Return of the gladiators

Former sports editor Ira Lacher argues that the “game” of professional football “is becoming more of a troubling spectacle.” -promoted by Laura Belin

It starts again soon. This week, the smack of rock-hard plastic on far softer bone and tissue signals the onset of yet another professional football season. For tens of millions of Americans, it is the culmination of a seven-month foreplay of offseason news, tryout camps, the college draft, the preseason and, finally, at 7:20 P.M. Eastern time, Packers vs. Bears, the start of a five-month orgiastic swoon.

Professional football perfectly defines what most of us believe America is: a society constrained by the norms of civilization and polity but with a savage undertow, which flows for 21 weeks a year, from September through February.

We revel in contests that resemble gladiatorial combat, with helmets and pads instead of swords, punctuated by occasional exhibitions of speed and balletic grace. We cheer on mercenaries who wear the colors that represent forces of our native or adopted hometowns, even though so many of those men were born and grew up hundreds of miles away from those places and live elsewhere when the season ends. And many of us wager billions of dollars on the outcomes.

That we delight in being anonymous in a stadium crowd of tens of thousands, or millions more in front of high-definition TV screens is seen by some as harmless. But others disagree. George Orwell lived before the NFL monopolized TV ratings, but he famously wrote, “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules, and sadistic pleasure in violence. In other words, it is war without shooting.”

There also is no denying that our fascination with pro football has racial overtones: Over 70 percent of pro football players are black. The spectacle of NFL tryout camps, when players are invited in to show how fast they can run or how hard they can hit, is eerily reminiscent of slave auctions. Players are drafted, which means they have no say in where they must work. And even though the beginning NFL salary of just under half a million dollars can hardly be called slave wages, an average NFL career lasts only a little over three years. And players are likely to come out of those years with lifelong injuries, some that have been strongly indicated lead to death, including by suicide.

In 2007, New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz began a series of investigative articles proving that repeated football blows to the head resulted in potentially fatal brain injuries. The articles were considered groundbreaking, leading to lawsuits from retired athletes and changes in rules and equipment, which were designed to better protect the participants. You would think that the evidence Schwarz helped unearth would foster a distaste for football. But that is not what he told fellow Timesman Joe Drape in 2018.

“I have no problem watching the N.F.L. — these are grown men making grown men’s decisions,” Schwarz said. “After being kept in the dark for so many years by their employers, they now know they could wind up brain-damaged. Fine. They’re professional daredevils. It wasn’t immoral to watch Evel Knievel. We watch stuntmen in movies.”

It may not have been immoral, but it certainly could be considered distasteful for Indianapolis Colts fans to boo Andrew Luck when the quarterback announced during a preseason game that he was retiring after a career of debilitating injuries (which evidently didn’t include brain damage).

Their reaction is one indicator of how this “game” is becoming more of a troubling spectacle. Its inherent racial disparity, fueled by the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, has surfaced to a new prominence even as its similarities with the slave market remain.

And its militaristic attitude has become more visible, even as this country Klingonesquely rattles its sabers around the world. No other sport employs military terminology to the degree of football: A “blitz,” describing an all-out assault on the quarterback, is a shortened version of “blitzkrieg,” the “lightning war” tactics of Nazi Germany. Quarterbacks throw “bombs.” Linemen battle in the “trenches.” Kickoffs are undertaken by “suicide squads.”

Many believe football represents what’s right with our nation: boldness, courage, perseverance, dedication to community, and willingness to endure short-term pain for long-term gain. On the other hand, an increasing number believe football represents what’s wrong with our nation: human waste, take-no-prisoners, arrogance, exclusionism, racism.

“The cultural power of football is part of our fabric,” Jelani Cobb, an educator and writer for The New Yorker told The Times’ Joe Drape. All fabrics fray, given time.

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