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Thursday, November 7, 2013

The NFL–A Mirror Of America

Thomas Boswell has written an excellent reflection on his long love affair with the NFL.  I and he came of age in the era  of the giant Giants – Y.A. Tittle, Sam Huff, Andy Robustelli, and Frank Gifford.  Neither one of us ever missed a Sunday afternoon in front of the TV watching these taped, bandaged gladiators battle each other in the mud, rain, and cold.  Like everything in the late 50s, sports were simpler.  Professional football was in its TV infancy, still a marginal entertainment compared to collegiate athletics, but still  something outsized and glorious.

An Alabama-Ole Miss game in those days was still congenial, respectful, and very Old South.  Players checked in and out with the referees, rare were ‘unsportsmanlike conduct’ penalties, and the best part of Saturdays was not the game but the tailgate parties before  the game and the celebrations after. ‘The Game’, the Harvard-Yale contest to end the Ivy League season was a friendly, congenial affair.  A bit like the camaraderie between the Union and Confederate officers who had attended West Point together.

There was far more at stake at a Giants-Packers game.  Victory meant money, a few more years in the trenches before knees gave out, and the glory that only a moneyed game could confer. Professional football was dirty, brutish, and mean; and we loved it even then.

Little did those of us who grew up in the early days of the NFL know what the NFL would become.  It is only a wonder that it took so long for the age of innocence to disappear.

The NFL today is condemned for reflecting the worst of American society – brutality, bullying, and a kill-or-be killed ethos of mayhem.  The problem is that the NFL is exactly and precisely like America.  We are no longer – and perhaps never were – the God-fearing, respectful and community-minded Americans that Norman Rockwell depicted.

America has become the economic, social, and cultural laissez-faire society that Adam Smith envisaged. We celebrate individualism, individual liberty, and enterprise; and accept our ineluctable, brutal, unforgiving, self-protective, and aggressive nature as the engine of our success.  

Why, then, are we so surprised at the excesses of the NFL?  On any given Sunday the raw aggression of America is in full view. Despite protestations to the contrary, we love the helmet-splitting high hits that knock quarterbacks into the next century, the low hits that send running backs catapulting, the blind-side, crushing collisions that bend wide receivers in two. We love to see them all twitching and writhing on the turf or dead-still motionless.  We officially criticize Brandon Meriweather for his actions (killing quarterbacks) and shudder at his words:

“You’ve got to tear people’s ACLs and mess up people’s knees now. You can’t hit them high no more. You’ve just got to go low.

To be honest, man, you’ve just got to go low now, man. You’ve got to end people’s careers, you know?"

Why? He is being honest.  If the NFL is going to penalize going for the head, he says, then we will go for the knees.  In either case we are out for total neutralization of the opponent.  Nothing new here. It is disingenuous and idealistic to assume that Meriweather or his aggressive, aim-to-maim teammates are aberrations. It should be no surprise to anyone that Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints put bounties on the heads of opposing players.  This was just a small, added incentive, to players who were already in the game for big money.

The NFL is not only made up of Americans, but of those Americans who have clawed their way up from the nasty streets of Houston, Chicago, and New Orleans.  For them the NFL has been the best way to wealth, fame, and glory; and no one is going to take it away. These men bring an additional dimension of violence and brutality to the sport.  They make it even more exciting. A professional football game is America distilled – aggressive, hungry, and win-at-all-costs

The NFL is what everyone wants.  The fans love the blood sport.  ESPN loves the violence, the crushing hits, and the violence.  It loves the playground fights and the trash-talking pushing and shoving about respect.  Corporate sponsors love the carnage and the scary personae of the players.  Paraphernalia men love the bad boy, tough, and get-outta-my-way image of the NFL.  It sells hats and jerseys. And the owners rake in the cash from it all.

                                                Sharrif Floyd, NFL  Minnesota Vikings photo

The NBA projects that image even more; but this cover photo of the once-reigning bad boy seems almost tame by comparison.

The liberal press is currently upset about ‘bullying’ in the Miami Dolphins locker room. Why are they surprised and outraged? Aggressive, high-testosterone, males from the tough streets of inner city neighborhoods intimidate, bully, and threaten as a normal part of life.  Respect is the code of the streets. Why do they assume that the very attributes which got them to the NFL should disappear once they don their jerseys?

As Thomas Boswell writes in his excellent piece on the NFL (Washington Post, 11.7.13), the NFL’s problems are legion:

The NFL is the league of thug bullies such as suspended Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito, who allegedly extorted money, texted racist insults and made death threats to a younger teammate. It’s the league of $15,000 stripper parties in Las Vegas, paid for by intimidated, hazed rookies who don’t make the trip but pay the check even if it busts them.

In short, we made the NFL in our own image, and we should not surprised that it looks like us.

The NFL is the league where star quarterbacks face sexual harassment or rape charges and a hero of the last Super Bowl has beaten a murder rap. The NFL is the league that, to save money, fights in court to maintain a college-based feeder system for its pro talent, contributing to corruption of college athletics. The NFL is the league that used incompetent scab referees last year to wrestle a few bucks from its real officials.

Of all these moral failings, perhaps the worst is the college system which systematically recruits poor athletes, trains them to play football and nothing else, and spits them out after four years after having realized millions in stadium revenue thanks to them.  College administrators know that poor black athletes have few avenues to success; and that recruiting them will be a breeze.  The athletes themselves know that their chances are slim of making the NFL, but the American dream being what it is, why not give it a whirl? Alumni are happy because fast runners from the Delta fill the stadiums.  The NFL is delighted because the SCC serves as its minor league for which it pays nothing.  And fans are happy because they like to see Ka’Deem Carey leave tacklers in the dust.

“If the NFL doesn’t alter its culture, it won’t be “America’s game” forever”, says Boswell. Changing the culture of the NFL is to change American culture, and that, I’m afraid, will happen no time soon. Bullying, intimidation, ‘respect’, greed, and ambition are as American as apple pie; and until we purge ourselves of these particular attributes, the NFL will remain the same.

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