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Ghosts of Football Future

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(Photo Credit: John Antoni/Flickr)
Next, we take a closer look at the game the way it is played today. Sports writer Chuck Klosterman tells us about a sort of con at the center of the game that, he thinks, has made it the most popular sport in the US. And he points us to  a deep conflict at the heart of football, even for the people who love it dearly. 
 
For a closer look at that conflict, our producer Soren Wheeler pays a visit to Monet Bartell. Some families pass down quilts, or recipes, or a family business, but Monet's family tradition was football. Her dad played, her uncle played, her brothers played … Football gave her dad, her family, a life. So when her son Parker was born, she was ready to be a proud mom in the stands. But she has to balance that against her experience seeing the aftermath of football up close and personal.
All of which makes producer Molly Webster curious — as families wrestle to understand how the game fits into their lives, what's it like on-the-ground, in football programs across the country? What she finds goes beyond the pigskin, making us consider what sports, across generations, really reveal about us.

 

Comments [23]

Will from California

Parker's mom sounds irresponsible for simultaneously not sanctioning an obvious source of potential harm and supporting football as a potential career choice for her child. She's principally contradicting herself to the potential detriment of her son. Not cool.

Dec. 24 2016 02:46 PM
SLUDGE from a playing field

A November 2015 article in The Boston Globe cites data related to participation rates for 6-12 year olds. Decreased participation in football and an increase in team sports like ultimate frisbee. See http://sludgeonline.blogspot.com/2015/12/increased-youth-participation-ultimate.html

Jan. 03 2016 07:55 PM
Victor Bradley from Tennessee

Listening to Monet, I wish we could do something about the idea that Black males come out of the womb with an NFL or NBA draft number. The fact of the matter is, the NFL and NBA are profoundly exploitative, and for the millions of Black boys who never make it to those fields, they've been induced to base their identities on how well their bodies can function as instruments of entertainment. I've watched adults sizing up children who couldn't even walk in order to figure out what posiitions they could best fill. As a Black male, I'd like to think that from birth I was entitled to higher aspirations than running back.

Oct. 24 2015 12:14 PM
Mary MacDonald from Kemptville, ON, Canada

Wow! Listening to Parker's wisdom, I thought of the line in Isaiah 11:6, "...and a little child shall lead them". Given his large physical size, he could be at risk of doing some damage to himself or others; but his strength of mind and spirit weighs in too! A good and powerful combination.

I hope his mom will be able to make an identity shift, finding the family story not just in the physical game of football, but more in the hard work, determination, and sacrifice that her relatives must have invested in their successful football careers. Parker, with his wisdom, can apply these family strengths to whatever ventures attract him. He'll be a great asset wherever he goes.

Sep. 10 2015 05:34 PM
Sue from Traverse City, MI

My son recently started playing tackle football in 3rd grade. I never would have dreamed he would play football - we never watch it at home and neither my husband or I watched it as kids. But we have tried soccer, swimming, horseback riding, martial arts, and gymnastics, and at the moment football is giving our son confidence and comraderie that he did not find in other sports. I don't know if he will continue, but I see how they are changing the style of tackling to reduce injuries and am comforted by that and the knowledge of how few make it to college or professional levels.
Many things in life include risk, and it is somewhat up to the individual to weigh the risks. However, some pro sports involve so much money it makes the decision very lopsided. I wonder how many of the highly-paid athletes put aside money for the years after their (early) retirement? How many truly think about what they are giving up for those huge paychecks? Makes me wish for the days when that kind of money wasn't involved.
So far, my son is benefiting from wonderful coaching that emphasizes honor and effort, not the scoreboard. He and his teammates are "brothers" and look out for each other on and off the field. My son is learning to take direction better from another authority figure than a parent or teacher, and is learning the discipline of making a commitment to several practices a week and following through whether you feel like it that day or not. My son is learning to be proud of his effort, not just the results. He is learning to fall down and get back up again, and to feel part of our small-town community. Even though he has a dad at home, so many teachers are female that a lot of our boys need another male role model in their life.
A little more specifically, the start-and-stop nature of football has been easier for my son to understand and stay on top of than soccer. He has ADHD and although I worry about neurological injury, he has to be a normal kid, too.
This show did answer a lot of questions about why people think football players have to be tough, mean, etc. - all the masculine bluster. I think it has progressed from the days depicted in the story and I can only hope that it will continue to progress.

