Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Violence in Football ... and America

Football long ago surpassed baseball as America’s pastime. It is the most popular professional sport in the country, even at only 16 regular season games and four rounds of playoffs, the most watched and has college football and fantasy leagues to amplify that popularity. Even as it suffers through bad press on top of bad press, ratings for Thursday night football were over double the opener from last year and Sunday night football was the top ranked program of the week. At its heart, football is a sport that exemplifies anachronistic notions of masculinity and patriotism better than even the arenas of boxing and octane-infused action films. It is the embodiment of the conservative dream of an idealized American past, where women knew their place, men were judged by their physical prowess and hard work was rewarded. Yet at its heart, football is little more than an exercise in aesthetically-infused violence.

So it should come as little surprise that the league is finally getting its comeuppance for the cost of its popularity and profits (over $9 billion a year at last counting, with Goodall pushing for $25 billion by 2025) to players and their families. A recent study found that one in three players will suffer Alzheimer’s or dementia in the future, given all the head trauma they sustain. Many already suffer from almost or fully debilitating pain and injury and the incidents of murder and suicide among current and former players like popular Junior Seau shows the very real possibility of dangerous brain damage. Just today, a Texas University quarterback with a bright future quit the game for good, after being unable to recover from a series of concussions over his 50+ starts. And on top of this is the rather obvious series of incidents of violence that have come to light in recent weeks. Beyond Ray Rice, we have the cases of Peterson and Hardy together with past high profile (but unpunished) Midlebrooks, Samari Rolle, Brad Hopkins, Kevin Williams and a host of others (read this excellent article in Grantland for a more elaborated argument on these incidents). And potential rapist Jameis Winston was at it again in college football, screaming sexist chants at fellow students on the FSU campus just today (leading to a one half suspension – what a punishment!). And it should also be noted that men engage in more violence with each other and their partners right after watching football.

The question becomes why we suddenly care about something that has been a part of the game for many years? Is it the visual evidence of a 220-pound man knocking his wife out and then pulling her out of the elevator? Is it simply the fact that it has entered the sensationalized spectacle, pushing people to pay attention to something they would rather ignore? A full 60 percent of Americans call themselves football fans and while they can certainly ignore politics and embrace ignorance with equal aplomb in many cases, they might finally be forced to ask themselves the rather obvious question about their favorite sport – are they essentially watching the slow murder of the men they call heroes by allowing them to play a game that WILL cause them permanent damage in most cases; on top of all the residual violence it appears to illicit? If this is the case, does the future of the NFL have a half life, or are we moving back toward Roman times and the bloody spectacle of public violence and sacrifice for pleasure? Boxing has been grappling with these issues for at least two decades, but it is no longer the sport it once was and many have turned their backs on the corruption and butchery of humanity that is at its core. With football, one bad story seems to follow another at the moment and one wonders how long it will take before the league actually, excuse the metaphor, tackles these issues? Will it take another few murder/suicides? A player that beats his girlfriend, wife or child to death on video? The loss of tax-free status if the Redskins fiasco isn’t resolved? While one hopes something can be done to stem the tide of violent ramifications on and off the field, it certainly wouldn’t be surprising to see the media spectacle move on to some other story in a few weeks or months and for us to watch the sport as if we are ignorant of the short and long-term costs of the game. Can’t the same be said of corporate America and our love for the CEOs wrecking the economy for their personal pleasure and profit? Only the future will tell …

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