Friday, October 29, 2010

Football: Something has to Give

Let's take football and deconstruct it.  Lay it bare upon the field between the goal posts and see what lies inside the ball, and the player's need to drive it down the field toward some imaginary line.  Let's take all the violence of the game, the hitting of tanks against each other resulting in concussions and long term mental conditions, and let's reduce it to the basics of human nature.  Take apart the game itself, and you are left with mankind, with a man himself, and the insatiable desire to be victorious.  The coach says, "Winning is everything."  Such words could never be more true in the minds of man. 

I once quoted a blog dealing with Tribalism and Football by a John Stonger, from a blog site called Heretical Ideas.  The website is no longer there, of course. Such is the effervescent nature of the Internet, where ideas come and go, flickering like a candle flame until it is blown out when someone can't pay their bill.  Good articles shouldn't just be deleted (I have all my blogs printed out on paper twice at least, so that it won't be electronically destroyed.) But I digress... 
Basically, it says that, someplace in the subconscious region of our brain, we retain the tribal instincts of our ancestors.  Like animals, we recognize the idea of the Alpha Male and Alpha Female.  That even in this society, there are always people who are better than others, stronger, faster, smarter, and those should fight to reach the top.  And this happens every day, from the financial world to the political one. Although now days we're not talking about using clubs or, in the case of my brother's cats, claws and teeth, to best one another.  We have reached a point where victory is one of mental power, of financial success.  But still we like to see the power of brute physical strength triumph over those who are like-built.  It's been this way for a while, from the Ancient Greeks and their Olympics, to the Roman Coliseum, to today's professional sports. Even in Meso-America, where soccer games meant the winner was a hero, and the loser was sacrificed to the Gods.  It's not so different today (the loser, or the manager of the losing team, usually gets roasted on the Internet and then fired from their job.) than hundreds of years ago.  As I've said in previous postings, the modern day Football player is no different from the Gladiators of Ancient Rome.  Well, except for in Rome, the Lions usually won. 

We like seeing people succeed in sports, breaking records, claiming victory over those much larger than they are... but we also like to see them fall.  The gladiator of Rome would become a hero to those after a Farve-like performance, but there was a certain satisfaction in seeing the loser, well, die or get eaten by some ferocious animal.  We want to see the quarterback get sacked.  Those who are pleasant and civilized are suddenly wanting the Defensive Backs to break a QB's arms.  Violence is wished upon to other humans, and in this case, it's perfectly legal and even encouraged.

The ironic thing is that, at least in the Pros, this happens mostly on Sundays.  The Bible tells us to be humble, to "turn the other cheek," to forgive our enemies.  Then we go home (or to Applebee's) and cheer at the TV when someone gets knocked unconscious by a devastating tackle.  Society has in its very essence a desire to be non-violent, and it does so by having outlets for violence to occur in highly regulated, specific ways.  Thus, sports are a needed and healthy part of today's world.  A recent book on the matter of violence in Football calls it A War without Death.  It makes sense to use the "war" metaphor when talking about football (go to Youtube and find George Carlin's act on Baseball vs. Football). 
So it comes as no surprise, given the situation, to find that ESPN's NFL PrimeTime show, prior to the Monday Night game, took off its "Jacked Up" section, where they showed the most vicious hits of the week, and replaced it with a "Com'On Man," where they complained about stupid things that happened that weekend. The former section was very popular, so it seemed odd to have it pulled. 

The reasoning is that with the current hype of helmet to helmet hits being investigated by the NFL and most media outlets, any type of untoward violence on the field, even the acts which we might find satisfying and entertaining, must be looked at.  Thus ESPN did the politically correct thing and eliminated a platform by which defensive players could be shown in a highlight reel.  Yet the vicious hits still are shown on replays and reels time and time again on Sportscenter and even in the games themselves.  So the media is both promoting and condemning such violent physical acts. 

I think Canton would be a good place for the media to go, see the players that are in the Hall of Fame that were originally inducted. Those that played many years ago, and see how we have evolved from light infantry players to heavily armored Abrams M1A1 Tanks.  The padding on the uniforms and the thickness of the helmets make each player a veritable battering ram, and the NFL has allowed this all to protect the player. 

Which is why the person with the best opinion on how to curtail concussions and violent tackles is Joe Paterno, who has lived through most of the modern football era.  His idea is to get rid of part of the helmet, the facemask, in order to change the psychological mindset of defensive players.  Troy Aikman said here that even getting rid of the helmets all together would eliminate such hard hits on the players.  Makes sense to me. 

In a time when such extreme punishments are given out for using performance enhancing drugs, football players become superhuman when they put on all the padding and the protection and the rock of a helmet and go play. But if football becomes a sport of pure human physical endurance, of psychological tricks and athletic ability, all this tanking of players isn't necessary. 

What else can be done to eliminate the injuries sustained in football?  Well, after making the humans more natural, let's make the field more natural.  Artificial turf is wonderful for domed stadiums for northern cities, but it has no give when you are plummeted down upon it.  If you hit the soft grass and mud, the impact will be absorbed somewhat.  Try doing that on plastic or concrete. 

Ultimately, however, the line from Airplane! fits this situation best. "They bought their tickets. They knew what they were getting into." Football players, when they accept the millions of dollars in payment for becoming gladiators for all of America to watch, know that they are going to become bruised, squashed, tackled, and probably injured along the way.  They know that, afterward, they will probably have lingering pains and problems on throughout life, but they accept the money  and the contract anyway.  And while the unfortunate mental conditions brought on by concussions can lead to abuse, suicide, even murder, in some respects, it is a risk that the player is taking when playing Football.  That having been said, the NFL should have the best health insurance in the world, using the finest of doctors to look after players after they retire.  It should be as the secret service is the President.  We all watch these men destroy themselves for the sake of our entertainment, and we agree with the paychecks they receive. We should give them the same respect and benefits after they leave the game and must face real life with the pains they have endured.  Something has to give.  It should be the padding, the playing field, and, ultimately, the NFL.

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