As more and more journalists twist their undies in a bunch about the new name given to the condition we used to call “bashing your head one too many times,” the pinheads in pinstripes at the NFL’s Manhattan office decided to pass a new rule to pacify the nation. The rule states that if a player lowers his head and initiates contact with an opponent—what laymen call tackling— they will suffer a 15-yard penalty or be ejected from the game.
This rule is, one hopes, the final experiment in how out-of-touch the NFL’s leadership can be. Nervous readers should note that they already had rules on the books about spearing, roughing the passer, roughing the kicker, no helmet-to-helmet contact, etc. Now this.
It isn’t just that no one knows how this rule can or will possibly be implemented, nor that it defies logic to imagine training these men to run more than 15 miles per hour chasing one another down, then in an instant keep their chins up. It’s that I can’t imagine the viewer who wants to watch football, but only on condition that nothing dangerous happens. Why not make a rule that all NFL players face the camera and smile while getting tackled by a 300-pound defensive end while you’re at it?
In protest, one player, Andrew Sendejo, a safety for the Minnesota Vikings, has been wearing a hat that reads, “Make Football Violent Again.” And that’s exactly right. In an age when glorified cage fighting is the fastest-growing sport on earth, and bare-knuckle boxing, a tradition formerly honored as the grand finale of a lively evening at Paddy Mulcahey’s public house, has been legalized, somehow the NFL thinks there’s no place in modern football for violence.
Moderate Violence Prevents Serious Violence
The instinct of the NFL leadership is right. We should work to limit violence. But their tunnel vision has blinded them from seeing the true way in which football has always prevented violence, which is by being violent, albeit in a more controlled form.
Let’s take a case study. My son is a six-year-old whirl of testosterone. A few days ago he was trying to get my attention while I tried to get some work done. So he calmly walked up to my chair, placed a tender young hand on my arm and said, “Dear Papa, please will you spend a choice moment with me.” Only those raising a dog instead of a child could believe that.
In reality, he backed up about six or seven feet, got down on all fours, and scrambled as fast as he could, head first, into my chair, nearly knocking me over. He got my attention. Of course, if he had pulled a stunt like that for the Vikings he’d have been docked 15 yards minimum. But in spite of the penalties boys just seem to have a tendency for violence.
Much to his younger sister’s chagrin, he’d rather tackle her than sit still and talk. As any parent of boys knows, the way to get him to stop tackling her is to tackle him first and pummel him until he has been comedically lanced of his passions and collapses in a fit of laughter. To deny this aspect of my child, to never engage with him violently at all, would be a profound mistake with disastrous consequences. The play fights are about learning how to fight well, and about what to do with those fighting spirits.
To Learn to Control Violence, We Must Experience It
Many of those who are leading the charge to end the violence in professional sports would really like to see it ended in all areas of life. These are utopian fantasists. They likely also imagine that if we just gave hardened gang members jobs caring for kids at state-run preschools we could solve two problems at once, and all our inner cities would be as lovely as our suburbs.
I am of a more realistic mind. Men seem to enjoy engaging in violent competition and are going to look for outlets to channel this impulse. If not with football, it will move somewhere else.
Soccer hooliganism is perhaps an image of this. The violence they want simply isn’t happening on the pitch, so they take it outside. But the issue goes deeper than just men. I’d submit that most of us like violence, when properly channeled. This is because through control, symmetry, and predictability, it can attain beauty and provide a sense of meaning and stability in our lives. We all experience violent moments. Rarely do we get a whistle to tell us to get ready before the car crashes.
I will not here lay out all the moral categories that one must consider to conceive of what forms of violence ought to be allowable. But it seems patently obvious that if we had to channel our urge for violence and confrontation into some incarnate form, then football (or rugby) are less damaging for all involved than street brawls, or worse, war.
