At the risk of alienating many of my friends, I confess I have always loathed American football. I saw my first game on a date soon after arriving in this country from England and was astonished by the entire spectacle. Used to English lads competing in what we called football — rugby — in shorts and striped jerseys, I couldn’t understand why American players, easily some of the largest and toughest human beings I had ever seen on the face of this earth, needed so much protective gear. And long before the second wave of the feminist movement, I also couldn’t figure out why a group of young women who seemed to have no involvement with the actual game kept dancing around on the sidelines. Did they have nothing better to do? Unable to decipher the rules, I fell asleep on my date’s shoulder.
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My distaste has never abated. As a writing instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder, I’d grind my teeth at the displays of Buff paraphernalia that took up most of the space in what the university laughably called its bookstore. While coaches and athletic directors made millions, the ranks of tenured professors steadily dwindled and students were taught by underpaid and overworked adjuncts. The football stadium and field were enlarged at a huge cost that constantly overran. In the classrooms, teachers wrote on dusty chalkboards, and the ancient bathrooms in Hellems Arts and Sciences stank. The authorities claimed football brought in much-needed revenue. Maybe. But when I checked, the numbers were confusing, and I found a lot of contradictory evidence. It is fairly clear, however, that whatever excess revenue does exist at CU goes, at best, to other sports or to shiny new buildings designed to attract well-heeled students. In short, this swollen football behemoth, this ever-growing capitalistic enterprise, completely distorts the purpose of the university: learning.
Which puts me entirely on the side of one of the characters in Bruce Graham’s Sanctions, a play about college football being given a regional premiere at Curious Theatre Company. Tonya (a lively Ilasiea Gray), the new chair of a college education department, has serious doubts about the prominence of the football program, which is protected by the college and venerated by the small town where it’s situated. She is particularly concerned about another professor, Claire, who runs a tutoring program for the athletes (Dee Covington, in a strong and nuanced performance). Claire is suspected of fiddling with players’ grades to help them pass. She drinks a lot. And her jokes, at least according to Tonya, are borderline racist — though when she compares the players to slaves and those controlling them to overseers, she may have a point. These youngsters are working long hours and risking injury and concussion while being deprived of the kind of education that might actually help them later in life, since only a tiny percentage will make the big leagues.
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Curious has mounted Graham’s work before: Coyote on a Fence, about the death penalty, in 2001, and White Guy on the Bus two years ago. Those who saw these plays know he’s smart and subtle as he takes on current affairs. His take is never didactic, though, and his characters are complex and often surprising — so we find ourselves torn between Tonya’s often self-satisfied self-assurance and Claire’s mix of vulnerability and hardened realism. There are also pragmatic Ronald, director of football operations (an excellent performance by Thony Mena) and an idealistic young tutor named Abby (a sweet-natured Adeline Mann), who discovers that a new player who’s clearly bound for stardom is having trouble in class because his teachers, concerned only with his athletic talent, for years ignored his obvious dyslexia.
None of these people hews to a straight line: The righteous turn out to have flaws, the unrighteous possess virtues. Corruption and self-justification abound, and as the plot twists and turns, every facet of the fraught question of college athletics is illuminated. There are some overarching themes, too: It doesn’t take an intellectual leap to compare the way money distorts the workings and culture of this university to the way it distorts politics and our public life in the United States.
There’s something more, something I can’t quite put my finger on but that relates to the distress I felt watching that very first game. Football isn’t neutral these days. Although people of all beliefs and walks of life love the game, its symbolism has been largely co-opted by the nationalistic right wing. With all the chanting, yelling, flag- waving and fan feuds, football sometimes feels like a trick mirror of the Trumpian world, a hymn to money, crude power and brute strength.
Sanctions, presented by Curious Theatre Company through June 15, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org.