Inherent Violence: Conflict and America's New Pastime
There’s a brutal beauty to the sport of football. Bones are broken, tendons and ligaments shredded, and heads are knocked around to the point of creating permanent brain damage. Yet in the midst a sometimes unrelenting display of ferocious passion, there are also amazing examples of grace and agility. The wondrous capabilities of the human body are celebrated and admired even as the body itself is pushed to the extremes of endurance.
The inherent violence of the sport has been a point of criticism for some time with a new wave having been prompted by the off-the-field violence of premier players such as Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. Additionally, the question of to what level, if any, are the millions of spectators culpable in the permanent damage being inflicted upon fellow human beings has received renewed interest due to the recent ruling against the NFL regarding brain damage suffered by former players. The sport of football is built around conflict and collision, meaning that violent hits and hostile intentions are woven into the fabric of the game. Player safety can only be prioritized to a certain level before it comes into direct conflict with the nature of the game itself. The theorem that states a good offense “takes what the defense give,” also applies here as safety and spectacle move their pieces around the chess board of litigation and public approval in an effort to gain an upper hand in the struggle over the sport’s future.
All of this, and other factors, have generated renewed interest in finding out what it is about this sport built around the mixture of violence and conflict that draws so much attention in American society. Is the interest driven by an unhealthy appetite for violence and the quest for “macho manhood,” or are the reasons more complicated and nuanced; more like the sport itself?
It would be an over-generalization to say that all men crave, at some level and in some way, violence, but it is certainly present in a good portion of the population. Mixed-martial arts as popularized by UFC and other leagues and federations are growing in popularity. Video games such as Call of Duty, Halo, and the new Bungie actioneer Destiny, all built around conflict and violence, generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. The simple fact is that violence sells.
This is not to insinuate that those who enjoy and engage in these types of recreational activities are entertaining dark urges or struggling to contain violent tendencies. It merely speaks to a deep and ancient truth that is found in many veins of belief. That is, the conflict inherent in life. Be it the “survival of the fittest” mantra that underpins the evolutionary climb of humanity, the existence of a dark and evil presence that stalks the earth as shown in Christianity, or the myriad of other religions and philosophies that recognize the need for, even the necessity of, struggle in this life. Conflict, though unfortunate, is not entirely avoidable, and football reflects this reality in our culture.
But if discretion is the better part of valor, then perhaps restraint is the better part of struggle. On the football field as well as in life, emotions are expected to be kept somewhat in check. Victory should not be combined with unbridled arrogance and defeat should be welcomed with some measure of graciousness rather than complete disdain and contempt. When emotions run unchecked, consequences follow. As much as the audience is thrilled by the jarring sounds and images that accompany the violent smashing of body-into-body, it is more or less expected that both players involved be able to rise from the turf and play another down (maybe not the down that immediately follows, but few, if any, enjoy the sight of season or career-ending injuries.) And while a good bit of banter and jawing between the adversaries is expected, there is a line that, if crossed, often invites the ire of players, fans, and officials alike. Football is a mixture of just enough violence, and just enough restraint.
This balance of heavy conflict and light consequences is part of football’s appeal. The struggles that exist in day-to-day life are writ large across one-hundred-and-twenty yard fields and the broadcast into millions of homes to be exhibited on multiple screens, wall-mounted and handheld. It is only when this balance is upset that football begins to lose its luster. Regulate too much of the violence away and the fans become complacent. Allow it to overpower discretion and the fans become disgusted. When this happens, on the field or off, attention is once again called to the inherent violence of the sport and it causes some to question the validity and worth of the sport itself. Violence, according to the naysayers, is non-redeemable and an ugly and unworthy pursuit.
The underlying assumption in this argument is that all violence is equal, or at least connected. The idea of noble or honorable violence is foreign to this line of thinking. But if violence is inherent to life itself, then any attempt to eradicate or deny it will not only be unsuccessful, but could also affect the opposite of the intended results. If opportunities of regulated and restrained conflicts are removed, then violence apart from discretion becomes the more prevalent option.
Therein may lay the true value of the sport of football. Not merely an opportunity for physical and athletic excellence or strategic exercise, but for men to learn the proper application of violence and conflict. For in football, the man across the way is never your true and mortal enemy, he is an opponent and a fellow man and is to be respected as such. There are rules to conflict, standards and expectations. There is conflict certainly and the violence can and does result in serious and permanent injury. The game is not without its risk, but this is right and proper. Every conflict, even when justly engaged, carries risk.
But it is also not without its reward. There are redeeming qualities to the sport, regardless of the off-the-field issues. The ability of the sport to balance the violent conflict with personal restraint is admirable in the way it reflects the reality of life. Because just as surely as a culture that unreservedly embraces violence will fall prey to its own worst urges, so to will a culture that unconditionally condemns it fall prey to its own apathy in the face of life’s inherent violence.