Conflicted

The sound easily reached the press box - a sickening, amplified crunch. The slight scatback, who'd been darting away from defenders for three and a half quarters, absorbed a hit to the helmet that made me cringe.

The joy radiated in a palpable wave. Two players, then three, then four climbed atop the trainer's table, hands clasped, helmets raised, as the finals seconds of the big upset ticked away.

These two disparate scenes, maybe 10 minutes apart, in the high school football game I covered last night sum up my conflicted feelings about football.

I love football, the game. Unequivocally. It takes up space in the part of my heart where my granny still lives, where the first slight chill of autumn permeates the air and where I can still fall asleep, completely without care, in the backseat during a thunderstorm while my mother or father drives.

I cannot conscience football, the business. A codified conspiracy of silence and misinformation surrounding the by-now-undeniable damage that repeated blows to the head inflict on both the game's Sunday heroes and its anonymous Friday night acolytes, a systematic and deep-rooted misogyny that is coming more and more to light, a factory that grinds up kids and spits out whatever residue remains ... none of this is worth cheering.

From Jameis Winston, who is at best a troubled young man coddled by short-sighted college bigwigs more concerned with trophies than his mental health and at worst a predator protected by the same system, to disturbing reports of the organized intimidation of domestic violence victims on the heels of the repugnant Ray Rice incident and the even more reprehensible attempted cover-up, it can be hard to enjoy the game that circulates in my bloodstream. It's enough to make me question my own moral fiber as I settle in on the couch, remote in hand, cat curled in the crook of my elbow, ready to sample the smorgasbord of channels and conferences at my cable-empowered fingertips.

Am I part of the problem? If the kid from last night's game has a concussion and wakes up today with a blinding headache or no memory of the hit, am I partially to blame? If/when Ray Rice hits his wife again, is her blood on my fist?

I know there's good in this game. I have seen it first-hand. I have witnessed it and written about it and believed in it.

I have seen the mother battling breast cancer endure chemotherapy with a smile because when she was done, she got to go to her sons' football game.

I have seen the hulking defensive end who terrorized quarterbacks all season dissolve in tears as he offered his arm to his diminutive mother, a woman who raised him by herself, going without so he could be here, on Senior Day, standing on the sun-dappled grass of a brick-walled football stadium on the campus of the second-oldest college in the country.

I have screamed at TV screens with friends old and new. I have felt body-lightening exhilaration and soul-stomping devastation and I know there's power in this game. 

What I don't know is if that power is being used for good or evil. And I don't know how I feel about or should respond to that.

Last night, the kid got up and made the unsteady walk to the sidelines. He was no doubt part of the soon-to-follow celebration for his underdog team, which lingered on the field, loathe to leave its grass-stained triumph, and chanted its way to the parking lot.

I hope he is OK.

I suspect he is not.