Kansas celebrates victories in football, our morally fraught national pastime

October 1, 2022 3:33 am
Kansas football fans cheer

In a packed Booth Memorial Stadium, University of Kansas fans cheer their football team to a 35-27 home win against Duke University on Sept. 24. (Hayden Spratlin for Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

I wrote this column once on Thursday. I flailed around for hours, trying balance my decades of football fandom on one hand with my moral confusion about the risks that football players take.

When I was nearly finished, I wrote my editor that “I kind of hate what I have written right now.” As I rewrite the column now, I hate my words all over again — but not because my words failed me.

I hate my words now because of the suffering they must describe.

The injury on Thursday night to Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was one of the most wrenching sports moments I have seen. During an NFL game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Tagovailoa hit the ground after being sacked, a legal football tackle that sent him violently spinning to the ground. His head snapped back and hit the ground for the second time in five days. On Sunday in a game against the Buffalo Bills, another sack had bounced his helmet off the turf.

Both times, his impairment, whether it was a “back injury,” as the Dolphins said, was visible from every replay angle. On Sunday, he stumbled and fell — an elite professional athlete unable to walk. On Thursday night, his hands rose in front of his face, clenched in an apparent “fencing response,” a sign of a traumatic brain injury.

Yet, just six days ago, the state of Kansas was consumed in a spasm of football fun.

The University of Kansas Jayhawks football team squeaked out a 35-24 win at home against Duke — a sentence that sounds much more like a catastrophically low-scoring elite college basketball game than a matchup of two undefeated football teams. The win leaves KU staring at itself in the mirror in disbelief, repeating, “We are 4-0. We are really 4-0.” 

Meanwhile, Kansas State upset No. 6 Oklahoma, 41-34. The seven-point lead the Wildcats built in the first quarter became the difference as the Wildcats and Sooners matched one another for the rest of the game. The road win propelled K-State to a 3-1 record.

Only the fourth-quarter collapse by the Chiefs ruined a three-peat by our favorite football teams in Kansas.

The weekend of improbable wins spurred my son’s carpool to some intrastate trash talk. The Wildcat fan boasted that his team was ranked, while admitting that KU was just one spot out of the rankings. My son, the KU fan, bragged about his undefeated Jayhawks, never mind that he can’t name a single player in the team.

Welcome to Kansas. Fair Weather Football USA, my son.

For now, football again saturates our conversations in Kansas. Some of the women in my classes at KU bemoan that their chats with dudes their age inevitably devolve into talk about fantasy football lineups, gambling point spreads and the injury lists for next week’s opponents. When we have football good news, we luxuriate in it.

For now, football again saturates our conversations in Kansas. Some of the women in my classes at KU bemoan that their chats with dudes their age inevitably devolve into talk about fantasy football lineups, gambling point spreads and the injury lists for next week’s opponents. When we have football good news, we luxuriate in it.

– Eric Thomas


Not so much for me. When it comes to football, I often play the role of bummer, an autumnal Scrooge. I sometimes struggle to muster the pigskin mania that so many others easily conjure.

Many Americans love football. Millions of boys, now men, huddled up to play for their pee-wee league, their middle school or their high schools. The balletic violence of football lures us in, as they watch running backs dart past lineman who collide at the line of scrimmage. 

That football violence has become the reflexive American allegory for war. Commentators talk about “winning the war in the trenches,” not to mention the games (once the highlight of the college football schedule) between branches of the armed forces.

Buzz Bissinger, in publicizing his new book “Mosquito Bowl,” talked on the “Fresh Air” podcast this week about how the symbiotic relationship between football and the military began. During the draft days of World War II, Bissinger said that young men often signed up to play football at a military academy to avoid serving on the frontlines. If we wonder how football became tethered to B-52 flyovers, camo uniforms and comparisons of quarterbacks to “field generals,” World War II seems like a starting point.

Bissinger’s insights into why we intertwine football and war provide some helpful context and temper my cynicism about how the military branches still use football to recruit young service members. Even so, it’s hard to stomach how the NFL uses patriotism for the military to wrap the flag around a multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry, a collection of teams owned by wealthy families who often behave terribly.

Because soccer and cross country were my fall sports in high school, I don’t have the nostalgia that sends other men to scream at referees and visiting coaches on behalf of the local football team on Friday night.

When I was a teen, surveying my 5-foot 9-inch, 140-pound stature didn’t instill football bravado. I imagined looking more like a mannequin on which the helmet and shoulder pads teetered, rather than a warrior in his suit of gridiron armor. Because football wasn’t for me, it’s more distant for me than other fans, even as local teams bring meaningful games close to us.

The last few years have poured hundreds of headlines about brain trauma onto the heads of parents, like my wife and me, as we decide whether to let our son play football. We now know that football can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Even in the face of our son’s protests, we refuse to risk the chance of repeated concussions, depression, memory loss and depression. This jarring splash of medical research and personal anecdotes has prevented our family and many others.

The data shows participation in tackle football fell 39% between 2006 and 2018. Three million fewer boys are suiting up each year. While other factors might contribute to these numbers, the risk of head injuries and the possible long-term side effects dominate my conversations with other parents.

The crunch of helmets and shoulder pads at the line of scrimmage stirs some fans to love the game. For me, it’s a sickening reminder of the risks for the players. Many of them are still teenagers, waiting for their brains to still develop while they are simultaneously injuring that same brain.

At times, I work pointedly to distance myself from football, trying to convince myself that this brutal game is immoral. Thursday evening, as I watched Tagovailoa struggle to harness his movements laying on the turf, was one of those nights.

Later, team officials said that Tagovailoa was conscious, had feeling in all of his extremities and would likely travel home with the team. It’s far too soon to ensure or predict his recovery.

But you should have seen me Saturday night when a Texas A&M player hit the post on a field goal attempt that would have won the game — I screamed along with my Aggie friend.

You should have seen me when KU sealed their victory against Duke. I reported the result to my son as soon as he got in the car.

You should have seen me when Patrick Mahomes drove the Chiefs to an almost impossible comeback against the Buffalo Bills last season. My buddies and I bought drinks for the bar as we jumped around like children.

My uneasiness about player safety might sometimes create a thin veil between me and the game. That veil holds me distant during my rational moments of watching games and traumatic moments like Thursday night.

But like so many others in Kansas, I still watch, wrestling with the dark elements of a game that has us in its grip.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.