American Football, A Truly Barbaric Sport
Soccer, also known as football, is the world’s most popular sport. It’s a peaceful game of teamwork and technical skill that requires little more than a round ball and a pair of shoes. Perhaps this is why children of every country can be seen passing around a soccer ball in the street or selecting teams for a game in the park. Everybody loves it.
American Football, on the other hand, has not enjoyed much success in other countries. It’s a game of collisions and brute force that requires an entire chest of drawers of padding and equipment and a storm trooper helmet. More than a few professional football players will not even let their children participate in it. Everybody hates it.
Except the race of barbaric persons known collectively as Americans.
II. How to Play American Football
It’s a game of territory. Always has been.
The object is to carry the pigskin through enemy territory and into the end zone of the other team, if the ball carrier isn’t literally carted off the field first. It is actually possible for a non-ball carrier to be injured as well. On any given play, you will find players hitting one another as hard as they possibly can. The goal of the offense is to keep people from attacking the ball carrier until he is eventually smushed into the ground safely beneath a pile of bodies and helmets. The reader might here remark that this is similar to rugby. That’s where the term pigskin comes from: Australian rugby. They covered a pig’s bladder with leather and used it to play a sport. The scholar will also note that pigskin is slang for “white person.”
The prototype for a successful American football coach is Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots. ESPN talking head Max Kellerman recently referred to Belichick as the greatest coach in sports history. In a sport known for parity, the hoodie-wearing coach’s teams have been successful every year, including a remarkable five world championships. The next closest head coach has only three. You wouldn’t know it by looking at him. Belichick’s facial expressions cover a very limited range from slightly cross to constipated to shit-eating to we-just-won-the-big-game-but-who-fucking-cares. At a press conference, Belichick literally answered 34 straight questions with the phrase, “We’re on to Cincinnati,” the meaning of which is: “I know you’re probably just doing your job as a journalist but like actually I hate you for it, so die.”
Being good at football means figuring out how not to get injured while playing. Tom Brady is the best to ever play American football, and his most impressive attribute is the fact that he gets the football out of his hands almost immediately. He was once tackled and injured for several months, and the actual rules were emended to protect him forever from such inconveniences. The rule became known as the Tom Brady Rule—it’s Rule 12, Section two, article 12—and most fans hate it because it leads to less violence and injury. The rule says that no defender can intentionally hit a quarterback below the knees. It was known, even in 2009, that this rule was designed to protect the league’s stars, but pundits were concerned it would fundamentally change the game. I agree—the game really is fundamentally about violent play—but the rule doesn’t appear to have changed anyone’s tactics much. Besides, the rule is explicitly designed to protect a particular position on the field. The homecoming king, the popular guy, the quarterback.
I heard one soccer announcer refer to a completely unharmed player rolling about in pretend agony as “pantomime villainy”—such a thing would never happen in American football. For one thing, American rules do not reward players for appearing to be injured. Even a blatant violation of the rules, such as aiming for the head of a defenseless receiver, would seldom lead to a player exaggerating his injury. American football players are encouraged to hide injuries, as it gives the opponent important information about your team, namely its weaknesses. Opponents line up on opposite sides of the football and often find themselves locked up in one-on-one match-ups, where any little injury will, if exploited, mean the difference. But for two, and more importantly, no American football commentator would ever coin anything clever like “pantomime villainy.” A good portion of American audiences wouldn’t know what was meant by it.
American television audiences already have a pretty easy job, but football really tees it up for ‘em. American football commentators merely state the obvious in an excited tone of voice. John Madden is emblematic of this. Among his Confucian quips are:
“When you have great players, playing great, well that’s great football!”
“Usually the team that scores the most points wins the game.”
“Hey, the offensive linemen are the biggest guys on the field, they’re bigger than everybody else, and that’s what makes them the biggest guys on the field.”
Troy Aikman, FOX’s lead game “analyst”, is primarily confined to saying who did a good or bad job on any given play. Aikman understands the complexity of each play but shares very little with audiences. Instead, he says who did a good job and who messed up. This facilitates the viewer cheering for favorite teams and railing against despicable foes.
My brother was invited by some business associates to watch an important game. He hadn’t watched a game in his entire life yet was able to fool them by memorizing a few key phrases that he would say from time to time in an exasperated tone, such as “They try that play every time” or “I can’t believe that guy’s out there” or, and you really have to put some emphasis behind this one, “What the fuck was that!” Worked like a charm.
