Originally published in Official Artur Davis
I have a distinct memory of a time in my childhood when boxing was at the epicenter of the national consciousness: when Ali’s rematch against Leon Spinks had a country on edge, waiting for word; when the resolution of the Ali/Frazier grudge-matches seemed like a definitive cultural event; that stretch in the 80s when Sugar Ray Leonard seemed the smoothest, bravest, most insanely gifted athlete on the planet.
Then, at some point in the nineties, boxing stopped being imaginative and started being boorish. You might trace the moment from when Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfeld staged a street brawl inside a boxing ring. Or perhaps it was the night Ali’s once nimble, flawless hands couldn’t hold a torch still at the Olympics. For whatever cumulative reasons, though, an alluring, if awkward, beauty turned into something a substantial number of Americans can’t stand. A sport that used to electrify America is now the province of a hard core and an over-priced cable market.
It’s a cautionary note if the National Football League will only hear it. The pedestal looks solid enough now—100 million of us annually turn the Super Bowl into the one nationwide communal occasion that involves neither terrorism nor the election of a president; football is by a decisive margin not only the most popular single kind of television viewing but the sport that cuts through the most cleavages of class and geography. But there is a rhythm of violence that is starting to diminish football in the same way that boxing was eroded.
The spring and late winter brought the revelations that a Super Bowl champion was funding a cockfight mentality in the form of bounties on rival players. Then there was the league’s belated acknowledgment that concussions correlate directly with a higher incidence of early Alzheimer’s and debilitating depression; and the unsettling suicides of ex players like Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, Andre Watters, and Junior Seau. The first three had documented brain injuries and Easterling was one of the lead plaintiffs alleging the league’s negligence in responding to and treating concussions. But it is Seau’s suicide–after a long fall from grace– that touches a special nerve. He was so indestructible and so poised, and his descent so unforeseen, that his friends believe his death has to be the toll of what amounts to years of blunt force trauma to the head.
The self-serving mantra from the sport’s apologists is always that the whiners are ignorant and lack knowledge about the game. What a curious reflex from a sport that makes its riches off the loyalty of a rank and file that generally can’t diagram a play or translate a snap count or fully recall the intricacies of intentional grounding: football thrives off the visceral engagement of we lightly-informed, novice fans and it’s no answer to pull the ignorance card.
Nor is it much of an answer to describe the NFL’s violence as the essence of its appeal. To the contrary, I’ve always bought the argument that football brilliantly sanitizes its violence. The helmets shield us from seeing the confusion in battered faces, and our technology is not yet precise enough to deliver us the blunt, unfiltered sound of giant men colliding with each other at full impact. Indeed, the succession of analysts on our screen leave the impression that the athletes who age out of the league are savvy, polished fashion icons, not basket cases.
Football’s myth-making power is, to be sure, part of what lifts it–that and the fact that its basics are so comprehensible and strategic at the same time. There are two things, however, that can tarnish those forces: if the ugliness starts to get more prominent, visible display, and if more of our icons start degenerating on us. Both are happening now and if the scientific evidence that is accumulating is right, the trends will worsen.
There is another social phenomenon that threatens the league’s everyman persona. To a degree we don’t like to acknowledge, the youngsters who hurl themselves into the most competitive reaches in football are disproportionately poor whites, blacks, or Latinos who are pursuing a life-changing payoff at the end of the hits. These boys have absorbed that football is a color-blind, class-blind zone of a kind you don’t find on Wall Street or Capitol Hill, or the high-rise office downtown, and it requires none of the graces and patronage poor boys have to learn to climb other ladders. If football is increasingly defined as too brutal an enterprise, is it sustainable that unaffluent, unconnected young men are disproportionately bearing the brunt? Surely, it’s only a matter of time before a society concerned with inequality–one that stresses over disparities in the ranks of, say, the incarcerated–finds something unacceptable about an imbalance in the composition of a debilitated warrior class.
The Sporting News is onto something when it suggests that the diagnosis of serious injuries like head blows ought to be taken away from self-interested teams and put in the hands of independent neurologists: that’s a culture shock for teams who are ferociously secretive about their internal medical assessments of their players. But a variety of other valid suggestions, like mandatory waiting periods before a concussed player can return, could have the unintended effect of giving a competitive edge to a team that inflicts enough damage. That is, unless the league shows an intolerance for intentional hits at the head by doing the following: suspending and not just fining offenders (the NBA’s example of tossing Ron Artest out of a playoff series for turning his elbow into a battering ram is one the NFL should be willing to imitate) and banning and not just suspending in the most severe instances. Certainly, Commissioner Roger Goodell’s one-year ban of the New Orleans Saints’ head coach was a judgment call that sends the right message about higher-ups who look the other way.
No one suggests that the NFL ought to turn football soft. But a sport that reads the public mood so skillfully ought to know it has a weak spot that is glaring. The same league office that spends innumerable hours dissecting every play for insights on its rules and officiating shouldn’t shrink from looking just as closely at the structure and intent of its controlled violence. To be sure, football is not in position to say with respect to brutality, “never again”. But it can say: not so easily, not without punishment that fits the crime, not as often for this next generation of players as it was for the last. Call it the Junior Seau rule.