earl Campbell is one thing-- an ugly, horrible thing, to be sure, but "injuries are part of football" we have been told. Brain damage though, that's something that is harder to shrug off, and who today can deny that this is part of  the point of football?

Somewhere David Halberstam, or maybe  Fredrick Exley, or one of those guys, wrote about the pleasures of watching the NFL back in the Frank Gifford days, perched in PJ Clark's. "Nobody had to tell us about it," whoever it was said. "We could see how good it was." Well, yeah. There is no getting around the beautiful athleticism of pro football-- its speed, its power. NFL athletes are amazing, but they are ruining themselves on every play. The day is not far off when football's numbers start to slide, and I will miss it, a little.

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