In the November issue of Townhall Magazine, where this article originally appeared, Elisabeth Meinecke tackles the Left's war on football.
J.J. Watt is a scary mass of muscle on the field.
He’s 6 feet 5 inches tall, a solid 289 pounds, and his job as defensive end is to make NFL quarterbacks know what “fear” means. He’s so good at it that he’s the league’s highest-paid defensive player, making more than most of the quarterbacks he chases.
Off the field, he does things like combat bullying, “propose” to a 6-year-old fan previously upset she wasn’t old enough to marry him, and act like a big brother to three children who survived a car accident but lost their parents in the crash. The ESPN special on the story will make your heart melt: watching Watt just hang out with the kids—two of whom are in wheelchairs—and seeing him struggle to keep tears back as sportscaster Rick Reilly reads a touching tribute to Watt written by one of the kids.
Yet, according to the politically correct police, the sport that Watt plays—and that’s given him this long reach—is bad, you’re bad for watching it, and it’s all contributing to a culture of aggression and violence off the field.
THE LEFT'S CASE AGAINST FOOTBALL
“But it is also incontrovertibly true that football instills less wholesome values, as well. The most basic one is aggression. Of course, there are plenty of sports that require kids to channel their aggression. But football is unique in rewarding those who visit that aggression upon other boys. You don’t get points for empathy. You get points for how hard you hit. Sports pundits continually express shock and dismay when players are aggressive off the field. But what, exactly, do they expect from young men who are lauded and promoted and paid huge salaries for savage behavior?”
So writes Steve Almond in a Slate article titled “The NFL’s toxic lies: Here are the worst excuses fans use to justify watching football.”
Almond, you see, has a theory: Aggression in sports correlates to aggression away from it. Football creates a habit: If you are rewarded for hitting on the field, you may be more inclined to hit off it.
Is that true? When asked if football ever made him feel aggressive away from the game, former player Burgess Owens—a 10-year NFL veteran and Super Bowl winner—was frank.
“Not at all,” he said.
It gets better. If Almond’s theory holds, hockey players have to be worse than football players, right? They get to check guys on open ice and into boards— hard. They actually allow fighting—pummeling another guy with your fist as part of a team sport.
And while they do it, the crowd roars, their teammates might tap their sticks on the board, and the combatants are bathed in glory and possibly blood. Hockey is like football, only faster, more violent, and with dangerous blades and fists. If football makes men savage, hockey must turn them into Godzillas.
Except it doesn’t. Arrest Nation, a database that chronicles arrests in collegiate and professional sports, shows 46 arrests/citations/charges in professional football between January and September 2014, compared to 3 in professional hockey. That’s startling, even given the greater volume of people associated with the NFL. The 2013 stats are more stunning. That year, while professional football had 74 arrests, professional hockey had 2, the same total as people associated with that violent, brutish sport: college volleyball.
Almond’s theory just took in a whole lot of water.
Who is Almond, anyway?
Almond is a best-selling author, a former sports reporter, and he also resigned an adjunct professorship at Boston College because the institution wanted Condoleezza Rice as a commencement speaker. He says football is bad in part because “over the past 12 years, as Americans have sought a distraction from the moral incoherence of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the game has served as a loyal and satisfying proxy. It has become an acceptable way of experiencing our savage impulses, the cultural lodestar when it comes to consuming violence.” In other words, Almond’s NFL fandom suffers under the weight of his political ideology.
As much as he might feel like a lone voice in the wilderness, his thinking is trendy among liberals: Football is bad—morally. It teaches people to be violent, and it hurts the players in a way unnecessary in entertainment. He’s echoed by Rosie O’Donnell on “The View,” saying she found it interesting that the country supported football when, “They’re taking steroids, which really changes their judgment. They’re encouraged and paid to be violent. Same with fighters, with boxers. … I don’t excuse any violence towards anyone, but I do understand how a guy who knocks people over and pushes them down for a living and gets cheered might do that in his private life, even though it’s wrong.” (She was stunned when a co-host pointed out Nelson Mandela once boxed.)
To these people, football’s bad influence seems logical. Almond called it “incontrovertibly true.” They might look at stats like those from FiveThirtyEight. com, showing football players have more trouble with domestic violence than the rest of the population. They might see stories about Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancee out, and Adrian Peterson abusing his child, horrific crimes by anyone’s standard. And they say it’s football’s fault.
But they can’t prove it’s the game that gives players less wholesome values. What’s to say Ray Rice wouldn’t have hit a woman regardless? And what about guys like J.J. Watt, Kurt Warner, and Tim Tebow, who somehow escaped this incontrovertible truth that football instills aggression?
The problem is, the Left isn’t admitting where the real source of violent behavior lies. And it’s not with the game.
FAMILIES, NOT FOOTBALL, AFFECT BEHAVIOR
There is a power to football. If you’ve ever been around football players pumped up, as they might be for a game, you will feel like stepping out of the way. Even on the field, you sometimes feel like stepping out of the way—“It is not a fun process to run full-tilt toward guys who are running toward you full-tilt,” remarks Owens.
