Over the past several weeks, the National Football League has taken its hits. There was the appalling elevator behavior of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, brought to renewed public attention by gossip website TMZ. There was the overzealous corporal punishment meted out to his young son by Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. And tying those two together was the incompetence — or worse — of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Add to these public-relations nightmares the ongoing hate crime being perpetrated by the league’s Washington franchise, and the NFL would seem to need a Hail Mary to escape intact.
After all, this is what critics have been claiming for a generation: A sport that permits violence on the field is likely to facilitate violence off it. Thus football players are likely candidates to be wife beaters, child abusers, and all-around thugs — as are the beer-swilling fans who cheer them on. Now along come Rice and Peterson, and their adoring crowds: swaggering proof. In the words of the narrator of Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak, “The same boys who got detention in elementary school for beating the crap out of people are now rewarded for it. They call it football.” Naturally, the book’s villain — a serial rapist — is on a football team.
But the stereotype does not match the facts. Writing at FiveThirtyEight, Benjamin Morris reports that the arrest rate of NFL players is just 13 percent of the national average for men ages 25 to 29 (the average age of players on NFL teams is about 26) — though the percentage varies with the crime. For example, relative to the general population of men in their age group, NFL players commit 5.5 percent as many thefts, but 27.7 percent as many DUIs — the most common offense among them. Still, the highest relative arrest rate, for domestic violence, is only half the national average (55.4 percent), a result that aligns with a 1999 study by criminologist Alfred Blumstein and author Jeff Benedict, which found that the incidence of overall violence among NFL players was half that of the general population. Add these results to the debunked claim that incidents of domestic violence spike on Super Bowl Sunday, and the numbers make clear that, pace the National Organization for Wo-men, the NFL does not have “a violence against women problem.”
But that does not mean the NFL has no problem. If the sport’s rough-and-tumble is not being transferred onto players’ families, it still may be destroying the players themselves. In February 2011, Dave Duerson, a four-time Pro Bowl safety whose career in the NFL from 1983 to 1993 earned him two Super Bowl rings, committed suicide at his Florida home with a gunshot to the chest. He left instructions that his brain be given to the Boston University School of Medicine, which is researching chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative neurological disease, only diagnosable postmortem, that is sometimes found in victims of multiple concussions. Duerson’s autopsy revealed evidence of CTE — as did postmortem analysis of star linebacker Junior Seau and more than 30 other former players. Several living players — including Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett and quarterback Brett Favre — have reported memory loss consistent with CTE. In April 2011, attorneys for seven former players filed a federal lawsuit against the NFL, alleging that the league “deliberately ignored and actively concealed” information about the risks of injuries from players. Approximately 4,500 former players are now involved in similar lawsuits.
As opposed to the “war on women” meme, player safety is a real concern. But it has suffered from the zeal of its advocates. “How different are dogfighting and football?” asked Malcolm Gladwell in a 2009 essay in The New Yorker. “I mean, you take a young, vulnerable dog who was made vulnerable because of his allegiance to the owner,” Gladwell said on CNN in 2013, defending his thesis, “and you ask him to engage in serious, sustained physical combat with another dog under the control of another owner, right? Well, what’s football? We take young boys, essentially, and we have them repeatedly, over the course of the season, smash each other in the head, with known neurological consequences. And why do they do that? Out of an allegiance to their owners and their coaches and a feeling they’re participating in some grand American spectacle.”
It’s provocative rhetoric but subpar philosophy. Consider: The NFL has approximately 1,700 active players; the NCAA reported 70,147 men playing football on campus during the 2012–13 academic year; and in 2009–10, according to census data, 1.1 million high-school boys were playing football. Football players have a reputation as meatheads, but at least a few of these 1.2 million players exercised more choice in the matter than Michael Vick’s pit bulls.
Gladwell’s hit, like so many, smacks less of concern for player safety than of a constitutional distaste for the masculine brutishness that characterizes football. Note that no one is calling for the end of girls’ soccer, even though, according to the Journal of Athletic Training, high-school females who play suffer concussions 68 percent more often than their male counterparts. No, in many liberals’ utopian vision, sports — if they had to exist at all — would be less Meadowlands-scrum, more meadowland-frolic. The barbarism of football was supposed to be sloughed off with the times. Boys — make no mistake: football remains a game of, by, and for Y-chromosome carriers — were supposed to take up cross country, or tennis, or urban dance.
