Historically, gaming rituals have oftentimes been either precursors to actual war or ways to prepare young boys for war. The metaphor of sports as warfare is in no way a new one, and has endured throughout the ages. However, in the present day, American football serves as a prime example of how the notion of sports as war can be taken too far. In this age, where fighting on an actual battlefield is a remote possibility for most males in our society, sports has replaced battle as the ultimate rite of passage for masculinity. However, the stakes in football are not nearly as high as those during actual war, and this needs to be corrected in the NFL today, lest we start to see the same casualties on the football field that we see on the battlefield.
Let me preface this post by revealing what anyone who knows me could tell you: I am a huge football fan. I am off the grid on every football Sunday, Monday and Thursday night, save for the select number of family members I will watch the games with. For better or worse, I have rooted for the Washington Redskins season in and season out, and I can cheer and talk trash and cite player stats with the best of them.
There is a limit however, to fandom, and the recent scandal that has been dubbed bounty-gate puts a spotlight on a fundamental delusion that persists among players and likely many football fans: that the sport is a type of war, and the same rules and risks and stakes apply. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Greg Williams has been charged with overseeing a bounty system that paid his defensive players to take out and allegedly injure opponents during games. While many scoffed when allegations first surfaced, such practices had been far more pervasive in the NFL than the public realized, the recently leaked tapes of a Williams locker room directive (the night before the January playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers) has revealed the extent and depth of his megalomania.
Pierced within Williams’ profanity induced speech to his defensive players, he repeatedly focuses on hitting players on the head, refers to kill shots that will leave opponents immobilized, and specifically identifies body parts of key opponent players that need to be targeted (most notably, the outside ACL of a prominent wide receiver). In this delusion infused speech, Williams is the almighty general preparing himself for battle as he dispenses his specific orders to his soldiers.
Except football players are not soldiers. There are rules and regulations to the game that are supposed to be followed to protect the dignity of the sport and the safety of the players. Football players are not saving or taking lives; they are not engaged in a literal life and death struggle with opponents that has huge, far reaching, global implications for foreign policy and the world at large. I love football players as much as the next fan, but players and coaches need to keep their egos in check.
Our soldiers today are in a dire position: they are more at risk for death by suicide than by death in combat. Some of them (and we may never know the real numbers) have been responsible for horrendous crimes against innocent civilians. They are returning home with psychological and physical injuries and scars. They have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries that will irrevocably change their lives and livelihoods forever. Why would any other profession want to mimic this?
We glorify warfare, but such are the harsh and true realities of the battlefield. With traumatic brain injuries increasing on the football field, there are certainly apt comparisons between the two, but we shouldn’t want our players to behave like soldiers and we certainly do not want them to bear the psychological and physical burdens that come with being a soldier. Suspending Greg Williams from the NFL and holding other coaches and personnel accountable is a first step in repairing the damage that has been done to the NFL. Perhaps if we all had a more realistic notion of what it means to go to war, we would be less eager to paint our athletes today as our present day warriors.
Copyright 2012 Azadeh Aalai