Almost no one outside North America plays the strange and violent sport we call football, and no institution in American life epitomizes our society’s bitter and peculiar divisions quite like the National Football League. That goes double or triple right at the moment, when the nation’s most popular spectator sport seems beset on all sides by scandal and bad publicity. If you get your news from mainstream or liberal-leaning sources, and aren’t much of a football fan, you might have the impression that the NFL is a crumbling edifice on its way toward obsolescence, plagued by misogyny, homophobia, racial stereotyping and a health crisis encompassing most of its former and present players. There’s a thread of truth running through all that, or more than a thread, and one could plausibly argue (as I did, about a year and a half ago) that over the long haul pro football faces insurmountable problems.
But the long haul is a long time; claiming that the NFL is dying right now is a bit like claiming the Republican Party is dying in a year when it’s poised to reclaim control of the Senate. And the GOP can only wish it had one-fifth the popularity and cultural resonance of the NFL. On the league’s opening weekend, NFL games dominated the television ratings, as they will do on every weekend from now through Super Sunday. Dozens if not hundreds of Baltimore Ravens fans came to the team’s opening game wearing the jersey of banished star running back Ray Rice, who was cut from the team and suspended by the league after a security camera captured him beating his then-fiancée unconscious in an Atlantic City hotel elevator. That was just the most extreme example of something approaching a tribal impulse among football fans to rally around their beloved fall ritual in its moment of crisis. While the cause of saving football from the feminists and p.c. mollycoddlers has been embraced by conservative media, from Rush Limbaugh to Fox News to the New York Post, I think this is a major cultural rift, and one that can’t be entirely boiled down to political divisions between left and right, heartland and coast.
Football is almost literally a sacred space in American life; the fact that most NFL games are scheduled on Sunday is one of those accidents that isn’t really an accident. Games are contested on a mythological rectangle, perfectly constructed for the TV screen, that is meant to be entirely separate from ordinary life. The sport itself, especially in the amped-up, intense atmosphere of the NFL, is experienced as a hyper-masculine zone of symbolic warfare – with all the strategy, brutality and homosocial bonding of real warfare -- where a man’s true character is revealed and traditional gender roles are not just upheld but revered. One can certainly argue that’s all a load of crap, and that the all-too-real violence of football has long had pernicious social, psychological and physical effects on those who play and those who watch. (For players, it’s traumatic brain injury and a perceived propensity for DUI and domestic-violence arrests. For fans, it’s disastrous fashion choices and an overdose of Doritos.) But the point I’m making is that football’s ritual significance in American life is not likely to fade away any time soon, and it really doesn’t help matters for horrified liberals to deliver sanctimonious lectures about how dreadful it is.
Of course it was the Ray Rice scandal that occasioned the current P.R. crisis, along with all the media soul-searching that people like Limbaugh hate so much. But in many ways the Rice case is just the tip of the NFL’s free-floating iceberg of Very Bad Things. If league commissioner Roger Goodell appears to be in jeopardy, it’s only partly because Goodell tried to sweep the entire Rice incident under the carpet, at a time when he either already knew or should have known the details of what Rice did to his future wife in that elevator. It’s also because Goodell has come off throughout this process as an officious jerk who never understood the larger social picture, and whose sole concern was ass-covering and damage control.
No one should feel sorry for Ray Rice, but those who claim that he’s been made into a whipping boy have a point. Rice’s indefinite suspension happened precisely because Goodell needed to look tough after letting Rice off with a wrist-slap the first time around, not because it was necessarily the most appropriate sentence. You get the feeling that throwing the book at one malefactor – a book that had not previously existed -- was supposed to make us overlook the fact that the domestic-violence problem in sports (and in society) goes far beyond one person and one incident. Minutes before I filed this article on Friday evening, the news broke that Minnesota Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson had been indicted on felony charges, based on photographs suggesting that he whipped his 4-year-old son bruised and bloody with a switch.
Rice and Peterson will certainly be held up as examples of the dysfunctional and misogynistic culture of football, but as with the semi-discredited statistical correlation between sports spectatorship and domestic violence, the actual evidence is ambiguous. NFL players are more likely than men in general to be charged with drunk driving or abusing their partners, but the difference is not enormous and could reflect the amount of scrutiny to which star athletes are subjected. Horrific high-profile cases like that of New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who has been indicted for three murders, or Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who murdered his girlfriend and then killed himself in the lobby of team headquarters, may suggest that NFL players in general are violent and deranged. But the arrest rate overall in pro football is slightly lower than among young men in the general population. That’s not exactly a glowing endorsement, given that young men are far more likely to be charged with violent crimes than any other demographic group. But it should remind us that the NFL is more like a distillation of society than a social aberration.
In fact, I suspect that football’s attackers view it in the same mythological or symbolic terms as its most avid defenders, and imbue this inflated and spectacular American variant of rugby with a significance it does not really possess. Football is a game and an immensely profitable business, and if some of the men who play that game have done terrible things, such men can be found in every walk of life. It’s such a distinctly and uniquely American game, as I said earlier, that it’s difficult to avoid interpreting it as a metaphorical version of America itself. The story of Michael Sam, the NFL’s first openly gay draftee, and his struggle to find a team becomes a metaphor for mainstream American society’s complicated dance with LGBT citizens and their desire for equal rights. The mounting pressure on Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder to change the name of his venerable NFL franchise becomes a metaphor for America’s belated reckoning with the way it has oppressed, patronized, demeaned and fetishized Native American culture.
I’m not saying that the Redskins issue is unimportant, or that Sam’s football career or lack thereof is not newsworthy. But it’s easy to become seduced by the idea that those are the most important things, or that troglodytes who want to cling to an 80-year-old racist monicker, or to the wistful hope that all football players have always been heterosexual, constitute an important enemy. Here’s what’s not metaphorical or symbolic about football: Many if not most former NFL players suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a degenerative brain disorder resulting from repeated blows to the head, and evidence suggests that even people who play football briefly at a lower level are at high risk for the disease. A dozen or more former players with brain damage have committed suicide (including relatively recent stars like Dave Duerson and Junior Seau), and the number of NFL retirees with dementia, depression or related mental illnesses is believed to be in the thousands. The league recently settled a lawsuit by 4,500 former players for $765 million, but no one believes that has put this long-simmering issue to rest.
If the cases of Rice, Peterson, Belcher and others bring more attention to the underreported social epidemic of domestic violence, and the way it is often ignored or explained away, then our obsession with them serves a useful purpose. But violence against women is not unique to football or to pro sports. To claim that we can prove some clear causal connection when we can’t is to feed into the apparently inexplicable phenomenon of all those Baltimore fans in Ray Rice jerseys (many of them women), who cannot be dismissed as mouth-breathing morons or defenders of the indefensible. Football, an enormously troubled and enormously successful sport, is also a zone of cultural warfare -- over shifting gender roles and the nature of elite authority and other murky topics -- between two sides who can barely understand each other. If you want evidence that football represents American masculinity in its most toxic form, like war or cigarette smoking, we don’t need figures of speech or sociological studies: It is literally killing the men who play it.