I like sports. What I like most is that sports go against the deterministic grain of storytelling. Where the effect of a story is prepared by authors in advance, the outcome of a sporting event is determined as it unfolds. As a storyteller I can often intuit how a drama will play out because I can see the thin wires of preparation leading to a particular resolution or turn of events. In sports there is no script. Just a cast of characters driven by goals and constrained by a set of rules.
This doesn’t mean, however, that there is no narrative in sports. Quite the contrary. The experience of watching a sporting event can be as emotionally involving, if not physically taxing, as any scripted story. Audience investment in the outcome of a particular game, or in the performance of a particular player, or a decisive moment, can lead to heights of excitement and depths of despair.
As with drama, the ability of an audience to become emotionally engaged in a sporting event hinges on the audience’s mental state. Prepare a safe and supportive context and you get wild enthusiasm. Force them to confront realities they don’t want to confront and enthusiasm will wane.
Coming to Terms With Violence
I say all this as preface to a fascinating moment in American sports history. As I write this a serious debate is taking place in and around the National Football League about the very nature of the game. To be clear, this is not a new issue. The violence of football, indeed the celebration of that violence, has been part of the sport since its inception. Stories about players like Mike Webster are too common, and no one who has participated in the sport or payed close attention as a fan is unaware of similar tragedies.
What’s most interesting to me about this debate as a storyteller is that the great majority of commentary from those closest to the game — including celebrated reporters and former players — completely misses the central point, which is that awareness of the immediate and long-term health consequences to players has reached a cultural tipping point. (To be fair, many athletes across all sports are concerned about the long-term effects of head injuries, and some have committed to a cutting-edge study aimed at documenting those effects.)
There was a time when smoking cigarettes was cool and celebrated, particularly in the movies. Today anyone who smokes is seen as doing damage to themselves, if not risking the health of others. In football, cool has been defined by toughness — witness unending respect for Brett Favre’s consecutive-game streak. The ability to mete out and absorb physical abuse that would put most people in a hospital, if not cripple them for life, has been a badge of honor.
Today, this definition of toughness is increasingly seen for what it is: the result of indoctrination into a violent belief system that can then be sold as entertainment. I don’t believe the NFL has suddenly become concerned about the long-term health of its players. Like any business, what it cares about is the ability of the league to turn a profit.
The Changing Cultural Tide
That the NFL is now debating and legislating against violent on-field clashes that it used to relentlessly celebrate is not a function of consciousness-raising within the league, but reflects a change in what is culturally acceptable. Not too long ago smokers were able to smoke anywhere and everywhere, including airplane flights, elevators and restaurants. Today smoking in those and most other public locations is banned in the United States.
It’s always been clear that the legal and encouraged on-field violence in football games at all levels of play transcends conduct that anyone would accept in their day-to-day lives. Until now, that violence has been excused for a number of reasons, but the premise of all those excuses has been cultural acceptance. For example, it’s often said that football players freely chose to play football, the way smokers said they freely chose to smoke. Nobody makes anyone put on pads and take a blow to the head, the argument goes, except of course for the parents who allow or encourage or demand it. To say nothing of the allure of media and cultural attention lavished on current and former stars, and the societal respect giving to the game. (Feel free to linger on the implications of that last word for a moment.)
That the debate has exploded is clear, but the tide has been turning for a while. Several years ago the league decided to protect quarterbacks from hits that were still considered legal on other players. Why? Because if all the quarterbacks ended up in the hospital the NFL’s product would suffer. Recently, receivers also came to be seen as defenseless, and rules were added — and are still being added — to protect them. Again, the need for such protections — if one wants to keep receivers from being injured, paralyzed* or killed — has been obvious for decades.
Because most Americans are so heavily indoctrinated into football culture, to a point where they are willing to pipeline their own children into a sport that regularly and repeatedly delivers the force of a car wreck to the bodies of their kids, I think it’s useful to look at another form of entertainment for ethical parallels. Most people, when they go to the ballet, enjoy the romance and artistry of the dancers. Part of this enjoyment is predicated on a lack of knowledge of what dancers — and particularly ballerinas — do to their bodies in order to be able to perform.
