Football’s Culture of Violence – A Response

James Harrison makes a hit

James Harrison makes a hit

Sports Saturday

Discussion of violent football hits has dominated the sports airwaves ever since the nation witnessed a series of frightening high-impact collisions last weekend.  In apparent panic, the National Football League has been handing out large fines and threats of suspension to players, including a $75,000 fine to James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers for knocking two Cleveland players out of the game.

Bone rattling hits may be celebrated in American football even more than touchdown passes. For years the league has marketed them as the essence of football. Recently, however, medical science is demonstrating that they are taking a frightening toll on players, especially in the form of permanent brain damage.

Most players, at least those speaking out, defend the current system.  Some speak of head trauma as “the cost of doing business.”  Then again, one would expect them to.  After all,  they have been trained their entire lives to have contempt for weakness and to put their bodies on the line, over and over. When one starts to hear dire warnings from ex-players like Rodney Harrison and Tom Jackson, however, one needs to start listening.

As a linebacker for the New England Patriots, Harrison used to beat up on my Indianapolis Colts (at the time seen as a “soft” or  “finesse” team) and took his team to three Super Bowl championships. He was fined multiple times for his rough play and now talks about how he budgeted those fines into his finances as the cost of doing business. (They were more than made up for by the high salary his rough style of play earned him.) Jackson, meanwhile, describes how he regarded himself as a human missile whose intent was to inflict maximum damage.

Nor is football the only sport where such violence is occurring. Boxing now almost seems tame when one looks at extreme martial arts and extreme fighting and cage fighting. Children, meanwhile, are growing up with very violent video games, such as Madden, which allows them to revel in big hits.  And Madden is actually mild when compared with other video games, like Grand Theft Auto, where one sees blood liberally spilled.

Leaving the world of games for a moment, what about the new tolerance for torture, especially water boarding, that many in the culture have developed.

Is this all in response to a post 9-11 world? Do we feel that we need to toughen up and lash out? If so, then I think it’s time to relearn what real strength involves. We may need a return to the male sensitivity movement of the 1970’s that accompanied the feminist movement.

I therefore dust off an old Margaret Atwood cycle of poems from that decade that helped me deal with my own anxieties over being a “soft, sensitive man.”  I have in mind her “Circe/Mud Poems.”

The speaker is Circe, the island sorceress from The Odyssey who turns men into swine and who so enthralls Odysseus that he stays on her island a full year. Throughout this cycle she describes men who find themselves trapped inside hard bodies.  In the third poem, she sees them turning into hardened animals and not because of anything she says.  In fact, maybe they coarsen over because she doesn’t say anything.  The result is “animals dying of thirst” and “drying skeletons.”  They lack spiritual nourishment:

It was not my fault, these animals
who once were lovers

it was not my fault, the snouts
and hooves, the tongues
thickening and rough, the mouths grown over
with teeth and fur

I did not add the shaggy
rugs, the tusked masks.
they happened

I did not say anything.  I sat
and watched, they happened
because I did not say anything.

It was not my fault, these animals
who could no longer touch me
through the rinds of their hardening skins.
these animals dying
of thirst because they could not speak

these drying skeletons
that have crashed and litter the ground
under the cliffs, these
wrecked words.

In the second poem in the Circe cycle, she gives us other versions of such men: they are “men with heads of eagles” (military types?) or pig-men (macho sorts) or soaring ambitious Icarus men. As you read the poem, think of what personal associations each of her descriptions calls up for you. As outwardly impressive as these men may be, Circe says they are not truly strong.  In fact,

on hot days you can watch them
as they melt, come apart,
fall into the ocean
like sick gulls, dethronements, plane crashes . . .

James Harrison may be a terrifying figure on the football field, but when it comes to negotiating domestic relationships, he comes up short. At one point he was brought up on domestic assault charges (although they were dropped), at another he was fined for having an out-of-control pit bull.  There is some speculation that incidents of domestic violence amongst football players may even be related to blows to the head.

In any event, Atwood is telling us that we need alternative ways of describing “real men.”  She herself is searching for (as Circe puts it) “the ones who have escaped from these mythologies with barely their lives,” the ones who “think of themselves as wrong somehow,” the ones who “would rather be trees.”  Rooted rather than soaring–that’s where true strength lies. Here’s the poem:

Men with the heads of eagles
no longer interest me
or pig-men, or those who can fly
with the aid of wax and feathers

or those who take off their clothes
to reveal other clothes
or those with skins of blue leather

or those golden and flat as a coat of arms
or those with claws, the stuffed ones
with glass eyes; or those
hierarchic as greaves and steam-engines.

All these I could create, manufacture,
or find easily: they swoop and thunder
around this island, common as flies,
sparks flashing, bumping into each other,

on hot days you can watch them
as they melt, come apart,
fall into the ocean
like sick gulls, dethronements, plane crashes..

I search instead for the others,
the ones left over,
the ones who have escaped from these
mythologies with barely their lives;
they have real faces and hands, they think
of themselves as
wrong somehow, they would rather be trees.

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  • After ten years away from the game, I can tune in once again. This lends me a wry, distanced, ironic…all right! CONFUSED…viewpoint.
    Sometimes it seems like the wrong team is cheering just because a play finished with a big hit.
    Two examples from yesterday’s college action (sorry that I’ve forgotten the teams – LSU, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Northwestern were all in there):
    A running back carries up the middle for four yards on first down and is finally brought down by a big hit. The defence cheers?
    A cornerback drills a receiver and dances wildly. Of course, the receiver had just caught a pass moving his team into field goal position. I had never seen the cornerback celebrating an 11-yard completion.


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