Sep. 08 2015 11:41 AM
kevin linnehan from cape cod, MA

brilliant radio. hope you submit it to all possible award platforms that might help more people hear it.
-k.

Sep. 06 2015 01:56 PM
Rob Beckman from www.treatnow.org

Wonderful work. Almost lost in the piece, however, is the continuing story of what football has done to Monet's family. Our Coalition is part of an effort to help heal concussions, brain injuries. There is a concussion crisis across sports and a suicide epidemic affecting active duty and veteran service members. You can learn more at: www.treatnow.org These videos will reveal a way forward:

Joe Namath http://tinyurl.com/kflu9up
Joe Delamielleure (Buffalo Bills) http://tinyurl.com/m5q8ued
NFL player Steve Bowman http://tinyurl.com/oj2pggg
The Honorable Patt Maney (BG, USA) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FmGqRLSKzWg
MAJ Ben Richards https://www.carevector.net/site/Help/PublicPages/TreatNow/MajRichards.aspx
RMHI with Margaux and SGT Ramirez http://vimeo.com/77100044 
League of Denial http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/league-of-denial/

Sep. 06 2015 01:34 PM
Bonnie from Thornbury, Ontario

Parker! So impressed with this child who is leaps and bounds ahead of his mom in terms of his compassion and empathy for the human race......you'll do well in whatever you decide to do!

Sep. 04 2015 02:08 PM
Daniel Omans from Arizona (formerly of Detroit, MI...Go Lions!)

I LOVED this episode. I am an avid runner, and I listened to this episode 4-5 times. Yesterday, Aug 3, Mel Far passed away at 70 (father of Monet). I was curious if you'll do a follow up to this episode in some way. Love the show, thank you for what you do.

Aug. 04 2015 12:01 PM
Coach Stark from Boulder, CO

Great episode (as usual). As a Youth Football Coach and father of two players, I listened with great intent. There is much to discuss and debate on this topic, but I'd like to weigh in with a single premise: the historical assessment of the next evolution of football could be how we used it to teach young men to be men of character and helped eradicate the lies taught them cloaked in the veil of masculinity. I progress this goal one player, one parent and one coach at a time.
Popular culture defines masculinity with three big lies. They claim you are a man based on
1) Your acquisition of material things
2) Your ability to physically dominate other people
3) Your sexual conquests

My coaching staff and I teach that a real man is focused on the needs of others, loves deeply, richly and freely, embraces truth and justice while eschewing cheating and intimidation, and strives to be excellent at every opportunity.

We teach kids to compete WITH opponents, not against them. We teach them to empathize with the other team, not try to destroy them. We remind them that every person should be treated with dignity and respect, even if you are going to line up across from him and assert your will in opposition to his.

My hope is that we can improve this game from the inside out by focusing on the players, parents and coaches and their development as loving, civil human beings.

(Credit: while my inspiration is innate, I would not be able to articulate it how I just did without this book: Inside Out Coaching by Joe Erhmann.)

Thanks, Radiolab, for another great story!
- Coach Stark

Jul. 22 2015 12:48 PM
Michael Milne from Tyler, TX

Parker is an amazing person, but his mother is not. "Bullying is for winners"? Hey lady, your kid seems to be developing as a person of character despite rather than due to your best efforts. Kids listen to and internalize the things their parents say, to them and others. Think, right now think about this budding impulse of good, strong character, and whether saying things like that will help or hinder its development.

May. 20 2015 01:31 PM
Neal from Boston

Parker sounds like a pretty impressive kid. Monet sounds like a great mom. I get the feeling that whatever he ends up doing, he's going to be very good at it. I only wish I had his confidence at his age.

May. 07 2015 10:51 PM
Valentine from United States

I really enjoyed this story (and really couldn't have less interest in football normally). Thanks for putting together such an interesting story.

Please pass on my best wishes to Parker and his family for health, happiness, love, and laughter in whatever the future holds. That kid sounds like he has a heart of gold, we could all (and I mean adults here) learn a lot by taking on his perspective. Stay true to yourself Parker, and good luck in swimming (or astronomy, or kicking, or medical school, or aid work, or whatever your passion is).

Monet sounded proud of her son and cared deeply about providing her son with opportunities for greatness and success. I hope their relationship stays strong, even if it's through bewildering, unchartered territory for the Bartell elders.

Feb. 26 2015 01:18 AM
Franklin King

Something doesn't sit right with me about the comments made about kids today being able to "reset" games and that being a reason for some decrease in the spirit of competition. Many video games today, some of the most popular in fact, are built entirely around competition where there are winners and losers, where you can't simply "reset" a game when you're not winning, and where striving to be better than another person is fun to the players.

