The Beginning of the End of the Gladiatorial NFL

The new NFL season started last night, and, to be honest, not even the fact that the inaugural game cruelly managed to feature both teams that have beaten my team in a Super Bowl could have diminished the excitement. By the end of the game, my fantasy opponent’s ownership of Rob Gronkowski and his three touchdowns had admittedly altered my mood a bit, but still, only on the margins. Everyone loves the NFL. The league has maintained a three-decade stranglehold as America’s favorite sport, and it’s not close (baseball trails by an incredible 21 percentage points, according to a 2014 poll); in fact, the NFL has outpaced its competitors of late more soundly than ever. Peyton Manning and his giant forehead are not disappearing from your favorite Paja John’s advertisement anytime soon.

However, football’s domination of the American sports scene is not a foregone conclusion. Baseball gives us the country’s oldest major league, and, oh right, is the national pastime. Basketball remains the playground game of choice; it can be adapted for any number of players, it requires no expensive equipment (think about the cost of a ball and a hoop compared to the cost of, say, a field, two goalposts, and 22 helmets and sets of shoulder pads), and it can be played anywhere that city planners can squeeze in a slab of concrete. Even soccer, long the unpopular international exchange student who insists on Skyping loudly in the library at night, is rapidly closing in on Little League baseball with respect to youth participation, and the number of soccer fans in the U.S. will likely increase as the millions of kids who grew up playing the sport become spectators as adults. The ability to stream games online and the plethora of available TV sports channel packages, too, help storied international soccer teams and leagues to more firmly establish fanbases in the U.S. Why, then, do the other major sports still manage to bow meekly to the unrelenting tidal wave of the NFL? (Hockey, you say? What is hockey?).

There are a number of things in play here. As Coach Taylor taught us, high school and college football teams in many places are almost as wildly popular as their professional counterparts and lend to the sport an extended geographic reach that allows towns, cities, and even entire states without an NFL team to develop the same passion. Football’s entrenchment on Sundays (and Mondays, and Thursdays, and sometimes Saturdays, but still, mostly Sundays) also creates a sort of organic festive atmosphere that holds strong appeal for even casual fans, a phenomenon most clearly illustrated by the de facto national holiday of Super Bowl Sunday. But the most interesting reason that the football dominates so thoroughly dominates its competitors in popularity is also the most insidious: people love football because football is scary and brutal and violent as all hell. Basketball and baseball and soccer, by contrast, are games of balance, skill, deftness, and dexterity. Yes, football also requires those skills, but it is uniquely defined by its focus on strength, force, and power, a series of eleven one-on-one fights disguised as a comprehensive children’s game.

All for good reason: people generally prize the idea of uncompromising territoriality, of not only defeating the other side but also crushing them in the process, because they are foreign and inferior and other. To be clear, there’s nothing immoral or callous or evil about this instinct; instead, it is simply an evolutionary byproduct of those profoundly unfortunate eras when people actually had to kill other people (or giant man-eating tigers, as the case may be) in order to survive, and it is driven by the same primitive impulse underlying your reaction when you see a spider crawling on you, only way less hilarious. Indeed, while those who invoke it are rightly criticized for comparing themselves to soldiers who fight and die in the name of public service (God bless you and your hilarious rants forever and ever, Kellen Winslow), war imagery comes up repeatedly in football. But even setting aside the issue of taste in a time when American troops are regularly killed overseas, the metaphor still wouldn’t be quite right. Professional football players are not performing a necessary activity, and winning a football game is no public service. Their games, while enthralling and exhilarating and electrifying, are entertainment. Players are not soldiers. They are more like gladiators. And just as it was two thousand years ago, we still love to watch.

