Sherwood's Notebook: Football, Books and Bluesy Drama

No matter what the meteorologists or astronomers officially say, summer ends for most us with Labor Day. We know because football — high school, college and pro — is upon us.

But warning signs are flashing. Are we seeing football’s popularity starting to fade?

The District, Virginia and Maryland are each eying the potential for a new Washington Redskins stadium project. But questions are arising about the future of the game itself, no matter where the team may play.

"This sport will never die, but it will never again be, as it was until recently, the subject of uncomplicated national enthusiasm," writes columnist George Will.

The columnist essentially says this fading popularity can be explained in two words: brain damage.

"CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] is a degenerative brain disease confirmable only after death, and often caused by repeated blows to the head that knock the brain against the skull,” Will wrote in a recent Washington Post column. “The cumulative impacts of hundreds of supposedly minor blows can have the cumulative effect of many concussions.”

Will is a columnist and author who otherwise waxes romantic on baseball, except for its excruciating length of play.

But back to football. Is the District wooing a dying game? Could the play on the field become less gladiator and more finesse? Would the further loss of brutal hits also mean a loss of fans?

Will cited a New York Times story reporting on data from Stanford University researchers. Their analysis explained the effect on a college lineman who sustained 62 hits in just one game. “Each one came with an average force on the player’s head equivalent to what you would see if he had driven his car into a brick wall at 30 mph.”

In the end, Will pointed to the unreal riches of both pro and college football and suggested the schools and pro owners may tilt here and there toward more player safety reform, but the hugely profitable appeal of the sport will win out. At least for a while.

■ A book blitz. To our knowledge, no one was hurt in the crush of book lovers last weekend at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. The National Book Festival had every floor of the place jumping. The crowd it attracts is diverse in age, race and gender. Dozens of Library of Congress volunteers and staffers scoot about in purple T-shirts, guiding lost folks to history, poetry, contemporary life, fiction and children’s events.

Your Notebook had the pleasure of dabbling in a taste of poetry. We introduced the five new National Student Poets for 2017. They were the winners — maybe survivors — of a contest that drew 20,000 entries this year. Entrants had to be at least juniors in high school. The Alliance for Young Artists & Writers culled the number to 1,000 aspiring high school poets. Of those, 200 were awarded either gold or silver medals for achievement. The five regional winners were chosen from a field of 35 semifinalists.

Your Notebook thinks back to high school days, especially that class in the 10th grade where our teacher drilled us on poetry mechanics — iambic pentameter for all — but never got to the heart of what poetry can mean. We all have poetic thoughts; most of us just fail to remember to write them down. But poetry is a messenger from the heart and mind like no other art form.

A poem may speak only to its author or to millions. It was fun to be part of Saturday’s annual event again. If you missed it, watch for it next year.

■ Come for the music. Stay for the play. Another part of our cultural weekend was taking in the Mosaic Theater’s production of "The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith." It’s playing until late September at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE.

The one-act play covers the extraordinary world of Bessie Smith, including her life, music and loves as well as the discriminatory racial times that limited her career. She died 80 years ago, in September 1937. But her style — she called herself the "Empress of the Blues" — set the stage for the blues world that has come after her.

Bessie Smith is played and sung by Miche Braden, who also serves as director, arranger and composer. Hers is a long and applauded career. The theatrical notes in the program say that she dedicates her performance “to the memory of her mother, Dr. Mildred J. Dobey, her first musical influence.”

The Mosaic Theater Company of DC is in just its third season. Founding artistic director Ari Roth says Mosaic is unique in that it is a "fusion community" of participants from other, disparate theaters. He writes that its plays, community discussions following some performances, and breadth of subjects intentionally “reflect a fusing of different racial, religious, and theatrical DC hubs, with the intention of forging cross-cultural experiences.”

Roth notes the nation has entered "a period of intensifying belligerence, intolerance and re-segregation" and says of Mosaic that “we join the fight to beat back” that ugly strain: "Passionate art can stem the rush of rage and despair.” And amid this seriousness of purpose, there is a lot of humor with which to lighten the load. You’re invited to inquire. Local theater is only as good as the people active in it — and supporting it.

■ A final word. Former D.C. Police Chief Isaac "Ike" Fulwood died this past week. He served as chief during one of the city’s most difficult and violent times. After he left the Metropolitan Police Department, he spent five years as head of the U.S. Parole Commission until stepping down in 2015.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said it best: "Ike Fulwood’s career in locking people up led him to its antithesis — deterring residents from trouble and prison. It would be difficult to find a resident whose service has been as deep and lasting as the Chief’s."

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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