It isn’t Dan Bernstein’s fault that I don’t follow football much anymore. My declining interest in the most popular sport in the United States has been going on for some time, probably for the last ten years. I’ve talked about that at various points around the blogs and at some point I think one humungous blog about why I don’t watch football is due. This is more pin-pointed than what that rambling post would be. This is about a recent stop of the television on a game and my continuing realization that football is at a crossroads.
I was flipping through the channels the other day and came upon the Cowboys/Browns game. I may not be that interested in football these days, but it’s still really hard for me to look away from those god-awful brown and orange uniforms. I associate so much of my youth and adolescence with the Browns that when a game pops up, I take a look. The game was close and almost over. The Browns made an impressive stop and got the ball back with only a minute and change left to play. Then it started to happen.
There was a fifteen yard penalty on a horse-collar tackle. I completely understand why this is deemed illegal, but two things are apparent regarding this play. First, replay showed that the defender didn’t get the runner by the collar, but by the hair which isn’t illegal. Second, when watching the play at full-speed it begs the question: how does a player NOT make that sort of tackle? What I mean to say is that as a runner is getting by a would-be tackler, it seems only natural to latch on to the runner in any way possible.
After the Browns scored on a really slick pass in the seam and the Cowboys received the ensuing kick-off, the second play that made me realize the sport is at a turning point occurred. Browns safety TJ Ward landed a powerful hit on wide receiver Kevin Olgletree. At the same time, Ward’s teammate Buster Skrine, had come in low on Olgetree and basically everybody’s heads kind of collided (though replay shows that Ward did not make helmet to helmet contact). The upshot of all this was Ward received a penalty, Olgletree and Skrine received concussions. Much like the previous incident, it is really hard to see where a player, Ward in this case, could have realistically done anything differently. My first reaction to the flag on the play was, “come on! How can that be a flag? Ward couldn’t have stopped if he wanted to!” When Ogletree and Skrine didn’t get up, I felt uneasy. Basically I enjoyed watching two people get seriously injured, and what made that unease even worse was the fact that the collision was unavoidable. The very nature of the game makes it so. After the game, Ward received a fine for the hit. Not only does that seem unfair, but a bit hypocritical.
The NFL and the fans want the games to be exciting, physical and dramatic. In short they want the games to BE football. Even if the most violent acts are taken out of the game, the essence of the game is still to hit the other guy as hard as you can in order to stop his progress. That fact can’t change and still be called football. It is at its core a violent game. Violence is intrinsic to the game and there really is no way around that fact. Without the massive explosions and impacts on each and every play, football isn’t football anymore. On every play, the players are doing damage to their brains, not just on the dramatic plays that result in concussions. We are literally watching young men bash their brains in for our entertainment.
In order to watch football and enjoy it, one must compartmentalize what is happening. In short, one needs to be a hypocrite to some extent, especially if, like me you forbid your son from playing football. Dan Bernstein bristles at being called a hypocrite, but it is a true hallmark of western society. We often ignore awful things in order to enjoy other aspects of our lives. The British Empire doesn’t become the British Empire, fostering such things as the Enlightenment and capitalism without the slave trade and later exploitative colonialism. I don’t get cheap clothes for me and my children if some poor person, more than likely a child, isn’t working in conditions I would find reprehensible. I don’t get my favorite toy, the iphone, if Chinese workers aren’t being treated poorly. The list goes on, but you get the point. The more we learn about the damage that occurs to football players, the more we need to have this type of cultural blindness. Don’t get me wrong: if you enjoy football, great, enjoy it by all means. I can’t condemn you for that because I willfully ignore many similar things. I guess I’ve come to the tipping point in my enjoyment of football mostly because of my son. As Bernstein says from time to time, “you only get one brain.” I want my son to use his brain to its fullest extent for a long time, well after I’m dead. I just don’t feel right cheering on an activity that I have deemed off-limits to my child. I want those boys and young men to be able to use their brains for a long time as well. In the end, I guess I want a slightly clearer conscience.