It's the most perfect feeling in the world to know you’ve hit a guy just right, that you’ve maximized the physical pain he can feel. . . . You feel the life just go out of him. You’ve taken all this man’s energy and just dominated him. — Michael Strahan, NFL player, 2007
With the opening games of the National Football League starting in less than 10 days, diehard football fans are gearing up for what they hope will be a competitively exciting, hard-hitting season. It goes without saying that professional football is the most popular sport in America, according to the Harris Poll. What is it about this sport that draws people by the hundreds of thousands into stadiums across the country, while attracting an even larger audience on television and cable each week? Why do we revere, even crave a sport, which on its face seems to glorify violence, invite serious injury, permanent disability, and even death to the combatants? What impact, if any, does violence in sports have on the violence in our culture?
Football takes top spot as America's favorite
Baseball may be America's favorite past time, but it ranks 2nd to football as America's most watched sport. So why do Americans love watching football so much? Ask a fan and you're likely to get an answer like this one:
Football is appealing to Americans because it holds a lot of qualities that they already like. Football has a lot of action from all the tackling, running, kicking and throwing. Every move is open for cheering. This invites watching a football game to be a casual event. Everyone enjoys good food, good laughs, and good times. Football has all of these things.
Undeniably, football is a great spectator sport. It plays well whether you're watching it live in a stadium or on a television from the sofa in your living room. On game day, millions of fans don their favorite jersey to cheer for their team as legalized mayhem takes place on the football field right before their eyes.
Forget the violence, just play the game
An aspect of football's popularity that fans don't like to admit is the violent nature of the game. Football is the third most violent of professional sports, after boxing (first) and mixed martial arts (second). Writer Kevin Quinn says the violence and danger in the game, as it's played today, is a big part of its attractiveness. In his article, "Violence Has Become A Part of the American Sports Culture," Quinn writes:
In today’s sports world, the high premium placed on victory and the fan’s desire to see intense human conflict, has allowed violence to become an accepted part of sports. Violence is craved by America’s entertainment industry and the same goes for America’s sports industry. In sports such as, hockey, football, and even baseball, violence has become an accepted part of the game.
It's sad to admit that fighting appeals to an American society that craves violence. Just like in the movies, violence in sport excites spectators and gets their blood flowing.
For the genuine football fan who watches because of the game itself, the sport is basically a lot of controlled, felonious activity. . .One skilled man’s strength, will, and smarts, against another man, with the goal of unpretty physical domination. And that’s why people watch so much of it. We can deny this fact all we want.
The football fan like[s] big hits. He likes when the television camera can capture that sound of shoulder pads and helmets crunching together. He is fascinated when an ankle rolls like cooked spaghetti, and when a QB’s face ripples like pudding as his head whiplashes from a strike to the sternum. So that fan should just own up to those emotions. (from Blog post by Hidden Chops)
Is sports violence impacting our culture
Ancient Rome had the maiming and killing of gladiators to entertain them. In modern America, we have football. How much of football's contained violence is spilling out into American culture is the question that is causing concern both on and off the field of play. Arrests of both spectators and players for violent crimes, including murder, assault and gun violence, are becoming more frequent. Likewise, the list of crimes committed by players is long. Most notable is the recent case of New England Patriot football tight end, Aaron Hernandez, who is alleged to have murdered an acquaintance. Other current and former players have been arrested for assaults on women, domestic violence, and either jailed or fined for other anti-social behavior off the field. In his book, "Social Issues in Sport," writer Ronald B. Woods ponders the question of whether there is a causal relationship between on-field violence and off-field violence for athletes in sport:
It is not clear if on-field violent behavior leads to off-field violence. Common sense suggests that people who become accustomed to using physical intimidation and violence in sport naturally revert to those behaviors when facing conflict outside of sport. Athletes who hang out at bars, restaurants, or clubs are often targets for other tough guys, who bait them with insults and disrespect.
The athlete, who feels his manhood is being challenged, may struggle not to respond with physical force. However, athletes who do respond physically may be simply reflecting cultural upbringing that was established outside of sport. Sport may not be the cause of violence, but rather a result of the athletes’ upbringing or natural disposition, which led them to choose a violent sport.
Professional athletes aren't the only ones engaging in off-field violence. Violent behaviors have also found their way among high school and college athletes. Can the Pee Wee League be far behind? Even more disturbing are the parents who exhibit violent behavior toward other spectators, coaches, umpires and players over some minor disagreement as their children watch:
We have reached a crisis point today. Contributing to this crisis is TV, which introduces violent athletes as role models to very young children and often focuses attention on the violence in sports. Also, the commercialization of youth sports introduces children to inappropriately competitive sports at an early age. Both as players and as spectators, children are learning all the wrong lessons.
Sports psychologist Dr. Mitch Abrams feels that it is inevitable that violence on the playing field would translate into violence in everyday life and vice-versa. Author of the book, "Anger Management in Sports," Dr. Abrams says:
Our society is a violent society where we have seen increases in violence across the board. Expecting that athletes would not be represented in those increases is unrealistic, especially given the fact that, depending upon the sport, they are reinforced to being aggressive, and arguably violent, in their sport setting, thus making it more difficult for them to know where violent behavior is condoned, where it is prohibited, and how to prevent it.
Can football survive without the violence
God help us, but the answer to that question is probably a resounding "No." Professional football is a mega-billion dollar business that garners a huge fan base largely because of the way it's played. Any change to that format is likely to be hotly contested by NFL owners, who have become billionaires in the process. In recent years, players have made use of collective bargaining to get more benefits to protect players --- like better medical care, a share of the profits, competitive salaries, better retirement package ---to name a few. To its credit, the NFL has addressed the violence somewhat by changing the rules of play and making certain types of contact subject to a penalty.
News of the recent 765 million settlement between the NFL and 4,500 former players over game-related concussions is a victory of sorts. Some suggest that the settlement protects NFL owners' bottom line more than current player health and safety. Nonetheless, as players become more enlightened about the game's health risks, more concerned about their longevity in the game and their future after football, they will be the ones who will change the way the game is played for the betterment of us all.
God will judge between the nations, and settle disputes of mighty nations.
Then they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war. (Isaiah 2:4)