New book by Philip Kenney

The Writer's Crucible Meditations on Emotion, Being and Creativity

Phil Kenney

Philip Kenney is a practicing psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon. He did his post-graduate work in British Object Relations at the Washington D.C. School of Psychiatry and has taught Self Psychology as part of his private practice. A long time meditator and poet, Mr. Kenney is the author of the novel, Radiance, and a collection of poetry, Where Roses Bloom. He strives to bring together the worlds of psychology, creativity and spirituality in his work and is the author of a new book on those subjects entitled, The Writer's Crucible: Meditations on Emotion, Being and Creativity.

Why Football?

January 29, 2015

Football. The American passion. Love it or hate it, the game defines our national psyche in some mighty big ways, and this time of year is punctuated by the high ritual of Super Bowl Sunday.

I grew up in Ohio in the 50’s completely in love with football and the thrill of watching the great Jim Brown destroy opposing defenses every Sunday afternoon. At night I went to bed pretending I was number 32, crashing into my bed for the first down. I did this with such abandon that my bed eventually broke into pieces like a linebacker under the feet of the mighty fullback

Today I don’t care for football and in fact raised my boys without ever watching a game on TV. How sacrilegious! I was intent on preserving their brains for future use. Interesting to note that they consider football boring and have wanted little to do with something that to them is stupid compared to the beautiful game of soccer.

Okay, the truth is I chickened out in my sophomore year of high school and quit the football team. Still a skinny kid, I had the good sense to realize those big guys were a lot stronger than me and I could easily end up in pieces like my bed frame back in Ohio. And so I went AWOL. I’m a bit ashamed of that decision to this day.

Years later I adopted an attitude of disdain for the pigskin. A righteous indignation that coupled quite nicely with my post-Vietnam, anti-establishment rejection of most things dear to mainstream American culture. The list was a long one.

It was easy to condemn football, and not without merit. Much of that critique has been proven all too accurate in recent years. There were two primary points of contention to most arguments.

Point number one: The gladiator theory. It seemed perfectly obvious that we have not evolved since the days of the Romans when the ruling class gathered to enjoy the brutality and slaughter of gladiators on the coliseum field. Today we have helmets to hide the gore but can no longer hide the fact of the damage to the human brain done by repeated collisions.

Point number two: The violence theory. Football is a violent game. No argument there. This theory claims that the violence and popularity of the game mirror the extraordinary violence of our society. People can talk all they want about the excitement and drama on the field, but what really ignites the lust for blood and brings people out of their seats is the big, bone crunching hit that leaves a ball carrier seeing stars. Now the big hit has been caught on video off the field as well in an elevator between husband and wife.

These positions were easy pickings until this year. One thing about growing older is the inevitable encounter with various judgmental positions taken in the course of life. And so, surprise – surprise, humble pie it was, the day my oldest son came home and said he would be kicking for the high school football team. Yikes, say it ain’t so! I pictured my boy being carried off the field on a stretcher while I stood by helpless to put him back together.

All that righteous indignation came over and sat down on my lap. Now what, smarty? Well, now it was time to take a closer look. To make friends with the game, with the skinny quitter and try to understand what all the fuss is about. And to my embarrassment and astonishment, I found myself liking Friday nights. Yelling as loud as anybody for the Grant Generals. Going nuts when Joey made a field goal.

Was this just a case of parental chauvinism? Of unbridled narcissistic pride? Maybe a good old fashion case of hypocrisy? Maybe. But I came to believe there is something much more going on in the stadium and on the gridiron than I had recognized. Something primal and basic to human existence. Something that accounts for the mad passions of Saturday afternoon on a college campus. What is it?

What captures us? What is it that drives us into a frenzy, that makes us deflate game balls for God’s sake? Next thing you know congress will probably enact another Patriot Act! After all, protecting the sanctity of football is a matter of national security. Seriously though, how can we understand the immensity of what has become the obsession with this sport?

First, a little riddle for you. What do Buddhism and American culture have in common? Say what? You heard me. What do Buddhism and American culture have in common? Give up? Well the Buddha’s First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. Right? And what is the American version, The First No-Bull-Shit-Truth? Life is brutal.