#page#But guys like to tackle one another — and have, historically, been willing to countenance the bumps and bruises. During an interim in the battle against Troy, Homer recounts, not content with the dangers of war, the Greeks memorialized their fallen hero Patroclus by boxing and wrestling. And in early medieval times, Shrovetide in England was celebrated with a game of “mob football,” in which entire villages pummeled one another to get the ball to the goal; according to an ancient handbook, the only unacceptable tactics were manslaughter and murder. Proper libertarian sport, that.
The history of Homo ludens is the history of young lads mashing one another into the sod. Unsurprisingly, that is a mixed heritage — but in our sanitized age, we increasingly pound the vices to the detriment of the virtues. Football is an outlet for America’s “lust for violence” and “patriarchal domination,” writes Steve Almond in Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. His disdain for the NFL’s inclination “to channel our desire for athletic heroism into an engine of nihilistic greed” is not unfounded — but the NFL and football need not be synonymous, as University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson observes in his Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game. For Edmundson football is “potentially ennobling, potentially toxic” — it can breed “brutality, thoughtlessness, dull conformity, love for the herd mentality and the herd,” but it can also be salvific; football (and philosophy) saved him, Edmundson writes. “When a boy is trying to grow up, football can be a form of education that works when no others can.”
In an age when tee-ball leagues refuse to keep score and P.E. dodgeball is denounced as “murderball,” it makes sense that, as a Harris poll found earlier this year, professional football is far and away Americans’ favorite sport (and college football is third). Tuning in on Sunday afternoon does not have to be a matter of bloodlust; perhaps Americans simply still appreciate the strength and grit and fearlessness that football — increasingly alone among pastimes — celebrates.
And celebrates not merely pro forma. The manly charm of football is that it involves real, actual danger. Strength and grit are on display because there is danger, because it requires grit to run for the end zone knowing eleven other players are hurtling themselves at you. Of course players celebrate touchdowns. As Craig Ferguson quipped, “Anyone who’s just driven 90 yards against huge men trying to kill them has earned the right to do jazz hands.” Baseball can be elegant and contemplative, basketball can be swift and gymnastic — but they cannot be tough the way football is tough. And critics who think we, as a species, have moved past “tough” are fooling themselves.
But a cultural divide seems to be forming with football at its center, and a moment of reform for the sport might be at hand. So is there a path forward for football — one that recognizes the physical dangers that the game can pose while also retaining the game’s traditional vigor? Yes.
As a matter of safety, options exist. Leagues can make liberal use of safety equipment (the quality of which has been steadily advancing in recent years), and they, of course, should follow practical medical guidelines. The practice of allowing athletes to play with concussions, for instance, will not stand up to increased scrutiny, nor should it.
Some contend, though — and not unpersuasively — that more concussions are, in fact, an unintended consequence of better helmets; that armored to the hilt, players are more inclined to throw themselves about recklessly. One counterintuitive approach would be to remove helmets, which would encourage players to protect themselves. A less drastic option would be to keep the helmet but remove the face mask. Regardless, moving players away from head-first tackling toward something more like rugby’s bear-hug technique is likely to be a necessary step in reducing head injuries.
That said, if informed adults decide that the potential benefits of playing professionally outweigh the risks, why should they be victims of sanctimonious tut-tutting?
In any case, increased attention to safety alone will not suffice, if football is to continue to serve its “potentially ennobling” role, especially for its youngest players. Coaches with an eye to the dignity of the game would do well to reject, as much as possible, the spectacle and theatricality that have made the sport a vehicle for achieving celebrity rather than simply a good game worth playing. For the vast majority of players, football will not be a career; but the virtues that the game can instill can serve them in whatever career they choose. Coaches and players, even professionals, should keep in mind the long view. NFL players, too, will spend much more of their adult lives retired from football than playing it.
Football has its Ray Rices. But it has also had Tom Landrys and Pat Tillmans and Peyton Mannings. Of those figures — men of the best sort, forged in the heat of two-a-days — we could use many more. “Football may be the most potent form of education that America now offers,” writes Edmundson toward the end of his book. We would give up something important if we decided to ignore the lessons it has to teach.