Friday, June 15, 2012

It's a different NFL era, does it have to be?

Football may have reached a cultural crossroads considering its hyper popularity conflicting with its hyper violence. But is it just the victim of a hyper perfect society?

As Grantland's Chuck Klosterman says in a recent column, it might be a nonexistent intersection, which will never reach a conclusion. But I wonder if we were able to simplify our collective thinking so that it more closely resembled the way we used to be before the Unlimited Information Era, then perhaps we could slow down football, and in turn, dial some of its issues down to a more manageable level.

Now I'm not talking about concussions specifically, because as we know, head injuries have become a rather grim and sad indictment of today's full-contact NFL football. I'm speaking more broadly about the way people function today, and the way many football players function today - with this sort of pseudo-bravado and hunger to be not only the best, but the most visible, the one who hits the hardest, delivers the most damage, or appears on SportsCenter most often. It seems for many NFL players, the literal conquering of the opposition, is more important than making a sound play. Intensity has been replaced by ferocity. Physical dominance has been replaced by brutality. If this is what is important to so many, as the New Orleans bounty case has shown us, then what hope have we of quelling the unnecessary component of football's violence? And when we say unnecessary, we must consider the excess violence that some players partake in. 

The argument we commonly hear is that football is a violent game and that's that. But we might also conclude that football has never been more violent than it is right now, and it's because many of the people playing the game consider themselves an extension of the tackle - they are weapons. These individuals are part of that hyper perfect society - overly engineered, over achieving Terminator types - who show all the concern for their on-field colleagues as a drunk driver. Can't football be played with a degree of responsibility? Well, of course, it can be.

When pro football players wore leather helmets, and labored through slow, muddied and grinding affairs, in which running, not passing, was a special commodity, we imagine there were less brutal injuries. We believe this because at a slower pace, with less equipment, men were less able to intentionally damage others, and as a result, their minds weren't geared towards it. Of course, the game became more dynamic, people grew bigger, moved closer to perfect, and were equally equipped with the latest technology - the hyper society complicated a simple game of yardage. 

But launching at another man with a cannonball atop your shoulders isn't really football, is it? It's an attempt to sideline someone. If that's football, the game of great athletes, clever tactics, and unparalleled story lines then I must have missed something.

There are no easy answers to dealing with violent sports. But other games manage. Rugby is played by more than a hundred nations, for example, and you rarely see the type of horrific collisions in rugby that you see in pro football. And to the naked eye, rugby is a far more bruising affair than the NFL. That's because the game's owners, and supporters, and protagonists, cling to the tradition of the task - not to merely the way the task looks. They're committed to the skill and strategy, to tackling with the right techniques, and less to the spectacle. The NFL is spectacular, and moves pretty fast, and we love it. But some of its people need to stop and take a look around every once in a while, or they could miss it. 

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