Smoking to suppress hunger and to keep weight down is common. Hip, leg, knee and foot problems are not simply common, they’re the norm. (When you see the distinctive walk of a dancer at any age, what you are seeing is not art, but the result of damage inflicted on the body in pursuit of art.) Because dancing is generally a non-contact sport, most injuries tend to take place off-stage, out of sight of the audience. If on-stage injuries were common — if ballerinas regularly experienced compound fractures, say — ballet would at some point have to confront the audience’s inability to enjoy the intended experience.
If football didn’t already exist, and you went into high schools around the country and proposed it, you would be laughed at, if not run out of town by parents concerned about your willingness to subject their children to the risk of (if not the certainty of) injury. At all levels the sport of football as it is practiced today is atavistic to say the least. Yet it remains viable — essentially grandfathered into modern culture — because so many people have invested themselves in the sport as players, fans, or both.
Factors Driving Cultural Change
As noted, I don’t believe the current debate about player safety is being driven by concerns inside the league, or by players themselves. Rather, I think we are at a cultural tipping point, and I see five contributing factors converging on this moment in time:
- You don’t ask indoctrinated athletes what they think about the violence of their sport for the same reason you don’t ask soldiers on the front lines what the rules of engagement should be, or ask smokers where smoking should and should not be allowed. All commentary from current and former athletes is beside the point, if not actually proving the point that the game has fallen out of step with the modern audience. Like a war that has lost support at home, it doesn’t matter what the military thinks. It matters what the country as a whole thinks, and right now the country thinks football is too violent — even if it’s no more violent (or even less violent overall) than it used to be.
- As much as the violence of the sport has always been apparent, even over the last ten years the size, speed, strength and skill of football players at the professional level has grown, and I’m not including performance-enhancing drugs in that assessment. Players are training harder and hitting each other harder, with more force (mass and speed) than ever before. Hits that might have been damaging a decade or two ago are now crippling because the bodies delivering the blows are bigger and stronger, while the capacity of the human brain to adsorb punishment has remained unchanged. Tackling and hitting techniques have been refined to martial-arts levels, and the Machiavellian utility of knocking opposing players out of the game cannot be ignored. (No coach or organization would ever go on the record advocating this behavior, but they don’t have to. Every player understands that depleting the enemy’s forces helps their cause.)
- Awareness of the long-term effects of repeated head injuries, like the long-term effects of smoking, can no longer be ignored by the average fan. The idea that concussions or other injuries could be shrugged off or walked off was always a sham, but audience and industry alike went along with the idea that football players were made of tougher stuff. Now the medical evidence is clear: football players are no different than little old ladies. Throw them down a flight of stairs and it’s going to do damage. For a football player that damage may not show up on the playing field, or right away, but it’s real — and the audience is no longer willing to pretend otherwise.
- Over the past decade or two, in an attempt to minimize injuries, the NFL spent a great deal of money improving the impact-absorbing capacity of helmets and shoulder pads. The net result is that players can hurtle into other players at unbelievable speeds and do less damage to themselves in the process. In effect, as Mike Ditka pointed out this week in a radio interview (that I couldn’t find a link to), the helmet, face mask and shoulder pads have all become enabling weapons, while providing dubious protection against brain injury.
- As football players have become faster and stronger, and the cultural acceptance of violence has waned, television sets have grown in size. A bone-crunching hit is now seen on more square inches of screen real estate, at higher definition, than ever. It’s much more difficult to see crumpled players as abstracted bodies, as they often seemed in the old days. The cameras are closer, the sounds are clearer, and the obviousness of the violence is overwhelming the artificiality of the sport. Audiences simply can’t enjoy the game the way they used to because it’s impossible to deny that the announcing euphemism of ‘shaken up’ means ‘badly hurt’.