III. It’s a Violent Sport
It’s kind of unfair to criticize the sports of ancient cultures, such as that of the Maya. It’s uncool, since they can’t defend themselves. It’s also irresponsible to critique people you’ve never lived with, basing it on a very, very limited knowledge. But the Mayans played some weird ass sports. They played soccer, only with a stone ball the size of my living room. The losing team was typically sacrificed—which would have been considered an extremely high honor. Hell, the winning team was sometimes sacrificed. The only modern thing to which I can compare this is the role of Ass-wiper to his Majesty, a position surprisingly coveted in Tudor England. Or, I suppose, White House press secretary. In such positions, glory is achieved through proximity to power. The work itself is dirty, self-effacing, sacrificial.
Professional American football players make good money—and they aren’t sacrificed to the gods—but they actually do suffer. Nearly every single person who plays professional American football has CTE. Traumatic, lifelong head injuries. Fans know that. Oddly, they delight in injuries, excitedly cheering “bone-crushing hits” and saying things like “Ouch, he’s going to feel that in the morning.” He is, actually. He’ll feel it every day for the rest of his life. Droll, isn’t it?
Good thing they wear helmets to prevent players from sustaining head injuries. But football helmets are made out of indestructible plastic, so when a big, strong, and fast person runs head-on into another big, strong, and fast person, somebody gets hurt. These collisions are like car accidents. (So it makes sense that Americans can’t stop staring at them.) I’m not sure the players aren’t better off without helmets at all. At least then they’d probably be careful, if not merciful.
Every year the NFL releases concussion data, and for the past five years that data tells a fairly boring story: the incidence of concussions hasn’t gone drastically up. But this isn’t to the point. Yes, it’s true that only about 250 players or so will be diagnosed with concussions, and it will look like the NFL is addressing the problem through its accumulation of data and its instantiation of concussion protocols. Every year hundreds of players will have brain-damaging concussions because of the violence in the sport. There’s nothing the NFL can do to make the game safe; if 250 brain injuries a year is reasonable, the die is cast. Keep in mind that sideline concussion protocols are usually inconclusive and that team doctors (and players themselves) are highly motivated to get those guys back in the huddle.
Players in American football are constantly injured, not always in the brain—playing hurt is an accepted part of the game. The injury report, as Bleacher Report’s Dan Pompei reported in 2017, is “the tip of the iceberg.” Injuries are likewise part of the college football game, which is unfortunate because the players aren’t paid. Well, sometimes they are, but they aren’t supposed to be. As one can imagine, this puts them in a somewhat conflicted state of mind when they are told by coaches to play through pain and not disclose their injuries to the media. Oh, and don’t drink alcohol or smoke pot to alleviate your pain. You’re not old enough for one and the other is illegal, despite its obvious benefits for sufferers of chronic pain. In the end, young men are compelled to swap their physical health for accolades and the mere possibility of success in the NFL.
I’m not surprised the American South has a reputation for being fanatical about college football. I think we have to admit that exploiting unpaid labor is a Southern tradition.
IV. Football, a Part of American History
Consider the way Louisiana was finally populated. In 1806, there were about 300 people there. Luckily, French prisons were overcrowded, and they were having a problem with rampant prostitution, so they thought of something clever. Any French prisoner who was willing to marry a prostitute and try to live in the barren wilderness then known as Louisiana was welcome. Seriously, this was the deal. It’s not as though enterprising young businessmen were like, you know, I don’t want to run my father’s company, I want to subsist on bugs and check beaver traps I set two months ago in frigid streams. Why would I marry this elegant Victorian woman with a rich family! How many pelts for an obedient squaw and a couple of warm blankets?
The truth is the tough guys who settled the West were desperate men—and women, mind you—without a whole lot of options. The vast majority of heroic tales are self-aggrandizing hogwash invented by whisky, campfires, and let’s face it, not a ton of witnesses. Any idea how the tale of Hugh Glass—you know, the guy who was mauled by a bear and then abandoned and then crawled to safety—was spread? Hugh Glass.