What all this is not, however, is the Left’s portrayal of an unrestrained, savage, gladiator-like-fight-to-the-death aggression.
The moment a football player’s cleats hit the field, he is governed by rules, rules that regulate who, how, when, and where he can hit. He’ll get penalized for hitting a guy after a play. He’ll get penalized for hitting a defenseless receiver. He’ll get penalized for roughing the kicker, for horse collar tackles, facemasks, and probably for letting an eyelash brush the quarterback. In football, you cannot simply hit the way you may want to hit, or whom you may want to hit. It’s not unregulated aggression, and it’s not creating an insensitive, violent culture. Plenty of football fans, a few messed up people aside, were incensed when they saw video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée in an elevator.
The problem with off-the-field violence is off-the-field instruction, or lack thereof. Football was never supposed to teach you not to hit a woman. Your father was.
The home is where a football player learns those lessons, just like everyone else.
And it is the destruction of the family, at the hands of the Left, that is the real problem here. “My goal is always to teach my son right from wrong,” Peterson wrote on Twitter in defense of beating his 4-year-old son with a switch, “and that’s what I tried to do that day.” This might sound understandable except that Peterson has seven children with five different mothers. He has very little to teach anyone, especially a 4-year-old, about right and wrong.
“We understood growing up, cause it was taught in our family home, my mom and dad, to respect women, for instance. To respect yourself. That you respect your name. Those are the kind of things we were taught,” Owens says. “What we’re seeing now is more of a reflection of our society. … The sport reflects—and the action of the guys who play the sport—reflects the training they’ve had in their homes. … If you bring a young guy who has no idea what it is to follow rules, [has] no idea to respect people, no value of life itself, and put him on the football field, put him on the basketball court, you’re going to have some issues.”
This isn’t to blame the parents for the sins of the children; Ray Rice lost his father, Conrad Reed, in a drive-by shooting. His mom, Janet Rice, had to raise four children by herself. But the game shouldn’t be blamed for Rice’s poor decisions.
ARREST RATES BETTER THAN THE REST OF AMERICA
In fact, if there is any link to football and criminal behavior, it’s not the game itself, but the celebrity around it. The Harvard Law School’s Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law looked at football and domestic violence in 2010, and came to a similar conclusion:
“…evidence is inconclusive regarding whether athletes are more likely to commit violent acts against women. The San Diego Union-Tribune reviewed news reports and public records from January 2000 to April 2007 and concluded that the biggest problems for NFL players were the same as those of the general population: drunken driving, traffic stops, and repeat offenses. Further, it concluded that the arrest rate among NFL players was less than that of the public population. In an April 2008 update to the study, the Union-Tribune found that the NFL’s arrest rate since 2000 was better than that of the rest of society—there was approximately one arrest per forty seven players per year compared with one arrest per twenty-one for the general population. … Nonetheless, there is evidence that professional athletes are not punished by the leagues, teams, or criminal justice system as harshly or consistently as their general public counterparts. One study indicates that, out of 141 athletes reported to police for violence against women between 1989 and 1994, only one was disciplined by league officials.”
The God complex affects many professions—just ask politicians. It’s not going away, even if football does.
WHAT ABOUT CONCUSSIONS?
But Almond has another concern with the game: injury to players themselves. “[M]edical researchers have determined that brain trauma isn’t just due to the big hits that cause concussions,” he writes in Slate. “It’s due to the thousands of sub-concussive hits that are inherent to the game and occur on every play. The brain is a soft organ. When it slams against the inside of the skull, it gets damaged. No hightech helmet is going to insulate players from basic physics and physiology. And NFL commissioner Roger Goodell knows this. A study commissioned by the league showed that football players are 19 times more likely to develop brain trauma-related illness than non-players. For the past year, league officials have been working to settle a lawsuit brought by 4,500 former players, who accuse the league of covering up the link between football and brain damage. The NFL will likely wind up paying hundreds of millions of dollars to settle the suit, possibly billions.”
The evidence mounts: a player has degenerative brain disease, then kills himself, like Junior Seau; It’s another tragedy people like Almond point to and say, “Enough.”
The damage hitting inflicts on the brain is the game’s most troubling aspect right now, and should be a matter of safety and common sense, not politics. The NFL has even begun addressing the problem by changing the rules to decrease helmet-to-helmet contact. The bottom line, however, is injury in any activity is neither unavoidable nor guaranteed. “At the end of the day, there are risks, there’s no question, in any sport, any activity,” says Owens, who played defensive back and was taught to hit the old-fashioned—and far more dangerous— way before he retired in 1982.
“We were taught to lead with our heads. If I put my head in the chest of a player, at that point, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t miss him. It was not a strategy of trying to knock him out. It was a strategy of how I could give myself the best opportunity not to miss,” he says. “No one the year[s] I played football, coach or player, had any idea of the consequences of the way we hit.”
Yet he emerged relatively healthy.
