I once asked a friend whose son was playing football in the 7th grade what he felt when he saw his child getting hit and knocked to the ground. His reply shocked me: “I love it,” he said, staring me straight in the eye, daring me to be surprised! “It means,” he continued, “that he’s playing the game the right way!”
Football is a modern equivalent of gladiatorial contests in Rome, that other imperialistic, military state. Consider for a moment this scenario: the quarterback in the pocket trying to find an open receiver, surrounded by mayhem as linebackers, linemen, and offensive linemen manhandle one another to protect or attack him, not unlike a medieval bear tied to the stake as baying dogs jostle each other to get to it (the QB, like the bear, has little room to maneuver unless defenses break down and he can run for his life). As this unfolds there’s a split-second when one of the defensive players breaks free of his guard just as the ball’s about to be released. As we watch, our reaction depends entirely on what happens in the next instant—if the quarterback is on the opposing team and he throws the ball before he is tackled we are deluged with frustration and fear that his pass might be for a big gain; if he gets hit before, immeasurable waves of satisfaction course through us. In fact, the more vicious the hit the greater the concomitant gratification. But the moment before this happens is why we watch the game—that nano-second replete with blood-lust and screaming intensity, held on to as long as possible before being released in an orgasmic flood of pleasure. How different then is this moment from the ones Roman spectators experienced just as a gladiator’s sword plunged into the hapless body of his victim? In fact, they even had the option to decide who lived and who died! The sounds from two millennia ago reverberate today across every football stadium in the country, with spectators screaming for blood as players brutalize one another!
I remember watching my alma mater Florida State play football in the 90s when they were perennial title threats. One year in particular, their defense was so good and so feared that during the championship game the commentators, with obvious awe in their voices, counted how many opposing QBs hadn’t even survived the first quarter! When an elite quarterback is shredding our defense, who among us would not like to see him knocked out of the game with a violent hit? There comes a moment in every game when that seems the only viable option if our team is going to win. That’s not even a dirty secret; it’s an obvious sentiment to any fan (short for fanatic) who has suffered under the yoke of several losing seasons in a row and even among fans whose team won last year! Tom Brady is the most successful QB of the last decade. If you’re not a Patriots fan you hate him; at least, most of us do! Not only is he a constant threat to the wellbeing of our fandom, he’s also considered good-looking, at least good-looking enough to be married to a supermodel. So it’s perfectly rational that we should hate him more! In every personality test there are certain trick questions designed to test the veracity of the test-taker—there’s only one acceptable answer. For example, would you smuggle past customs a contraband substance you desperately desired if you were certain you wouldn’t get caught? There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The only answer is in the affirmative, unless your name is Gautama, Jesus, or Mohandas. If you don’t want Brady out of the game you’re simply not a fan, period! Yes, we can win with Brady still on the field, and yes it would be more satisfying, but who wants to take that chance?? Getting rid of him with a “legal” hit allows us to breathe easier and enhances the reputation of our defense!
Why then do we feign shock on discovering that there were bounties offered for injuring opponents, particularly quarterbacks? We can say as much as we want about skill and finesse and speed, all of which are present in spades, but they are all couched in a violent package. Witness the uproar by commentators and former players against the Commissioner’s attempts to reduce violence in football; they seem to be afraid that the so-called integrity of the game (by which I assume they mean the traditional ways of playing it) will be compromised. This in the shadow of a class-action lawsuit that incorporates over 80 pending lawsuits from former NFL players and the families of deceased NFL players, claiming the league hid the links between concussion-related and other head trauma and permanent brain damage.
It’s just a game, isn’t it? And no-one dies. There are helmets and body armor and rules, directives designed to cast a civilized hue over the proceedings to protect the so-called integrity of the sport; parameters drawn up to restrict emotional explosions to the safety of a controlled environment where referees and umpires armed with yellow flags and whistles may call the howling hounds to heel! No-one is forced to participate, until you remember that the lure of millions of dollars belies having a choice! And we don’t have to watch, until you remember, and here’s the crux of it, that we may be hardwired towards violence. When I was in high school I remember watching a boxing match between one of my friends, Rodney, against a rival school’s best boxer. Rodney was a pugilist—tough and vicious in the ring, a force like Mike Tyson. The other boxer was a stylist—light on his feet, perfect technique, balletic. He was scoring quick points against Rodney, dancing his way to an easy victory until he got cornered and Rodney unleashed a flurry of combinations. Suddenly I realized that I was standing on my chair together with several hundred other boys and girls screaming, ‘Kill him, Rodney! Kill him!” I’ll never forget that moment because as soon as the other boxer hit the canvas, knocked out cold, I watched myself, in an out-of-body experience, turn into a Roman! I’ve eschewed boxing ever since, because I know beyond any doubt that Grendel lives inside me and it won’t take much to resurrect it!
I’m not an anthropologist or social psychologist so I don’t want to inject any simplistic psychobabble about living in a violent society. All I can say is that football flourishes because we enjoy watching the other team’s players get their heads bashed in before they can score a touchdown! And I who loves baseball, cricket, and Olympic hockey (not the NHL so much) for their artistry, and soccer for its sublime beauty am drawn to football for its speed and precision, but sadly also for its simple brutality!