I'm thinking a lot about football lately, in light of the recent 'Bounty' scandal involving the New Orleans Saints, their coaches, and their players, who engaged in a system of paid incentives to players for injuring opposing players. Saints head coach Sean Payton has been suspended the entire season without pay; former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has been suspended 'indefinitely', which means he gets to sit out a good long time before the NFL -- commissioner Roger Goodell, specifically -- decides to entertain his prospects for a return to coaching. There are also fines and docking of draft picks, I assume.
This whole business is deeply troubling for me as a football fan. I love the game and have for years; I love the strategies involved, and the beauty of well-executed plays and drives. I love how the game can elevate players to heroic status (although football is not unique in this). But here's an admission: one of the best things about football is its physical nature. And that, unfortunately, is just a nice way of saying, "Football is a violent game and we like our violence."
One thing that makes a football season so intense is that there are only 16 games. That's it: your team plays once a week, and one loss here or there can be calamitous for a team hoping to make the playoffs. In baseball, you have 162 games; the very best teams can still expect to walk off the field as losers at least 50 times in a year. But why does football only have 16 games? Because, obviously, the game is too physical -- too violent -- to be played more than that.
We love to see players hitting hard, and getting hit hard. We don't like to see players injured, which is why we applaud when they bounce back up, walk back to the sidelines, sit a minute or two, and then retake the field. It's why players who excel in a game despite being hurt -- say, Emmitt Smith in the 1993 regular season finale, when he had a huge game despite a separated shoulder -- can attain legendary status. We love quarterbacks who can stand in there and deliver a perfect pass despite the fact that they're about to get taken down by a hard-rushing defensive end. We adore it when a receiver comes across the middle of the field, leaps into the air, snags the ball, and holds onto it despite getting sandwiched between two defensive backs. We prize those moments when the running back charges full-speed into a cluster of bodies and, despite taking multiple hits from multiple players, still manages to churn forward enough to get the first down.
And on defense? That's when we love to see our boys dishing out the punishment. We love to see our defensive ends put the quarterback on his ear -- even moreso if the QB never sees him coming. We love to see an opposing receiver grab the ball, only to have one of our defensive backs slam him so hard that the ball pops out. And we think it's great when a linebacker comes flying in out of nowhere to knock a running back off his feet, backwards. We love the big hits, the ones so hard that the announcers go "Wow!", the ones so brutal that you can hear the fans in the stadium go "Ooohhhhh!", the ones where you can hear the actual impact of the hit captured in the parabolic microphones from the sidelines.
We know that these are violent hits, and we know that injuries are a part of the game, because they happen all the time. But some injuries are worse than others, and for most of them, we just hope the backup is ready to play. Even a bad injury -- say, a torn ACL -- doesn't seem as bad these days. It's a season-ender, but they'll be back next year. That particular injury is getting more and more treatable all the time; Wes Welker had one in a playoff game a few years ago, and time was then that would have seriously jeopardized the entire next season. Instead, he was back in time for the season opener.
Mostly, I think we view football violence as live-action cartoon violence. The crushing hits that football players dish out and endure are the equivalent of the disastrous things that happen to Wile E. Coyote whilst pursuing the Road Runner. For the most part, we expect our players to take monster hits, maybe get hurt a bit, but show up in the next scene. Maybe the next game. If it's bad, maybe after a few games or even next season. Once in a great while something very bad happens, a Mike Utley or a Kevin Everett, but I think that football fans, in their hearts-of-hearts, view that as the price of doing business, and for the most part, the thousands of guys who play football over the years take their hits and then retire and go on to live normal lives, free of football pain at last.
Except, thing is, now we increasingly know that they don't. Increasingly we must confront the fact that former football players have significantly shorter average lifespans, and we must confront the fact that football injuries, repeatedly endured over a period of years, take huge tolls in terms of quality of life after the game. We know that the brain is not nearly as able to bounce back from concussion as we used to think. We have to acknowledge that football is a game that takes a huge toll, and we have to acknowledge that all those hits we're cheering on Sunday afternoons have a price.
And just when we're acknowledging this, we learn that there are coaches and players out there who not only don't take this seriously, but see it as another way of gaining possible advantage on the field. That's what it's all about, and why it's so sickening. I've heard fans say that other football scandals -- SpyGate being the most famous -- are worse because that was actual cheating: doing something against the rules in order to gain competitive advantage. Well, by that definition, bounty programs are cheating too, and worse, they are cheating that involves the intentional infliction of physical injury. I don't think we hear this enough in this whole scandal. The Saints didn't just run a bounty program. They didn't just pay players to hurt their opponents. The Saints cheated, and so did anyone else in the NFL who has been doing this.
Football isn't cartoon violence. Football players aren't superhuman figures who can get run over by steamrollers and reinflate themselves; they're not beings who can escape pursuers by stopping to paint a train tunnel opening on a wall and then duck inside. They're human beings, as fragile as anyone else, and they are playing a game that works against that very fragility -- so much so that they have to wear body armor. That we still have problems with people taking this seriously is truly disheartening.