Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Football and Violence

But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.
Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment.
Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.
Therefore the people turn and praise them, and find no fault in them.
Psalm 73:2-10
If you Google “Saints” today, your search results will first show stories about the New Orleans Saints football team and the “bounty scandal.”

An investigation by the National Football League found that former Saints Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams ran a bounty pool, which paid out cash awards for injuring specific players on the opposing team. The investigation revealed that in addition to Williams, Head Coach Sean Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis also knew about the bounty system and did nothing to stop it.

According to the report, the bounty pool was used to make payoffs to players who inflicted game ending injuries on opponents. If the opposing player was knocked out of the game, a Saints player received $1,500 for the “Knockout.” If an opposing player had to be helped off of the field, the payoff was $1,000 for a “Cart-Off.” These payments were doubled or tripled in playoff games.

Football has always been a violent game. It would be naïve to think that the Saints were the first or only team to have a bounty system on opposing players.

The iconic picture of an exultant Chuck Bednarik celebrating over the motionless form of Frank Gifford in 1960 reminds us that game ending injuries are not new.

But today the injuries are mounting up at an alarming rate. Former players are suffering the long term effects of repeated concussions. The players are bigger and faster. And the helmets and pads which were designed for protection are also used as weapons.

No one tackles anymore. Defensive players “hit” receivers and running backs. Players are praised for delivering a blow to opponents. The rare traditional tackle, where the defensive player wraps up the ball carrier with both arms and brings him to the ground, never makes the highlight reel. Compared to the “hit” that sends a player somersaulting, a tackle is boring.

As a football fan, this worries me, but the problem is bigger than the game.

The league will crack down on the Saints. No matter how much they may think that the “hits” and the violence are good for ratings, the prospect of costly lawsuits from injured players will force them to make clear that intentional injuries cannot be tolerated. And there is also the possibility that there could be criminal indictments. It is, after all, against the law to pay one person to injure another.

But the problem is bigger than the game.

Yesterday on a sports talk show they were comparing the Saints’ scandal with the Patriots’ “spygate” scandal of a few years ago. They were talking about which one was worse. As a fan, asked the host rhetorically, which would you rather have your team involved in, a bounty system on opposing players or taking illegal videos of the other team? “It’s not even close;” he answered himself, “what the Patriots did was much worse.”

Paying a player for injuring someone is not as bad as taking illegal pictures. Seriously. The intentional injuries, in his mind, did not compromise “the integrity of the game.”

What a strange moral calculus. It sounds like something that the “fans” at the ancient Roman Coliseum might have said about the gladiators.

It leads me to ponder the nature of men (not women, just men). Here we are in the twenty-first century living far more sheltered lives than our prehistoric ancestors did, and we choose to define ourselves by making believe that football is real life. We don’t just live vicariously. We live vicariously through a make believe world.

I love football. But the players are not warriors. And it’s a game.

To risk life and limb to protect a loved one, or to save someone, is a noble thing. To intentionally injure someone to win a game is wrong and crazy at the same time.

If this is who we are; if this is how supposedly sane and well educated men think, it is no wonder that younger and less mature men so often turn to violence to settle their differences.

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