At Grantland, a great and not great venture I love and don’t love, Chuck Klosterman says, repeatedly, that football’s popularity has nothing to do with its violence.
He also says:
Now, I realize an argument can be made that eroticized violence is inherent to any collision spectator sport, and that people who love football are tacitly endorsing (and unconsciously embracing) a barbaric activity that damages human bodies for entertainment and money. I get that, and I don’t think the argument is weak. However, it’s still mostly an abstraction. People will freak out when they eventually see someone killed on the football field (which, it seems, is now inevitable). But they won’t stop enjoying football. They might feel obligated to criticize it, and maybe they’ll temporarily stop watching. But they’ll still self-identify as “football fans,” because what they consciously like about the game is (almost certainly) not tied to people being hurt. Football is not like boxing; violence is central to the game, but it’s not the whole game. You can love it for a multitude of complex, analytical reasons. And that allows this cognitive dissonance to exist in perpetuity (i.e., “I know this is probably bad for society, but I desperately want it to continue”).
That’s a lot of hedging.
Here’s the thing. When we were kids, my cousin and I would get as close to the fence at the local high school football games as we could just so we could hear helmets crack and other things pop. We were not violent children, his BAD-era Michael Jackson studded leather jacket notwithstanding. We enjoyed football because we were supposed to, because big kids were running up and down the field, but also because those kids were trying to destroy each other. They were big and we were small. They could do things we’d only seen on Challenge of the Superfriends. It was empowering, it was wish fulfillment, and it was totally sanctioned by everyone.
Today, professional football players moan and groan about rules that are making the game too soft. The very people that stand to gain the most from a softer game are leading the chorus against it, because “that’s football.”
Chuck, you have to know that the popularity and violence of football intersect all the time, for players and for fans. If my cousin and I were living through the juniors and seniors of the William Allen High School football team, how many millions of people are living through the stars of today’s NFL?
And it’s not like those stars aren’t bigger, stronger, and faster than ever before, leaving longer trails of CTE in their wake. It’s not like that upward physical curve, which manifests as some kind of violence on every play, isn’t part and parcel to football’s always-increasing popularity. These things feed each other. It’s like the longball, steroids, and the 90s.
Klosterman is right that there are other things about football to appreciate, but they’re all predicated on violence or the avoidance of violence.
It may or may not be the case that football, as an abstraction, is too violent. But it’s certainly the case the football in its current form is too physically dangerous to be sustainable over the long term.
If football’s ever-rising popularity was directly tied to its ever-increasing violence, something might collapse upon itself: Either the controversy would fade over time, or it would become a terminal anchor on its expansion. But that’s not how it’s unfolding. These two worlds will never collide. They’ll just continue to intensify, each in its own vacuum. This column can run today, or it can run in 2022. The future is the present is the future.
No, Chuck, THIS column will be always be true, forever and ever and ever, because the beginning is the end is the beginning, or another Smashing Pumpkins song from Batman.