With all the talk about violence going on elsewhere in the world, perhaps in the spirit of intellectual honesty (and avoidance of rank hypocrisy) it is prudent to turn inward and look at how violence is part our own lives. More subtle than flying airplanes into buildings…we can be violent even in the ways we consume and throw away things (and people we treat as things) on a daily basis.
But sometimes the violence in which we participate isn’t so subtle after all.
It is a late Saturday morning. And, for me anyway, its not nearly as good of a late Saturday morning as it could be…simply because there is no football to watch this afternoon. I’m serious. But isn’t this just a bit pathological given what we learned this week about the brain of suicide victim, and former Notre Dame and Chicago Bears defensive back, Dave Duerson?
We know late Bears safety Dave Duerson’s brain was damaged and deteriorating from head blows he received while playing football.
What we don’t know is whether he was hurt more than other NFL players of his era, whether he had a predisposition to lasting brain damage, whether he unknowingly reached a certain cumulative ‘‘tipping point’’ that put his brain over the edge or when the effects of the blows to his head kicked in and made him unstable and demented.
Oh, and depressed. Certainly, no one who is not depressed shoots himself in the heart with a handgun.
Duerson’s death and subsequent brain analysis are almost the stuff of fiction. No one but Duerson has committed suicide in a fashion that would preserve his most intricate and sacred organ for study while acknowledging that it was his brain that was malfunctioning.
Indeed, Duerson was closely involved with the NFL’s disability board and knew more about the ravages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) than most.
And the other thing we don’t know is what the certainty of Duerson’s cognitive impairment means to the millions of boys and young men who play football at levels far below the NFL.
But it sure means something.
What if what it means is that we shouldn’t watch or otherwise support American football anymore? I’ve said many times that football is so beautiful because it combines brute force and raw caveman violence with the most complicated chess match you could ever imagine. In light of the effect this violence is clearly having on the people who play the game, how can I possibly make this claim anymore? How can I delight (and I do) when the quarterback from the opposing team takes a blindside hit and his neck snaps back? Or when a safety reads a crossing route perfectly and absolutely hammers the wide-receiver just as the ball gets there? Perhaps my favorite kind of violence in football is when, on a lead-dive play, the fullback and the inside linebacker gather as much momentum as they possibly can and absolutely smash each other at the point of attack. And I don’t think I’m alone in this…the XFL was designed precisely to react against the little the NFL was doing to protect its players from such violence. Many of my fellow fans get upset at the new penalties created for hitting players in the head, or plays stopped ‘early’ (that is, before a player takes the massive hit they have coming to them).
Is this sick? Obviously wrong? Do our Christian leaders need to step up and condemn fellow Christians for participating in and supporting this kind of violence?
It wouldn’t be the first time. In the Church’s early history a major issue was the fact that Christians were spectators at the Roman gladiatorial games. Important Church fathers like Tertullian, Gregory of Nazianzen, and Basil lambasted Christians for going to the games. (Though it didn’t stop many of them, some were even threatened with excommunication for attending.) In his book Emperors and Gladiators, Thomas Wiedemann explains that these critics were worried in particular about the effect that watching this violence would have on the spectators.
The Church fathers were wise to worry about this with regard to the gladiatorial games, but what effect is American football (to say nothing of the national embarrassment that is mainstream viewing of the ultimate fighting championships) having on millions and millions of its spectators? Are we perhaps more likely to resort to violence to solve problems? Are we less likely to see alternatives to violence?
Perhaps football explains America in ways with which we should start becoming far more uncomfortable.
Watching football is clearly immoral, and you must give it up immediately. You don’t seem to be fully convinced that to watch football is wrong, but I believe in order for you to watch it in good conscience, you must be fully convinced that it is right, or at least morally neutral.
Okay, I am joking. I think in order for a sport to be violent, the physical actions of players against each other must be intended to injure. Boxing, it seems to me, is clearly violent. But although injury is common in football, I don’t think intentionally injuring opposing players is part of the game.
