Why football’s inherent violence makes it esthetically corrupt—and downright un–American
“Trout blasts a drive to deep centerfield! McCutchen races back! He leaps and rises up over the fence—but Brown slams into him and knocks the ball loose! The runners all score! And fans, Cutch is down, and writhing in pain! And he is not getting up!
Base–football: or how baseball would be if bone–crunching linebackers roamed centerfield.
With the recent rash of off–field violence by NFL players, the nation is debating the extent to which football promotes violent behavior—though the proposition that football encourages violence seems as obvious as the notion that casinos promote gambling. But I’ll stand back as the debate unfolds.
Instead I offer a sporting perspective, one that some will find heretical: that the violence inherent in football makes it an inferior sport. Inferior on the moral ground that a sport in which success depends on violence cannot aspire to high ideals, and inferior on the connected esthetic ground that the beauty of the game is irredeemably marred by the right of players to violently impede their opponents’ actions.
Have I forfeited my bona fides as an American man? As an American boy, I loved playing tackle football in the rain, and touch football was always fun. As an American man, I’ve watched plenty of big games on TV with friends, and have marveled, as you may have, at the superb athleticism and skill of top football players, especially quarterbacks and receivers. I am far from blind to the allure of football. But there has always been a voice deep within me telling me that there is something fundamentally wrong with the game. And while some may blast me for blasphemy, I have finally decided to let that voice speak.
Consider soccer, the world’s most popular game. The supremely skilled Ronaldinho threads a streaking path through lunging defenders and prepares to unleash a blistering shot—but is knocked on his skull by a vicious defender. Welcome to soccer, American–football style.
Consider baseball—highly popular here, in Latin America, and in Asia. Clayton Kershaw unfurls his majestic cobra–like pitching motion while aiming his magical disappearing curve at a quarter–sized spot at Buster Posey’s knees—only to have his own knees destroyed by a rampaging three–hundred–pound manhunter.
Consider basketball, a growing world game. Steph Curry fakes his man out with lightning–quick steps worthy of a dance master and rises up for a sweet three–pointer—but is knocked to the floor for the twentieth time of the game. And the last time, too, for he’s picking up teeth. NBA, meet the NFL.
Consider the state of tennis, gymnastics, volleyball, track, downhill skiing, and all other sports based on skill and grace, if the practitioners of these sports were prevented from executing their actions by painful contact or fear of the same.
Americans aspire to freedom. Freedom of action has bred new forms of dance; new forms of music, such as jazz, the paragon of musical freedom; original literature; and visionary art. Freedom breeds beauty—and violence destroys it. That is as true in sports as it is in art, for the athletic field is the athlete’s stage. And I would no sooner see the pretenaturally graceful Willie Mays crunched by a linebacker while improvising a magnficent catch, or Ronaldinho thrown to the ground while dancing through a thicket of defenders, than see Baryshnikov body–slammed at apogee.
We Americans tend to forget that football, for all its massive popularity here, is shunned by most of the rest of the world. Could it be that the world knows something we don’t? In the world of soccer, fans vote on which players are the most beautiful to watch. When is the last time NFL fans voted on which players have the most beautiful style?
Some call football the most American of games because America is violent and football is, too. That is a defeatist view, because it assumes that America must remain violent. I prefer an aspirational view. To me, freedom of action is the American ideal—and the violent restriction of freedom is its antithesis.
If America stands for freedom, football is the most un–American game.
(Photo credit: Flickr/Creative Commons – John McStravick)