EVERY PLAYER'S CHOICE
“Everyone has to decide the risk factor,” he continues later. “Things are going to happen that you cannot foresee. You have to decide whether the risk is worth the enjoyment, and what you’re getting out of it. Personally, the risk was so worth it for me, because of what I learned from the sport.”
Owens says the physicality in the game taught him how to run toward his fear, instead of away from it. You can almost hear people screaming in response: surely there are other places to learn this lesson. But that’s not their call, Owens says. It’s the player’s.
“[Spectators of the sport] watch, and they wonder why people go through what they go through,” he muses. “They watch, they wonder why they work as hard as they do, why they put themselves through suffering as much as they do. And then they wonder, why do they put themselves at risk of getting hurt the way they do? And then from the sidelines, or from the spectators’ stands, they say, ‘They shouldn’t do that. You guys shouldn’t go out there and do that because I believe you’re going to hurt yourself, or I believe it’s not worth it for you.’
“But at the end of the day, it’s the guy on the field, the one who’s paying the price away from the field and works out months and months at a time so that that one moment, that they might have an opportunity to perform and be part of something that they feel is worth it, they believe that it’s worth that process. They believe that it’s worth that risk. And they should be allowed because it’s their right, their right, to perform and express themselves that way, as opposed to those in the stands who don’t want to participate, but don’t also want anybody else to participate. …
“Don’t take away the freedom and the right and the privilege of going through this process of those of us who do want to participate.”
But does everyone who participates in football really want to?
The Left doesn’t think so. Not without brainwashing young boys, they say.
Renowned author Malcolm Gladwell, whose books dominate best-seller lists like Michael Jackson dominated pop music, thinks what college football players go through is like dogfighting:
“In what way is dog fighting any different from football on a certain level, right? I mean you take a young, vulnerable dog who was made vulnerable because of his allegiance to the owner and you ask him to engage in serious sustained physical combat with another dog under the control of another owner, right?” Gladwell asks.
“Well, what’s football? We take young boys, essentially, and we have them repeatedly, over the course of the season, smash each other in the head, with known neurological consequences. And why do they do that? Out of an allegiance to their owners and their coaches and a feeling they’re participating in some grand American spectacle. They’re the same thing.”
Except, they’re not.
By 16, we’ve already decided these players can be trusted with a motor vehicle—but somehow they can’t be trusted to decide whether they really want to get up for spring practice. At 18, we say they’re trustworthy enough to shape the future of our country, but somehow they can’t be trusted with their own. At 21, when everyone else has to decide on a career, apparently, they’re incapable of doing so.
Perhaps Gladwell never considered the legions of people waiting and wanting to take spots others are supposedly being coerced into. “Hundreds of players will be released,” wrote SBNation.com when NFL teams paired down their rosters before the start of the season. Those cuts happen every year. Meanwhile, people who can’t play professionally form recreational leagues. In college programs, several players are “walk-ons,” who often get no scholarship, no meals or books paid for, as E:60 recently chronicled. They dedicate their time to the program because, one should be able to assume, they want to be there.
No, says the Left. It’s still your fault, the fan’s fault.
“NFL players are members of an elite fraternity that knowingly places self sacrifice, valor and machismo above ethical or medical common sense. But most start out as kids with limited options,” Almond wrote in a separate New York Times piece, “Is It Immoral to Watch the Super Bowl?” “They may love football for its inherent virtues. But they also quickly come to see the game as a path to glory and riches. These rewards aren’t inherent. They arise from a culture of fandom that views players as valuable only so long as they can perform.”
So a football player’s power of self choice is limited, because for some of them, it’s the only way out. By watching football at any level, you are the exploiter, while they merely get endorsements, speaking engagements, lucrative TV analyst contracts, a free education, and a chance to peace out after college, if they really don’t want to play this game.
Reality check: In football, the draft is still voluntary.
As much as the Left thinks otherwise, men want to play football. Why else would they keep coming back to the game, rejecting retirement, even after they’ve made millions and won Super Bowls and their bodies paid the price? Peyton Manning came back. Tom Brady came back. Brett Favre wouldn’t go away.
Why? There is a power to football. It’s called love of the game. And it’s nothing to be afraid, or ashamed, of.
LIBERALS KNOW WHAT'S GOOD FOR YOU
Feeling conflicted about football will never go away in society. George Sauer, who played on the 1969 Super-Bowl winning New York Jets, was tormented by the game. A new generation brings a new wave of concern.
But why is their angst building steam now? Why is football bearing the current PC crowd’s wrath against violence, instead of boxing or hockey?
Because the Left will always love telling you what to do and what not to do. You can’t smoke, your soft drink must not exceed 16 ounces, you can’t carry a gun because you’re all too darn untrustworthy, and now you shouldn’t watch football if you care about being a moral person, and you shouldn’t play football if you’re a conscientious one.
Welcome to the new NFL: the No Fun Left.
Elisabeth Meinecke is a reporter in St. Louis, Missouri.