Perhaps there is some way of reforming the sport to make it less violent. Perhaps we can train our urges to be satisfied by some lesser sport, like soccer. But we must beware that in taming ourselves we don’t lie to ourselves. What would be worse than the man on a diet from violence suddenly binging? The point of allowing controlled doses of violence into our lives is to train the urges to respond to our rational command.
The Threat of Violence Provides Meaning
Art testifies to the near universal love of violence. When asked to find the most interesting part of the play “Agamemnon” by Aeschylus, my majority female sophomore class unanimously took me to this passage where Agamemnon, king of the city, sacrifices his daughter on a ritual altar so he can get the god’s approval for the Trojan War he is leading his men into:
doom will crush me
once I rend my child,
the glory of the house –
a father’s hands are stained,
blood of a young girl streaks the altar.
Pain both ways and what is worse?
Desert the fleet, fail the alliance?
No, but stop the winds with a virgin’s blood,
feed their lust, their fury? – feed their fury! –
Yes he had the heart
to sacrifice his daughter,…
‘My father, father!’ – she might pray to the winds;
no innocence moves her judges mad for war.
Her father called his henchmen on,
on with a prayer,
‘Hoist her over the altar
like a yearling, give it all your strength!
She’s fainting – lift her,
sweep her robes around her,
but slip this strap in her gentle curving lips…
here, gag her hard, a sound will curse the house’ –
and the bridle chokes her voice… her saffron robes
pouring over the sand.
Now why did this class of students not take us to the scene where the herald welcomes the king home? Interesting as that passage is, it is the earlier death of the daughter that provides the latter with meaning. This is the case both from a plot perspective and from an emotional perspective. If the king sacrifices nothing, or fails to go to war, he’s not much of a king at all. My students loved this passage for the same reasons the Greeks loved this play: structured violence provides meaning.
The thing we need to attend to, though, is that the violence in Aeschylus is tragic. Agamemnon is being presented with a dilemma in which there is no happy ending, as the play goes on to show. As any fan of the Three Stooges knows, not all violence is tragic. In fact comedic violence provides the same meaningfulness, with a side of laughter.
The difference is that when we watch a tragedy, we witness something we hope doesn’t happen. In comedy the hijinks are there to signify how we wish it were: Whatever violence happens, it all comes right in the end. In comedy, nothing can prevent the happy ending.
Football Is Comedic Violence, Not Tragic Violence
While activists might want to get Americans to start viewing football as a tragedy, they will fail. Football is comedy. Just think of how the stadium reacts when a player is injured. In the lower levels both teams might take a knee; in the professionals a hush falls over the crowd. In spite of our rhetoric, the gridiron is not the gladiatorial ring. We all know that the game is not about injuring the other, though that might happen incidentally.
This is why players can “battle it out” in the game then ride the train home together, as happened last year in Oakland. The comedy is clear when the opponents and fans can look one another in the eye and say, “Let’s do this again soon.”
Perhaps the solution to the NFL’s problems is to pay their players what they’re worth to go out and do the limited comedic violence we so crave. After all, I haven’t heard Conor McGregor complain recently. Perhaps the solution is for the leadership of the league to realize that the sport is not tragic and regulate the game as such.
Or perhaps the fans will ditch the NFL all together for an upstart organization willing to allow a game’s natural violence to be unleashed. All I can say for sure is no one enjoys watching a game where the world has to stop after each good hit so little yellow flags can get picked up and the team that made the hit can be penalized. That’s not football. That’s soccer.
America, land of paradoxes, seems to have uncovered a way to simultaneously be permanently at war while also never at war. In the meantime, we lust for the crimson spectacle of the gladiatorial games, as our ancestors did. Almost the last place our culture can go to see a blood sacrifice is the local church as it tears the flesh and pours out the blood of their God.
But most Americans aren’t in church and most of their churches don’t observe this ritual, an elegant weapon of a more civilized age. So let the hoi polloi have their football. Let us hope that no one uncovers the secret of making football simultaneously violent and never violent at all. Make football violent again.