Thursday, March 22, 2012

Football's War Problem

Roger Goodell is most certainly an idiot (and maybe a fascist) but the fans of football are to blame for the mess we're in. Collectively, we gravitated toward football precisely because it's a facsimile of war, and now we've found war's violent nature offensive to our tastes. Make no mistake about it, though. We love and have always loved football for its violence. Think of the classic defensive names we remember - Butkus, Nietschke, LT etc - and the first thing you think is how hard they hit and how nasty they were. We're not too far removed from those "when men were men and football was football days."

I remember a segment on Monday Night Football less than 10 years ago called "Jacked Up." It involved Tom Jackson replaying the hardest (now cringeworthiest) hits of the week and yelling the phrase "jacked up" a lot. I bet Big Brother, I mean the NFL, is frantically destroying all these tapes. The NFL built football up on its reputation of controlled brutality, but even that was too much, and now they're trying to retroactively make football a safe sport. I don't mean to beat the dictatorial thing into the ground, but I really feel as if Goodell is playing by that set of rules.

Football has always been a celebration of manliness, a test of intelligence, primal instinct and strength. But that game, it turns out, means CTE, concussions, blown acls and mcls, dementia, and an inability to walk at 50. The game we've celebrated features the biggest and best athletes in the world taking it upon themselves to crush their opponents, who just happen to be the biggest and best athletes in the world themselves. Football may be somewhat controlled chaos and destruction, but it is chaos and destruction nonetheless. I mean in hindsight, how could we not have known that cigarettes were dangerous? The same is true of football.

It's no secret that the bounty programs or something like them were pretty much SOP throughout the league, but Goodell is scapegoating the Saints. By suspending Gregg Williams indefinitely, suspending Sean Payton for a year and docking the Saints draft picks Goodell saves face, especially in light of the fact that numerous ex-players are suing him, but it doesn't solve any of the fundamental problems. Football is violent, and more violently played football tends to be winning football; it's not hard to make the leap to incentivizing that violence. He had to come down hard on the Saints, but in the process just showed the two-faced hypocrite he is. He's not on the side of player safety, but just of looking like he's on the side of player safety.

Just watch George Carlin's riff about baseball versus football. Carlin's whole point is that we use the terminology of war to describe what is fundamentally a game. Every player a piece to be maneuvered as part of a general's (well coach's) tactical plan. Perhaps it's our Victorian sensibilities or maybe it's just an inability to process what war is, but the vocabulary of war, at least in modern American English, always involves dehumanizing its elements. In war, we talk about the movement of troops, count casualties, talk of the uniform defending virtues like honor and freedom. You would never seeing a news report saying four soldiers have died. It's all very impersonal, and we've been trained to think of football players in the same way. Sure we talk about the players, but we also talk of cap hits and positional assignments. The players are literally masked, some of them playing "down in the trenches," and all have a specific function to fulfill. Everything about football is designed to eliminate consideration of the individual in favor of the team.

We glorified this approach to football. Teddy Roosevelt himself, that paragon of manliness and macho posturing, is said to have saved football while it was in its (admittedly much more violent and deadly) infancy. The game may have gotten safer with the advent of helmet and additional pads, but it was never completely cleaned up and it never shed that image of dehumanizing violence, because that wouldn't be football. There was a commercial maybe 10 years ago that featured Warren Sapp training for the season by chasing a chicken wearing a Brett Favre jersey (we're used to seeing Brett Favre as a cock now, but that's beside the point). Treating other teams and players as a literal enemy and dehumanizing them, no one should be surprised that what went on New Orleans was going on, or went on throughout the league.

Goodell is once again trying to have it both ways. He's trying to claim that he's cleaned up a sport that is only relevant (or as relevant as it is) because it is by its nature violent. He's punishing a team for imposing a bounty system, but really because they both had the temerity to lie about it and get caught, and once again anointing himself as football's savior. That's bullshit. Pretty much every team had some sort of this going on, but the Saints got caught. Hopefully this incentivized violence will stop, but even if it does this won't make football any less fundamentally violent.

The thing is, there's no great solution. If we start thinking of these players as people, with futures and families, and not as troops, football itself might start to seem an unconscionable activity. It's happening with boxing, and the main difference is we can actually see the damage boxers inflict on one another. At one time, that was part of boxing's appeal, but I think culturally we've moved past that. Goodell can try to stop glorifying violence, but that glorification is why he is in charge of the most profitable sports league in the country. So he obfuscates again, pulls rank on a team for not really doing anything all that wrong, and asks that we pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

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