Media now commenting exhaustively on this story are not without blame. Television in particular has been a willing participant in reinforcing and exploiting a culture in which the violence of football is celebrated and used to attract audience interest. Euphemisms for injuries during televised games are so common as to qualify for accepted speech, even as most people know that walking off the field under your own power does not preclude a lacerated kidney or career-ending neck injury. The idea that only someone who cannot stand and walk qualifies as hurt is insane, but in the culture of football that insanity is the norm. Fortunately, others in the media are calling attention to this complicity.
What the league is facing now is a need to protect the audience’s experience and enjoyment of the game, and that can only be done if it moves to protect the health and safety of its players. If it can’t do that, more and more people will turn away, tilting remaining interest toward a an audience that actually demands violence. (Hockey got itself in this very predicament for a while, leading to an old joke: “I went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out!)
Football will always destroy young, healthy bodies, and I don’t go so far as to say it should be banned, but on-field play should be an expression of skill, strength and athleticism, not a contest to see who can deliver the most brutal, thuggish blows. Leave that to the MMA.
So, what to do about all this? The league continues to take hesitant half-steps you’d except from any large corporation struggling to deal with its own self-inflicted wound in a context of economic uncertainty. Having routinely invested countless millions promoting the very violence it’s now attempting to pacify, it’s not surprising that there is some internal dissonance.
I think the on-field answer is fairly simple. Any player who lowers their head to deliver a blow to another player should be charged with a penalty. (Spearing is already illegal, but is called in only the most egregious cases.) Take the hitting out of football and replace it with tackling skill. The easiest way for any defender to demonstrate they are tackling instead of hitting is to approach the offensive player with arms extended. Offensive players, including ball carriers, would also be prohibited from leading with the head.
Behind the scenes, the league should revisit shoulder pad and helmet technology with this new rule in mind. Pads and helmets should be re-engineered, the goal being to decrease their size while still providing protection in a less-lethal environment.
I don’t dispute that people steeped in football consider violence to be an essential part of the sport, the same way that fraternity members consider hazing and alcohol abuse central to their way of life. What I do say is that the violence of football has little or nothing to do with my own interest in the sport, and that over the years my discomfort with the brutality of the game has grown to the point that I now see it as quite literally senseless.
I do see a positive byproduct to this suggested rule change, which is that scoring would go up. Unlike NASCAR racing, I don’t believe most fans show up at football games for the wrecks. (That’s a joke, mostly.) Rather, they show up to see points scored and points denied. If scoring increases across all teams, that can only lead to more highlights in the media and more interest among fans. (See also the SEC.)
Decreasing the violence of the game would also lengthen the careers of the most talented players. In the modern NFL it’s rare for a running back to have a long career, and the drop off in production is usually precipitous as damage takes its toll. I would gladly trade bone-jarring hits and injury timeouts that stop the game (and cripple other human beings) for more exciting runs and big plays.
Which brings me to a final point. Another ongoing debate this year concerns the relative parity in the league. I don’t think this is a year of parity in terms of play, but rather a year in which injuries have crippled key players on many teams, degrading the overall level of play. Because of the inherent violence of the game, football as a collective pursuit is now being crippled in the same way that individual player’s bodies are crippled.
Given all the advantages of diminishing the importance of violence, and all of the risks in not acting, I won’t be surprised if the league does crack down on hits intended only to injure other players. To those who believe it will take decades to change the culture of the sport, I can only say that once a cultural tipping point arrives, change usually happens quite quickly, at least at the legislative level. It’s the institutions themselves that often take time to adapt, but if new rules preclude the kind of violence that is now legal, there will be little or no incentive for coaches to teach players to play in a way that penalizes their team. More to the point, if the greater American culture is ahead of the game, it’s the game that needs to keep pace.
I want to get lost in football, the same way I am in other sports. I want the illusion that it matters. I want to care, even as I know that what I really care about is education and hunger and civil rights. Watching other human beings being beaten and broken and dragged off the field hurts my ability to engage the narrative of the sport of football. Currently, when the crowd applauds a strapped-in athlete being wheeled off the field on a stretcher, I think they’re idiots and I’m complicit in the crime.
* “Although controversial, the hit was not a violation of NFL rules at the time. No penalty was called on the play.”
— Mark Barrett