Review: American football is not my thing. It has never been my thing, though I’ve tried to learn it, tried to like it, so that I could participate with the craziness. But I don’t and it appears I won’t. In fact, truth be told, I detest it. It isn’t that I hate sports generally. I just hate American football. Period. The end.
So why I bought this book a millennium ago (seriously, maybe 10 years ago?), I don’t know. Maybe because it was John Grisham and so I paid no attention to what the book was about. Maybe I was in one of those periods of trying to get into the game. Who knows. But it has sat on my shelf forever and, for some reason, I decided to pick it up. It was short and I was in the mood for short. John Grisham is easy to read and I was in the mood for easy to read. So there you go.
As for the book, it was predictable, and really just confirmed for me why I detest this sport. The setting is a small town whose life blood is the local high school football team, or at least it has been since a certain coach came into town thirty-some-odd years ago, and made the team into something. Now he’s dying of cancer and all his players are coming home in his final days to await his death and attend his impending funeral/memorial. Of course, they are all sitting around reliving the good ole’ days, when they were young and “something”, and in reminiscing, they also out the one big secret about the team that the very gossipy town has always wondered about. What happened during that championship all those years ago? Why did the team play the second half sans coaches? And, of course, we get to see what has become of decades worth of players.
Truthfully, it was well written and not a bad story, but it definitely cemented my feelings about American football and everything that is wrong with the entire institution. And I had no sympathy whatsoever for these aging players. I did find myself sympathizing with the coach as a person. Even though I think his type of coaching is a big part of the problem with the sport, he was a great reflection on the duality of humanity, how there is much more to us than most people ever get to see.
I’m not quite sure how the writer feels about it all. He definitely played both sides a bit, but at the end of the day, I think he respected the institution while admitting that there are some serious problems with how sports, particularly football, are idolized in this country. Sports, done the right way, can contribute a lot of positive things to a person’s life. Unfortunately, we as Americans don’t do it the right way. We idolize these young boys in a way that they are unlikely to ever experience again in their lives, setting them up for constant disappointment. We instill in them the belief that winning is more important than anything else, including their short and long-term health, both physically and emotionally. We teach them winning means hurting other people. We teach them that sports, and the money and notoriety that comes along with winning at sports, is more important than education and the arts. And I truly believe, as I’ve witnessed with my own eyes, that when we place so much emphasis on sports and put these young boys on pedestals, they are ill-prepared to emotionally mature enough to be able to live a happy and somewhat mediocre life. Instead they spend the rest of their adulthood emotionally stunted, thinking their best days were over when they were 18, stuck forever reliving the days when “life was good”.
In Bleachers, Grisham touches on all of these realities, but he also offers another side. While most of the characters have fallen prey to the negative side of high school sports gone awry, there are a few characters, really only one, who manages to make a life for himself, a normal one, a happy and successful one, with no hang up about the good ole’ days. So there are some personalities that are steady enough, even in youth, to know that life is about much more than winning the game and having adoring fans. Unfortunately, that was not the case for most of the players, which is a very sad testament to the harm that sports can do as well.
At the end of the day, it feels like Grisham and I were on the same page: sports has its benefits, but we are doing it wrong. And the costs of those mistakes are pretty high.