Examining the masculinity of sport—and the meaning of the ‘killer instinct’—through the chilling words of NFL players, past and present.
This post was first published on November 5, 2014. Over five years later, with another NFL football season ready to kick off in a few week’s, we thought it was worth another look:
I was sitting on my couch watching ESPN SportsCenter last week when I saw a 3 minutes video that made my jaw drop. The purpose of this short feature was to explain the mental metamorphosis that football players go through in order to transform themselves into hard-hitting warriors on the field.
The video was eerie. It had dark music, showed lots of big hits, and included spoken word quotes from some of the best players in the NFL today and of the past.
The words of the players—reproduced below—made my hair stand on end:
These words raise lots of questions and thoughts:
Is having a “killer instinct” a crucial piece of “being a man”?
Does physical aggressiveness go hand-in-hand with masculinity?
Does mental aggressiveness go hand-in-hand with masculinity?
Are either of these a bad thing?
Is this how we are building men?
Is this how we are building warriors?
Is this how we are building football players?
Does this sort on-field violence spill over into the outside world?
. . . Because if it sounds like war, that’s because it is; it uses the same techniques, the same words.
How does the hyper-aggresive “killer instinct” play out in other sports?
Obviously it’s there in boxing, or other warrior sports like wrestling or martial arts. But a sport like basketball? Well yeah, it’s there too. The question gets asked of all the great basketball players: “Does he have that killer instinct?” Like Jordan. Like Kobe. In fact this has been a criticism of the NBA’s Lebron James for much of his career:
“He’s too nice.”
“Does he have what it takes to be a champion?”
“Does he have that ‘killer instinct.'” Lebron thinks so:
There are different ways to hunt. I watch the Discovery Channel all the time, and you look at all these animals in the wild. And they all hunt a different way to feed their families. They all kill a different way. Lions do it strategically — two females will lead, and then everybody else will come in. Hyenas will just go for it. There are different ways to kill, and I don’t think people understand that. Everybody wants everybody to kill the same way. Everybody wants everybody to kill like MJ or kill like Kobe. Magic didn’t kill the way they killed. Does that mean he didn’t have a killer instinct? Kareem didn’t either. But does that mean Kareem didn’t have a killer instinct? The same with Bird. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a killer instinct. Tim Duncan don’t kill like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, but I’ve played against Tim Duncan twice in the Finals and I know for sure he’s got a killer instinct.
What separates the great players in any sport is mental toughness and desire combined with physical athleticism, speed, and strength. There is one big difference, however. In a sport like basketball or baseball, ‘killer instinct’ refers more to mental toughness, because unlike in football, the players aren’t working themselves into a froth and launching themselves like projectiles at each other.
By contrast, in football, the term ‘killer instinct’ is quite literal. The players are using their bodies as weapons in order to take down—and often maim and sometimes kill—the enemy. And that’s why it’s so chilling.
What does it all say about us? About our sport? About masculinity?
I’m not yet sure.
But I do know that looking at the violence, hearing players say those words, it feels very scary.
(Photo Credits: Associated Press/File (cover – Titans/Steelers); Associated Press/Paul Kitagaki Jr. (Rams/Niners); Associated Press/File (Robert Griffin III); Associated Press/Patrick Semansky; (Steelers/Saints); Associated Press/File (Ed Jones); Associated Press/Don Wright (Steelers/Ravesns))
The quotes used in Good Men Project artwork are from ESPN SportsCenter’s October 29, 2014 video on football on-the-field violence.
Thank you to Theresa Byrne and Lisa Hickey for their assistance on this piece.