Who can disagree? Life is brutal. Long before news of climate change hit the tabloids our dear planet has lived through five, count them, five mass extinctions! 99% of all species that ever lived on this lonely planet are gone forever. Now that is brutal. Once you get to my age you tremble when the phone rings figuring there is a fifty-fifty chance you are about to learn that one of your friends or relatives has been stricken by some God-awful disease. It is tough.

But that’s where Buddhism and American culture part ways. Whereas The Buddha suggested we surrender to the ephemeral nature of life and find inner satisfaction, America rose up, pounded its collective chest and battled forth against the forces of nature. Enter Football. Surrender? No way. Slug it out with life? You bet.

It seems to me that football is a uniquely elaborate American ritual. Perhaps a sacrificial one at that, but nevertheless drama on a grand scale representing the dominant mythology of our culture. Mythologies of the scale Joseph Campbell talked about, mythologies that shape our psyches and organize social groups in their quest for survival and more.

These are the deeply held organizing principals of our collective and individual unconscious. Our deepest beliefs about life and our notion of what to expect and what is possible are formed by these powerful myths.

We are living the symbols of our cultural mythology and nothing quite expresses the underlying meaning of that mythology like the game of football. This autumn I began to see that our national pastime is really an expression of hope. Yes hope. Manic and frightened and obsessive as it may be, we rely on these symbolic ceremonies of power to renew a hopefulness in our way of living. The power to wage war and win: to make it to the goal line, still standing, score and defeat the enemy, which, sadly is life itself.

In war we trust: the war on drugs, poverty, terrorism. Bring it on, battle cancer, battle and push the opposition back. The quarterback and running back may be dazzling, but anyone who knows anything about football knows the game is won in the trenches. Mass against mass. 350 pound giant against the same. Goliath vs. Goliath.

This is our hope. We live it out every Sunday afternoon. We trust in force, and will, not God and mercy. Smash life in the face! Overpower any and all opposing forces. Damn right. And here we are again, Super Bowl Sunday has returned! The high priests of the gridiron line up for glory, immortality and the right to point the index finger to the sky and smile; perhaps mistaking their omnipotence for a higher power.

And isn’t hope an amazing phenomenon? When I stood in the stands this fall watching my son decked out in helmet and shoulder pads, hearing the school band rocking, the trumpets trumpeting, the tubas bellowing, the drums drumming, I looked around and saw ordinary people, not the Roman elite, ordinary people with hope in their eyes.

Hope, good old-fashioned hope mixed with a splash of yearning. Yearning and hope that their boys might hold back the onslaught of life, hope that they would win, prevail over the hardship of life’s hard knocks and elusive prize. Hope that the brutal realities of life will be defeated and our way of life go on and on.

Isn’t it just incredible? Do we really think we can defeat life? Outmuscle suffering? Back in high school our beloved cheerleaders yelled, “Push em back, push em back, way back!” Only the human brain could come up with a whopper like that! I suppose that makes football the modern opiate of the people and good old-fashioned denial the offensive line.

So whether or not you watch the game Sunday, remember to pay your respects to whatever it is within us that reaches for a reason to be hopeful despite the odds. I’ll probably be watching, hoping for a good game, and no doubt caught up in the ceremony and rush to glory, but I’ll try to remember during the spectacle of Super Bowl XLIX that football is a lot more than a game.

Stay attuned for February’s Blog: “The Death of Punctuation.”

Hopefully yours,



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One Response

  1. Heather says:

    There is always the hope that I read close enough…but if I did…

    I think the same about kids and teens reading horror books. They read horror books, books about the Holocaust, books where the world ends and the zombies are outside the windows. They read them because the world is scary, and they need a story where someone survives the worse thing they can think of…that it is possible. Even if there were one person left on this planet, it could be them. There is always hope. Football I think is important just because you need to learn to run towards what scares you. There are big guys everywhere, and they could turn into brain munching zombies.

    Heather 🙂

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