Soccer and football

by Rob Tiller

I really enjoy reading the newspaper on Sunday. When I lived in New York, sometimes I’d actually buy the Times from a newstand on Saturday night and get an early start reading the Week in Review. When I don’t have a Sunday morning golf game, as happened this Sunday, I devote a good chunk of the morning to current events. The events may be unsettling, be they natural disasters, wars, or political strife, but the orderly presentation, with morning coffee, is pleasantly soothing. This is not, of course, reality, but rather a highly scrubbed and edited simulation. But everyone knows that.

However, I was disappointed that today the Sunday News and Observer failed to cover the playoff victory last night of the Carolina Railhawks, our local professional soccer team. Sally and I were there for the event, with midfield seats close to the field, and saw them defeat the Minnesota Stars 4-0 to advance to the semifinal round. The team is part of the USSF D-2 Pro League, which is surely a candidate for the worst sports league name ever. But apart from the name problem, this is a good team and a good sport.

This was the third game we got to this season, and with each game I found myself seeing more of the nuances, both of the athletes’ incredible individual skills and of the team tactics. I’m developing more knowledge of the rules and more confident opinions about bad calls by the referees and faked injuries. I’m starting to like certain players. In short, I’m getting to be sort of a fan.

It was a beautiful evening, just cool enough for a light jacket. We’d previously learned that the concession stands had not evolved any vegetarian options, so we brought a couple of Jersey Mike’s veggie subs with us, and split a chocolate chip cookie. The stands were far from crowded, but there were enough people to make some noise. Sally noted that the field seemed very large, and I said I believed it was the same length as a football field — 100 yards. (I later checked with Google and learned the official length may be between 100 and 130 yards, and the Cary field is 120 yards.) Sally hadn’t known the length of a football field. As a former American football participant, that distance is one that is seared into my mind and body.

I played Pop Warner football in Winston-Salem for the Tiny Demons beginning at age 12, and finished my football career at defensive end for the Wiley Junior High team at age 15. Even back then, football seemed physically punishing and usually far from beautiful. But I liked being part of a team and liked some of the guys. It was challenging. I was in no way outstanding, but every now and again I exceeded expectations and make a good play.

And I still enjoy football at some level. But more and more I’ve found it seriously disturbing. It’s just too dangerous, and the high risk is part of its essence. For professionals, certainly, but even for students and kids, there’s just too great a risk of brain injury or other serious accidents. I’d like to think that if I were a Roman citizen, I’d object to holding gladiatorial fights to the death for entertainment. Our football games aren’t quite that bad, but there’s an uncomfortable resemblance. We should disfavor games that risk destroying lives.

I admit, I can’t help being glad when the N.C. State Wolfpack wins. But soccer is much more in line with my values, and more to my taste. I do worry that heading balls can cause brain injury, and I’d favor protective headgear to mitigate that. And I realize soccer players can break their necks. But the sport itself is not designed to cause high speed collisions of humans. It’s about speed and agility, as well as power.

Anyway, hurray for the Railhawks. Nuts to the News and Observer sports page. The team played with heart and skill, and defeated a worthy opponent. Good luck in the next round. You guys are awesome.