The 10 most dangerous jobs according the the Bureau of Labor Statistics are as follows:
3. Aircraft pilot
6. Structural Iron/Steel Worker
7. Refuse Collector
8. Industrial Machinery Maintenance Worker
9. Truck Driver
10. Construction Worker
Of course, the danger is not from violence, but still, if I eat fish, I am benefitting because people who are not all that highly paid are putting their lives at risk. Fishing, by the way, is more than three times as risky as the next most dangerous job on the list (Fishing: 200 deaths per 100,000; Logging: 61.8 deaths per 100,000). Should we give up eating fish?
David, the issue is not danger…the issue is designed and marketed violence…and the violence that has on the players and the spectators. The game is designed in part to be violent. And TV uses violence (in the form of ‘big hits’ in highlights designed to get you to watch) to market the games. Game plans are sometimes designed to use violence against a certain player (hit him enough times and he’ll fumble, get frustrated, throw a careless pass, etc.) in no uncertain terms. Teams even go after players with injuries in a manner which plays on the weaknesses associated with their injury (blitzing a quarterback, or cut blocking a linebacker, with a bum knee, for instance). This is not accidental or even something that is seriously tried to be avoided…as with the examples you offer above. To the contrary, there are big parabolic microphones on the sidelines designed to pick up the sound of every crunching hit for our listening (and viewing) pleasure.
You should spend more time watching basketball–more beautiful and less violent (unless you are Andrew Bynum in the fourth quarter as your team gets swept by the Mavericks).
Seriously though, I have trouble getting up in arms about the possibility that football, as you say, perhaps makes us “more likely to resort to violence to solve problems” when there are so many other more violent spectacles that are part of mainstream viewing. For example, I would say a good half of the movies that come out these days have at least one scene which totally desensitizes us to violence and perhaps makes young viewers much more likely to “resort to violence” in times of stress. When little kids watch football, at least in my experience (and this is admittedly anecdotal) they tend more to get up, go outside, and start tossing a ball around, not clock each other in the back of the head. On the other hand, even my four year olds at church start imitating the violence they see on even the most seemingly innocuous films. I would much rather have a thirteen year old watch a game of football than the new Karate Kid for example:
It is good that we are learning more about the dangers of brain injury in sports like football and I think the moral impetus should be on the NFL to de-incentivize certain attacks to the head during games to protect the players and make the game more “sporting.” But I think that a game that encourages camaraderie, team work, and above all, physical activity, is not a grave moral concern.
Not to go back to the virtues of b-ball, but in today’s Mavs-Lakers match-up, Bynum and Odom were ejected for overly-violent moves against J.J. Barea. Maybe one way the NFL can start to imitate the virtues of the NBA is by more frequently ejecting players who endanger the health and well-being of their opponents.
As someone who never watches football (except when a game runs into the 60 Minutes time slot), I was not aware that it is real violence. You are convincing me. But I have to say, I have a deep suspicion that you have no intention of giving up watching professional football. Am I right, and if so, why did you raise the question?
I’m not sure whether I’d give up football or not. When I first started thinking about our consumerist practices with regard to non-human animals, for instance, I never thought that in a million years I’d end up giving up meat…and, though it took time, I did just that. I simply want to raise the question and see where it goes. Perhaps there could be an acceptably non-violent version of football that I’d still watch…but I’m not so sure about that. Each time I think about the fact that serious violence is part of what draws me to football it makes me more and more uncomfortable.
This is not a difficult moral question. It was solved long ago, and the solution’s name is “baseball.” Anyone who doubts this should read David Bentley Hart’s definitive metaphysical defense of this indisputable truth. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/07/a-perfect-game
Now I am going back to reading about how pitiful it is that my beloved Twins have a catcher platoon whose batting and slugging averages are 30 points below… National League pitchers!