If baseball is, or at least used to be, a languidly paced sport played on an asymmetrical greensward that recalls America’s agrarian past, football is an industrial product of the modern age. Confined to a precisely measured rectangle that mimics the electronic screen, football plays out in staccato bursts of violence, interrupted by commentary and meta-commentary, near-pornographic slow-motion replays and scantily clad young women selling you stuff. Though I’m not sure that the commercials during the Super Bowl, or any lesser football game, really have much to do with consumer products as such. Instead, they’re selling an idea, the idea of the sort of person you must be if you’re watching the game: Funny, alert, sexually alive, a bit self-mocking, surrounded by friends and endlessly loyal to football, to America and to television.
Also, you’re apparently the kind of person who enjoys watching men do irreversible damage to each other’s brains. A bit of a buzzkill, I know. Football these days looks a lot less like symbolic or theatrical violence and more like the real thing. This brutal collision sport, which is essentially unique to North America, is deadly to those who play it and toxic in other ways to those who worship it. It has poisoned many otherwise honorable American campuses with corruption and hypocrisy: If Jerry Sandusky using his association with the revered football program at Penn State as a cover for raping children is by far the worst example, abuses of a less dramatic sort are widespread in college football.
While the murder-suicide committed in December by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher certainly could have happened in another setting — such things are entirely too common in American life – it reminded us that the hyper-masculine culture of team sports has a vicious dark side that’s all too often inflicted on women. It also referred us back to that 1990s debate about the connection between spectator sports and domestic violence, which has not been anywhere near as conclusively debunked as football fans like to believe.
Let me put it bluntly: Would you want your daughter (sister, friend) going to a kegger thrown by the local football team? Didn’t think so. I wonder if the frequent concussions don’t have something to do with extreme lack of impulse control and aggression that often manifests in rape by athletes? Regardless of the reason, I’ve known enough female victims that I can’t see the culture as anything but toxic. Giving them your adulation only makes it worse.
I still remember working the copy desk the night Nicole Simpson was found murdered. As the updated wire stories came in, I turned to my managing editor and said, “It sounds like the cops think O.J. Simpson had something to do with it. We need to hold a spot on the front page.”
Joe, the former sports editor, got very agitated. “No, no, you don’t understand. This is O.J. Simpson! He won the Heisman trophy! I met him once, he’s a helluva nice guy!”
I looked at him like he was crazy. Only a man could have that level of cognitive dissonance about an athlete, I thought to myself. “Okay, whatever,” I mumbled. And of course we all know the rest of the story.