And savage too. Scalping sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? By scalping, I mean taking a knife and cutting off somebody’s head. This horrific practice was by no means limited to a handful of Native Americans, and many a trapper trader was known to boast about his scalps. Liver-Eating Johnson, an American trapper and trader, stitched them to his pants, supposedly. This is how he became a legend of the American West. That, along with eating the livers of Crow Indians. Where Western American mythology became known through its open-mouthed heroes, American football locker rooms are deathly silent on matters of violence. That’s because its heroes are also its victims.
Indeed, American football is far more savage and abject than the casual fan thinks. Routine hazing practices, popular in college football, include rookies drinking shots of alcohol until they vomit into a glass, and then are forced to drink their teammates’ vomit until they vomit again into another glass, and so on until the end of the train is reached. Ever seen a player head to the locker room to pee during a game? Me neither. It is not uncommon for linemen, in particular, to go right there in their uniforms. Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White used to shit his pants during games. It made him slippery, harder to block.
Such barbarism is in service of ritual-battle entertainment, and it parallels a common refrain of gun-owners. Who am I hurting by hunting for sport? Well, despite the long and rich history of hunting rituals, they’re incompatible with non-violent society. We choose our own rituals. We choose our own sports. We choose our own play. And when the U.S. president chooses to watch American football—and he comments that the game is becoming soft—he openly endorses players getting injured. He wants violence to be openly celebrated. He likes seeing people hurt.
v. Football is Violence
It is popular these days to make fun of the U.S. President’s failed attempts at being the Platonic ideal of frontier American masculinity. He doesn’t even try to appear smart, current, or sympathetic, right? He wants to appear tough, confident, in control, and good with women. But is the poking fun working? Is it doing any political work? One wonders whether criticizing him for not being manly merely serves to reaffirm those attributes it seeks to subvert. If Trump is Putin’s “little bitch,” what should he do instead, be more aggressive, more tough, more confident, more in control…?
See how this could be a problem? The desire to criticize someone according to this paradigm further entrenches it as the dominant paradigm. We joke that the cure for what ails the U.S. President is that he man up, that he be more of what, to be perfectly honest, he aspires to be. No, there is little slander in an allowed fool, so says the Bard, and I’m inclined to think this sort of man has been a bit too allowed. Such macho men insist that people properly honor our military prior to football games.
Indeed, American football is reflective of a uniquely American masculinity. Some will tell me that this is the logical fallacy known as “part to whole.” Just because some men are more violent than others—and are valorized for being violent—doesn’t mean the culture itself values violence. Yes, yes. Consider the constant stream of news items featuring American footballers breaking the laws, the two highest profile players being Ray Rice and Kareem Hunt, both of whom had videos surface of them perpetrating physical violence against women. The videos, a kind of snuff reel, have gone viral. USA Today compiled a list of 923 player arrests, whether that’s because it’s a taxonomy in constant need of consultation, I don’t know. But, and this is important, it has repeatedly been pointed out that professional football players are not more likely than other American men to commit violent crimes. Yet there is clearly a fascination with them doing so, perhaps because they are bigger, faster, stronger, more “manly” than other criminals.
The point here is that we see in American football a safe place for the excesses of American masculinity, when in fact it perpetuates this cycle. We’d be much better off watching or “playing” something else. This ritual of violence taps into the darkest of our natures, and histories. We ought to be teaching our children other types of play, play that sparks imagination. Safer play would be nice. Indeed, one is probably safer on a baseball diamond than nearly anywhere else in America. For instance, an elementary school.
No, football isn’t a safe sphere for violent male aggression. Actual football games constitute the violence itself. When professional football teams practice, they tend to avoid collisions, as that would injure players needed for actual combat. Every action of the football team in practice is done with this in mind. The sport is so violent that most of its gestures can only be simulated in practice. Yet this is the point of games, of sports—they take the place of riskier activities, even if, like capoeira, they prepare the players themselves for violent, or potentially violent engagement. Chess isn’t a violent game. War is.
When countries go to war, it’s because they can’t agree to merely simulate the violence required to work it out. With stakes that high, a simulation ought to do. That’s why Leonardo da Vinci invented some of the first unmanned war machines. He didn’t want people to get hurt. Even in the age of mind-blowing military AI, the United States still finds itself at war.
It doesn’t help that “the real thing” is glorified every Sunday during football season, where players are sacrificed to the American god of violence on the Lord’s special day.