We Love Our Football

The Hartford Courant recently published an op-ed piece by John Crisp on a subject near and dear to me: football (“Rethinking Our Undying Love of Football in the Wake of Hamlin’s Injury,” January 19, 2023).  I’m a big Buffalo Bills fan, and I’m always interested when football hits the mainstream (as opposed to the sports) news media.  I find that the mainstream news media often get it wrong.  John Crisp got it wrong.

Of course, I’m nothing if not opinionated, and I find that the mainstream news media often get it wrong on most subjects that are not mainstream.  Why?  Because most subjects, be it football, the manufacture and distribution of baby formula, the politics of Bolivia, whatever, are complicated.  Most subjects are truly understood only by people who live their lives within the subject area.  It’s often less important to the news media do the work to get it right than it is just to make it interesting.

Don’t get me wrong – no one has cornered the market on quality opinion.  Many insiders are myopic and fail to see the greater significance of their area of specialty, and some opinion writers take the time to study and understand the nuances of a subject that is outside their ordinary area of expertise.  However, outsiders have a tendency to see only what they want to see, and the result often is opinion that misses the point.

Crisp takes off from the recent medical event suffered by Damar Hamlin to comment on injuries in football and America’s love affair with the game.  He suggests that the immediate and long-term effect of injuries to football players ought to cause us to reconsider whether it’s prudent to play, watch, and promote the game.  Or at least I think that’s what he thinks.  He concludes that America’s attachment to the game is simply too great to expect the country to give up football.

Crisp tries to convince us that there are too many injuries in football, and too many major injuries.  Predictably, he trots out concussion data.  He seems to want us to believe that injuries in football are a growing problem.  In fact, the injury history in football is improving – rule and equipment changes keep making the game safer, and the treatment of sports-related injuries has made significant gains.  He would have us believe that injuries are a bigger problem in football than in other sports, but there’s a lot of data on that subject, and the data show that there are plenty of injuries, including a lot of concussions, in soccer and hockey and basketball.  Claiming that football injuries are worse than other injuries is sort of like claiming that one President mishandling classified documents is worse than another President mishandling classified documents.  We’d rather that no one got injured in sports, and we’d rather that every President treated confidential information appropriately.

Crisp misses the point.  If he wants to argue for the de-emphasis of football in America, he should be talking about the very nature of the game.  Injuries aren’t the problem in football; our culturally ingrained favorable disposition to warlike, violent behavior is the problem.  More about that, below.

Sports are, so far as I can tell, a more or less universal recreational activity among human beings.  Everyone plays sports, particularly adolescents.  Sports are universal, I suppose, because youngsters of most any species use competition as an activity that develops survival skills.  That is, sports are the human equivalent of two bucks butting heads.

Spectator sports also have evolved, I believe, as a way for human beings to channel their combative, aggressive instincts in a way that satisfies human urges without causing too much actual damage.  Over the millennia, human beings have developed the habit of watching sports to satisfy their urge to actually fight wars.  Sports help human beings rein in some of their worst tendencies so that we can live together in a relatively civilized way.  It’s better for pretty much everyone involved to watch the New York Giants attempt to maim the New England Patriots than it is for New York City to send a small army to kill a few Bostonians (especially in a country that allows the New Yorkers to carry firearms).  Giants fans everywhere can celebrate beating the Patriots, and no one has to die.

The team sports that are the most popular in the world are territorial sports.  Football, basketball, soccer, and hockey are the same at their core.  (Baseball is different.)  You have your territory to defend, I have mine; you want to take my territory, I want to take yours.  Unlike in war, in sports it isn’t enough simply to occupy the territory – you have to do something with it.  You have to put an object in a particular place, be it a hoop, a goal, or the end zone.  In order to do that, some degree of physical skill is required, including size, strength, and speed, and the very nature of the game always engenders some person-to-person physical contact.  The objective and the rules are designed to limit the amount of actual violence that occurs in the game.  Without sufficient rules, sooner or later the players in any territorial sport would be trying to score by injuring their opponents intentionally.  For example, the easiest way to win a hockey game would be to stab the opponent’s goalie several times and drag their corpse away from the goal.  Therefore, knives are not permitted in hockey.  Without a goal and rules, sports would be war, and the whole point of sports is to find a way to compete that isn’t war.

The problem with football is that it’s too close to war, much closer than any of the other sports.  Knives aren’t permitted in football, either, but to a great extent the outcome in football is determined by actual hand-to-hand combat.  It’s eleven players trying to acquire real estate from eleven other players simply by using brute strength (and strategy).  I win if I can overpower you consistently.  That’s unlike basketball, hockey, and soccer, where the nature of the objective and the rules significantly limit the application of brute strength as an effective strategy.  If my players are more or less the same size as yours, I can’t count on winning by overpowering you, and the rules largely prohibit me from trying.

Football isn’t the problem; American culture is.  Why is football America’s game, while most of the rest of the civilized world is obsessed with soccer?  Why has basketball been so much more successfully exported from the United States to most of the civilized world, and football hasn’t?

First, the whole point of the experiment that began with the very first European settlers in North America has been to permit people to live with as much freedom as possible.  That ethic has continued for four centuries.  Americans have more personal freedom than citizens of almost any other modern, civilized country.  It isn’t surprising that in the country with the most personal freedom, the most popular spectator sport is one where the combatants have the most personal freedom to do whatever it takes to win.  Football players actually fight each other, unlike basketball players or soccer players.  Football players who fight well are admired; their fighting demonstrates their freedom.  People in most of the civilized world have less personal freedom, and their spectator sports (soccer, hockey, basketball) allow the players less personal freedom when it comes to violence.

Second, whether we (Euro-centric Americans) like it or not, our history has to a great extent been centered on fighting wars to achieve our goals.  We fought the British, we fought the natives we found here, we fought each other, we fought the Germans, we fought the Japanese.  That’s what we’ve been proud of, and that’s been a large part of our way of life.  War has been at the core of our foreign policy in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Our culture has glorified our military history.  If war is a fundamental part of our cultural history, and if we have more liberty than anyone else, it’s almost axiomatic that our national game would so closely mimic war.

If we’re talking about football’s place in American culture, I should note that NFL players come disproportionately from red and purple states.  Texas is number one, Florida is number two.  Ohio, Louisiana, Alabama, and North Carolina are in the top 10.  I do not intend to suggestion any connection whatsoever between politics and football; however, our cultural behaviors have roots, and it is at least interesting to consider where certain behaviors have taken root most strongly.

The problem with football is not the injuries.  The problem with football is that it is reflective of our culture, and that’s a mirror we don’t like peering into.  The question for Americans is not whether we can or should tolerate the injuries.  The question for Americans is whether we can play and watch football and still call ourselves civilized.

Whether I’m civilized is a question for others to judge.  For now, I’m an American, and I avoid mirrors.  Go Bills!!!

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