Very little of substance was said at Roger Goodell’s, the National Football League Commissioners, news conference last week regarding the issue of domestic violence reported among the players. The issue finally came to a head within the past month or so when a video emerged of a professional football player knocking his wife unconscious in an elevator. Goodell was caught in a bind because the player was at first only suspended temporarily and there was some indication that the League was covering up for the player. This incident was only one of a series of recent situations where a well-known player used physical violence on a family member. But this is not a new syndrome, violence among pro football players and their family and friends has been known to be a problem for a long time. Goodell was forced finally to address it. This incident in the elevator was not even the only recent singular one. In the last week another series of pictures was released of scars and scratches on a young child caused by a player who whipped his son with a twig, or switch. Here too, this player had done something similar with another of his children years prior.
Perhaps not much will ever change or could ever really change and despite the discomfort I feel at saying so I am not astonished by the apparent passivity of the commissioner. He did say he was apologetic and the NFL Code of Conduct would be revamped to better handle domestic violence issues among the players but his words sounded hollow, even robotic, without true determination. Questions raised by reporters at the news conference were largely side-stepped, deftly handled and passed over. Remember this is American Football, not soccer or even flag football. In this game running over people and tackling opponents to the ground is not only acceptable it is rewarded.
I was reminded of the late comic George Carlin’s routine on the difference between football and baseball (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmXacL0Uny0). Carlin acerbically noted that football is designed to be an aggressive sport that honors the biggest, fastest, and literally the hardest hitting among players. To be a professional player you must be big, not just tall, but BIG, and fast and willing to take a hit and give it back even stronger. The padding and helmets are more for show than real protection. Professional football players have very high rates of concussions and are more likely to develop cognitive decline at a younger age than any other group of individuals – it is a fact that the NFL has finally accepted and is slowly, even begrudgingly, starting to address.
Still I must admit, I watched a football game yesterday and enjoyed parts of it. There is something to be said for rooting for a team and watching them win. I do not watch baseball, unless I go to the stadium. On television baseball is just so slow moving. I really like basketball, more of a gentleman’s game with a lot of action, despite the fact that the purpose of the game is to run back and forth and put a ball through a hoop. There are also many people who enjoy pro hockey – also prone to violence though that is not part of the stated emphasis of the game like football. Hockey, at least, has a penalty box for players that are too aggressive.
Why are more people than ever drawn to football? There may be a vicarious function. In times of frustration, with financial uncertainty and reports of increasing aggression in the world, most people need a distraction. That distraction is all the more gratifying if personal frustrations can be vented in a safe venue. It is the player on the gridiron who is acting out the aggressive fantasy. Fans only have to watch and hopefully, feel a sense of release in the process.
But, there is no Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur in the NFL. There is nothing to repent for. For the culture of violence of football to change there must first be an acknowledgement of the true meaning of sportsmanship, something barely given even lip service in pro football. Only when team owners focus on fair play, respect for opponents, and polite behavior will there arise a desire to hire players who are individuals that are less aggressive, not just on the gridiron but in their personal lives as well and that would make it a very different game. At this point there is little reason for that to happen. Roger Goodell knows that and is being paid handsomely to defend that for the many fans who pay for the right to have others act violently.