Civilized countries should not play football

Yesterday’s Washington Post had a dispiriting article about a draftee football player, Kyle Long, all six feet and 313 pounds of him. Kyle’s father is hall of famer Howie Long. Football runs in the Long family apparently, as Kyle is a third generation football player in his family. Kyle will be a new offensive lineman for the Chicago Bears this fall. He’s about to get paid big bucks to bash into other very big, very heavy and muscular men. And like his father Howie, the more he succeeds the more likely he is to be seriously maimed from football. His father has undergone thirteen surgeries due to his football career.

The NFL is concerned about all these injuries, many of them concussions, but of course not concerned enough to go out of business. No, it is trying to walk a fine line: protect players from injury, figure out better ways to treat injured players while doing its best to pretend that all those past injuries were not its fault and it has no particular liability beyond whatever severance contracts are in place with the unions. Few successful football players can avoid a concussion or two, so it’s likely that Kyle will deal with a few of them in his career. He is likely to be also encounter plenty of sprains, torn ligaments and broken bones. If he is like most “successful” football players he will spend his long and extended retirement somewhat crippled, in a lot of pain and consulting with a lot of doctors.

You don’t even have to be a football fan to have heard about the Washington Redskins star quarterback Robert Griffin III. He tweeted yesterday that he was cleared to start practice, this despite severe injuries last year, multiple surgeries and extensive physical therapy that is still underway. They were made worse when he was allowed to stay on the field by team doctors when he should have gone to the hospital. Across the NFL there are a lot of hurt players, a lot of players that are queued up to get badly hurt and of course thousands of former players that are still hurting years or decades after their careers ended. Why? Because we want them to get hurt. Okay, maybe we don’t wish to actually have them injured, but these facts don’t deter them from the excitement, money and glamor of playing professional football. We fans of course are very excited about the whole game of football and the violent crash of players. The NFL puts helmets and padding on them in the hopes they will not get injured, of course, but experience shows that it happens. It’s unusual to get through a game of professional football without a single injury.

My modest proposal: make them play flag football. We both know how well my suggestion would go over. At best it would get a derisive laugh. If fans pondered it for any length of time though they would understand that much of what draws them to football is its violence. No, it’s not exactly gladiators fighting in a Roman coliseum, but it’s as close as we can come two millennium later. Football and other violent contact sports like wrestling and boxing allow us to reconnect with our warrior past, albeit safely and through proxies. Of course our proxies are not transformers; they are flesh and blood people. Line up rows of well-padded athletes weighing hundreds of pounds each, have them repeatedly charge at each other and players are going to get hurt.

Football playing simply models in real life what we watch repeatedly in television and the movies. Few things sell tickets more than violence, real or simulated. Few of us actually lust to be in violent situations, but we do like to imagine being in violent situations (and coming out triumphant). Violence is scary but also exciting and it seems a whole lot more real than the dull reality that most of us endure instead. Watching football though is better than watching a violent movie. In the movies you know it is all faked. In football, players can and actually do get injured. When we see RJIII limping off the field, we coo in sympathy for his pain. He did it for us, so we could win this game and move toward the Super Bowl.

We tell ourselves football is just a game. I disagree. Any game where actual violence is at its center is not a game. By definition, if it’s a game, it’s not real. Football is quite real. Who wins the Super Bowl really doesn’t matter, although it makes a lot of people very happy or very sad. Nations don’t collapse. Wars don’t begin. But actual people are regularly injured, sometimes seriously, and frequently endure a lifetime of pain. Why? It’s apparently because we still carry some bloodlust in our hearts and it means enough to us where we want to pay for the privilege to see it done publicly.

A truly civilized country would outlaw any sport where there is a high probability that players will be seriously maimed. Football and boxing are two obvious sports in this category. Arguably hockey is as well, although it does not have to be. It could be reformed with a “three strikes and you are out of the hockey ring permanently” policy. There are games that are gritty and look like they should be violent but which actually are usually not. Rugby is one of these games. Perhaps we could make rugby our new national pastime.

Billion dollar businesses like the NFL aren’t likely to go away as a result of legislation, at least not in my lifetime. Many would argue that we have a constitutional right to enjoy football, and players go into the game fully aware of the risks of traumatic injury and lifelong pain. Yet we outlaw bullfighting because it is inhumane to the bull. However violence is perfectly okay in professional football that destroys and maims healthy athletes. I just find it curious that we go out of our way to make safety such an important part of our lives, and just don’t seem to give a damn when it comes to violent sports. It makes no sense.

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