If we can figure out a set of rules for violence in war, why can’t we do it for the NFL?
Sometimes I hate thinking about sports. I just want to watch two large men collide like a Mythbusters experiment. Despite my deepest desires, we are forced to think about our sports, why they are a certain way, and whether it makes any sense. When thinking about why Ndamukong Suh deserves to be punished for stomping on another player, your justification might result in an arbitrary distinction between permissible and impermissible violence separated only by your own notion of provocation. To test this, see if your logic is consistent with Pat Lee’s ejection earlier in the game.
Without a philosophy of violence governing the rules, we don’t have a rule of law or a system of fairness. Our intuitions are tyrants above our laws. The Code of NFL Violence is reduced to a circular flow; an act of violence is committed based on a player’s intuitions and emotions, then our intuitions or emotions tell us whether it’s right or wrong, which results in the league making rules as to whether those acts are permissible. Intuition governs this equation, and logic is absurdly absent.
We all know there’s nothing arbitrary about our collective outrage at Suh’s actions. In order to justify our outrage, we not only need to understand why we punish people—I recommend Brian Burke’s assessment of punishment—but also why we allow violence in some respects but not others. (If you think violence is only allowed in response to other violence, society doesn’t agree with you.)
As Burke summarizes in his explanation of punishment, “It’s critical for a violent sport like football to constrain its violence.” Football fans hear this often, but the game is inherently violent and demands to be played violently. As the debates regarding defenseless receiver penalties highlight, to ask players to adopt a territorial mentality and simultaneously consider the welfare of their opponent is arguably contradictory. How can we demand players fight ferociously for every yard, insist they clobber anyone who gets in their way, but expect those emotions to dissipate the second the whistle blows?
Most people don’t find this contradiction convincing, and yet have difficulty articulating why. To understand it, first recognize the game has a purpose. Football stadiums aren’t modern Roman Coliseums, appeasing the peasants with violence for violence’s sake. The games have an end, a goal both teams are competing to achieve (other than simply survival). This is a similar concept to Carl von Clausewitz’s theory of absolute war. We all know sports aren’t war, but the similarities with respect to rules are worth considering.
Despite popular conceptions, there are rules in war. The Geneva Conventions are formal, written codes about how you may and may not kill each other in a time of armed conflict. Carl von Clausewitz, a military general and theorist, believed there to be no such thing as “absolute war,” in which conflict is disconnected from motivations. Every conflict has a reason—whose merits will be debated until the end of time—but ultimately can be traced back to an original social or political goal. An absolute war would be a war without a goal.
War and sports both have a host of written and unwritten rules limiting the actions of those involved. In both types of conflict, the rules are imposed with the implicit recognition of a goal to be achieved, a purpose for the violence. If violence is inherently purposeless, then a rule has been broken.
As tends to be the case with abstract concepts, a violation is painfully apparent when committed, such as in the form of Suh’s foot. The goal of sports is to win the game, and the purpose of violence in football is to use your bodily force to prevent the other players from advancing down the field and getting points. Once the play stops, the ball cannot be advanced. Therefore, Suh’s actions could not have been in the spirit of helping his team win. He lost sight of the goal of violence in football, which is why he ought to be punished.
Generally speaking, when a player commits a violent foul after the play is over, he approaches absolute war; his act is independent of the goals of the game. Similar to war, football attempts to regulate the violence involved to keep the goals of the conflict in focus. The Geneva Conventions regulate against whom and with what means deadly force can be used, while dead-ball penalties prevent players from using the type of violence that’s perfectly acceptable during play. Both sets of regulations attempt to maintain the perspective of conflict; why are you committing violence? Given the goal, against whom and at what time should the violence be targeted?
None of these questions have easy answers. In fact, it may seem like all I’ve done is make a simple case more complicated. But remember, we—the commissioner, the owners, and even the fans—are demanding players make split-second decisions about which acts of violence are OK and which aren’t. We all know stomping on someone after the play is wrong, but what about the circumstances that led to Pat Lee’s ejection earlier in the game? He was fighting for position with two Lions players during the play, the whistle blew, but the fighting continued. The referees happened to see Lee’s punch, but not the previous shove-punches by the Lions players. Was Lee’s ejection justified? Why weren’t the Lions players punished?
If we simply left it to our intuitions to decide which acts are abhorrent and which are smart football plays, then we’re also allowing the players to use their intuitions about which acts of violence are permissible. With the speed of the game and the emotions of conflict, their intuitions will be very different from any observer’s. Even outsiders’ intuitions sometimes differ in hindsight, like in Pat Lee’s case.
Should Pat Lee have been ejected? Few asked this question, partly because Pat Lee is an unimportant special-teams player, whereas Ndamukong Suh is a budding superstar. But people also didn’t ask because they didn’t have an answer; our intuitions don’t have a strong preference regarding Lee’s actions, so neither does the Code of NFL Violence. But the Code of NFL Violence doesn’t have to be so circular. After all, if we can figure out a philosophy behind the rules of war, then football can’t be that hard.