It’s an unpopular question because, try as we baseball fans might, it’s hard to deny that football is truly America’s pastime. Baseball used to be; football is now. But, as I sat and watched hours of football with relatives this Thanksgiving weekend, I began to wonder if the violence on the screen was a product of or a cause of the violent attitude of the American psyche.
There is little room to deny that America is a violent nation. Among affluent nations, America ranks embarrassingly high in gun violence statistics, with around 9,000 people per year being murdered through the use of firearms. But surely gun possession cannot be isolated as the sole cause of violence in America. Other countries have guns – you know, lots of those socialist countries over there on the continent. They just don’t shoot them. There’s a popular pie chart floating around Facebook right now that suggests that America has been at war for 214 of its 235 years in existence. That is, of course, only true if you count the Vietnam War, which was, in fact, a “conflict.” So there’s that.
But what constitutes something as intrinsically violent? How violent is too violent? And is it OK to have violence in our culture instead of merely pretending it does not exist? Sure. But the case I am making against football is not one confined solely to the easily identifiable consequences. If I did, it would look something like this:
Football is the most dangerous sport for a kid to play. According to the National Center for Sports Safety (NCSS), 28 percent of all football players aged 5 to 14 will sustain an injury, higher than any other popular sport. Nearly 413,620 injuries occur every year as a result of playing football. This is second only to basketball. However, the basketball injuries mostly involve strain on ligaments from constant starting and stopping while running. Most of the football injuries involved collision contact. The average career of a football player in the NFL is 3.3 years. While a short football career can also be attributed to retirement or being cut from one’s team, injuries are a common cause. MLB players average 5.6 years; NBA players average 6.1 years. Golfers and bowlers play until they die. The leading contributor of this is old age.
But rather than focusing just on the injury statistics, I’m concerned with the attitudes engendered by the sport. Football is ensconced in an extensive war metaphor. As George Carlin once brilliantly parodied, much of the language around the sport resembles battle banter. The games are played in places called “Soldier Field” and “War Memorial Stadium.” Football, as Carlin says, “has hitting, clipping, spearing, blocking, piling on, late hitting, unnecessary roughness and personal fouls.” It has a two-minute warning, which, if tied goes to sudden death. Carlin, again: “In football, the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, launches an aerial assault with deadly accuracy, in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory…with a sustained ground attack.”
Carlin was a joker and a satirist, but I wonder if the language of football does not indicate or enforce the attitude of the game. In fact, this arrives precisely at my point. The question, is football too violent, is not really a matter of the safety of the players. There are ways that can be fixed. It took a few broken hands to bring gloves into baseball. But what kind of effect does the violent voyeurism of football have on the audience? What attitudes are being cultivated in people who treat football games like ceremonies or religious rituals, who gather at specific times weekly with their loved ones, break bread together, share libations and engage in superstitious behavior? And furthermore, what happens to us when we cheer a man tackled to the ground?
I do hope none of this sounds too preachy. I don’t know what the answer is. Despite my tone, this commentary is inquisitive in nature. It’s a strange phenomenon, don’t you think? Or don’t think about it, it’s rather uncomfortable to do so. It’s much more comfortable to drink beer and shovel in turkey while watching the game, but don’t think you’re not being conditioned. When I broached this topic briefly with a relative this weekend (Well, you can’t talk about politics, so what else was I going to say?), he quickly, defensively fired back, “Well, they choose to play the game.” Do they? Or, like most of us, are football players victims of and products of their environment, of a culture who cheers when they tackle and jeers when they blitz? And while fame and fortune await those who find success on the turf, can you blame them for trying?
No, football is a distinctly American sport because it tickles a distinctly American ethos. Professional football took to the gridiron in 1920, but we’ve been at this since 1776.