I find that it may be some sort of a generational gap where one generation still sees video games as a solo hobby, like playing Pac-man or Pong, and therefore the idea of people playing video games in a competitive manner even to the point of large tournaments with tens of thousands of viewers and millions of dollars in prizes seems foreign.

I don't know if there would be enough material for a full episode, but I think "competitive gaming" or "esports" (the term varies depending on the specific community you're asking) could be an interesting topic.

Feb. 19 2015 08:11 PM
jay holavarri


It's true that football provided an opportunity for Parker's grandfather to make a better life for himself and his family. My father is about his age but he was a black intellectual in his youth and not an athlete (not that one couldn't be both). I cringe to think about all the opportunities I have that he did not. It would have been better for him (and maybe me) if he could have knocked people over.

But that ticket Parker's grandfather punched wasn't just good for him, it was good for everyone after him. As with families who get to the middle class by slaving away at a trade or a small dry-cleaning business, you don't need to send your kids back into the sweatshop.

It's clear from listening to Parker that they don't need to worry about that kid. He's the proof of their success. And I feel like I've won too -- there's an overwhelming amount of stereotypical Black behavior in the media all the time, and Parker's piping up about being a synchronized swimmer is a bulwark I'm going to carry with me.

Feb. 07 2015 01:16 AM

Even RadioLab is not a safe haven from Super Bowl season. :P

Feb. 05 2015 03:48 PM
JC from Florida

Did Parker's mother say 'bullying is for winners'?

Feb. 04 2015 09:40 PM

I agree with the previous comment by Mary Margaret Richter that today's football is like the gladiators in the coliseum. Rowdy and drunken people watch men bash their heads in while corporations make enormous amounts of money which trickle down to the often corrupt owners. The players who are celebrated as Gods from heaven, are showered with money, perks and fame. They are left shell shocked, rich but very much damaged.

We as a general public are barraged with televisions virtually everywhere (I heard networks buy flat screens for establishments with the agreement that they mostly have their channels on. I don't know if that's true), and that's the norm. When it comes time for the Super Bowl, 24/7 virtually everywhere you go you see football or people talking about football or commenting on the commercials. We're privy to the preparation, the before, the after, the during and all of the scandals surrounding this monolithic empire. As well as being prominently displayed on the covers of newspapers and magazines.

I think you get the point. It's a beast that's out of control with no sign of it letting up despite the bad behavior on the many levels. I'm encouraged that we're having this discussion but my hopes are not so high to think much will happen to civilize the game. The money's to big and as we all know, money rules in America.

Feb. 03 2015 10:54 AM
Zia Khan from Atlanta, GA

Man! Parker... what a great kid, what wisdom.

Feb. 02 2015 12:17 PM
Tori from Amsterdam

Parker is amazing (and so is his mother). I also think synchronized swimming is totally underrated, so go Parker!

Feb. 02 2015 10:12 AM

This segment though... wow. Having had parents like Parker's I completely related to how he felt. Being forced into something you're not at all interested in, something that's causing you physical harm you'll be dealing with for the rest of your life, by your parents is an incredibly unreal expectation to live up to. I'm in my mid-twenties now, and my wife and I continue to deal with a number of my medical and mental issues caused by the concussions/head-trauma, heavy strain on my knees, shoulder dislocations, broken fingers and teeth, and strange diaphragm issues.

Parker almost summarizes his own situation when he questions his mother's football/winning ideals: Is it really worth it? Is winning that important? Is it enjoyable?

That moment of laughter after Parker suggest something he might like, synchronized swimming, is haunting: "Where did you come from?"

What does that even mean?

Feb. 01 2015 01:43 PM
Mary Margaret Richter from Bellingham, Washington

I feel totally alienated from this aspect of American culture. I haven't watched a football game for almost 50 years. I watched a lot in high school; I just didn't get it then nor now. To me, football is modern gladiator games. Do humans need violence?

Jan. 31 2015 08:53 PM
Christiane Laganda from Austria

I very much like the attitude of Parker and we can all learn of it. He is on the right way and i hope his Family can accept him for what he is and support him in his ideas.
Could you please tell him about O. Fred Donaldson Ph.D. and his work "Original Play".
http://www.originalplay.eu/why-is-quotoriginal-playquot-important,6

Thank you,
Christiane

Jan. 31 2015 03:37 PM

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