The most basic blessing of modern post-industrial society, besides air conditioning, is of course the fact that, for the most part, people don’t need to kill or hurt or destroy other people anymore. This is the whole phenomenon that led to gladiators becoming a thing in the first place; after Rome solved or mitigated many of the basic problems that had plagued humanity for preceding millennia (note: but they still had no air conditioning), Roman society suddenly had no reason to cherish the art of battle that, up to that point in history, had been the primary determinant of success. So, then, make it a sport. Put two people in a ring, let them fight to the death, gush in wonderment at their skill and strength and bravery, and then go home at night to your home, your family, and your sanitary water. Football doesn’t feature quite as many maces or broadswords, but it is an otherwise similar response to the relative safety and comfort of modern society: line up across from one another, fight for every inch, impose your will on the other side. Skill, strength, and bravery. Go home at night to your home, your family, and your Xbox One.

We now think of gladiator games as barbaric and cruel; given that someone actually died at the end of every match-up, this doesn’t seem like this would have been a particularly difficult conclusion to draw. Our understanding of the effects of football, however, has been slower. Only in recent years have scientists finally uncovered the impact that football has on the body, thanks to a combination of technology, empirical studies, and a sickening wave of players dying from concussion-related diseases or, even more sickeningly, by their own hands as concussion-related mental illnesses overtake them. Whatever pain it is that prompts a father of three young children to point a gun at his chest and pull the trigger, I hope to God I never have to experience it.

Look, to be clear: sports are great! I love sports. But I cannot ignore the fact that football is literally killing the people who play it. Perhaps that result is not as visible or spectacular as it was with the gladiators, but the outcome for far too many participants, eventually, is the same.

Fortunately, history shows that a trend like this won’t last; look no further than the fact that your local city’s gladiator team hasn’t signed any free agents in a very, very long time. Moreover, what we today consider fundamental tenets of sports were in fact significant safety-related modifications to longstanding practices; baseball began requiring batting helmets after a pitch to the head killed Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in 1920, and the NBA enacted strict penalties for fighting in the protective-gear-free environment of basketball after Kermit Washington nearly killed Rudy Tomjanovich with a horrifying on-court punch in 1977. Outside the sports world, policymakers understand the need to respond to previously undetected occupational health crises: the proliferation of black lung disease led to the enactment of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969; the Industrial Revolution and the sudden spike in horrifying factory work-related accidents spurred the development of state workers’ compensation schemes; and the landmark Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 responded to, among many other things, the gradually developing body of knowledge regarding the ill effects of child labor and of long, uninterrupted work shifts. Just as we changed the regulation of mining, factory production, and hours and overtime pay, so too will there eventually be changes to the way football is played.

In the meantime, individual NFL fans have explored many different ways to respond to the still-evolving understanding of the health effects associated with concussions and other football-related injuries. Many of my friends have pledged not to allow their children to play football at all, a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree, except for me, this is because evidence gleaned from their father’s career indicates that my children will probably be terrible at team sports, but whatever. The hardiest of souls have even sworn to stop watching the NFL entirely, which, hahaha, like the NFL is going to miss your money, you loser.

While I concede that the latter approach is one of several entirely reasonable responses, and I understand the consternation and hand-wringing over what fury our actions hath wrought, I cannot pretend to be a football-basher. As I’ve made abundantly clear, I can’t wait for this season and for all 1,392 Jimmy Graham receiving touchdowns that will inevitably come with it. But I will also look forward to future seasons of football that promise to be fundamentally different. And whatever you feel about the NFL as you now understand it, changes that will make the game safer and more humane are coming. The football that you watch 20 years will be played by smaller people at lower speeds and with less impact, and will more closely resemble flag football or ultimate Frisbee than football as you know it today. It will be less ferocious and less violent, and your grandchildren will listen in awe as you describe to them the collisions, the injuries, and the deaths that once permeated what was supposed to be a game played on Sunday afternoons. Most importantly, professional football players will no longer resemble gladiators who unnecessarily put their lives on the line every day. They will instead be healthy, happy men who one day teach their grandchildren to throw a spiral. And all of those things will be good.

For now, enjoy the season, and may it end in any way other than this.

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