Friday, September 17, 2010

Football and Violence

There's a very interesting piece of sports writing here by Michael Rosenberg concerning Violence in Football that is worthy of a read. CNNSI is a little paranoid about quotes and plagiarism, so I won't quote it directly. However, the basic gist of the article, as I understand it, is to pose a moral and ethical question of when does a sport (in this instance football) become too violent to watch as a fan in good conscience?

That is an interesting question that I have wrestled with off and on for many years. I don't particularly like hockey because all out fist fights are a common part of that game, and players are seldomly ejected. They go to the penalty box, but usually they get back into the game at some point. If hockey would immediately eject any players fighting, then I would be more likely to get into hockey. I like the actual game itself, at least if I can watch it live. (Watching hockey on TV is another matter entirely.)

Having said that, I don't think fisticuffs in and of themselves are inherently violent. I was into amateur boxing for a while many years ago as well. I even got my license through the Southern jurisdiction of the Golden Gloves to be a fill-in referee, which I did for a while while I was in college. I got out of boxing, not because of a crisis of conscience involving violence, but because of corruption in the sport. Professional boxing has been notoriously corrupt for years, but I was offered a bribe to throw a fight by a fairly well respected boxing coach. I turned him in to the governing body and not a thing was ever done. In fact, I was never able to prove it, but I was left with the, shall we say, unmistakable impression by some goons that the governing body had been bought off to make the charge go away. I tendered my resignation the same day. And this was strictly amateur level boxing. I can only imagine the level of corruption on the pro-circuits where thousands and even millions of dollars from pay per view TV are at stake. For the record, I still hold that boxing, if taught and governed correctly, is a truly great sport to learn sportsmanship and self defense, much like Judo or Karate can do.

I am, however, left with the sad, and perhaps justifying, realization that the greed and corruption of boxing will bring about its own downfall in time. While they can make millions of dollars in the short term selling subscriptions to Pay Per View events, they are pawning off their future because no new fans will ever be brought into the sport by selling off your prime events for $50 to $100 a pop. For anyone to plunk down that kind of money, they have to already be a fan. Eventually those folks willing to do that die off and there won't be another generation of fans to replace them. I fear I have gotten off topic, however, because this has to do with corruption not violence inherent in the sport per se.

Football is a rough sport. I don't think anyone would deny that. The line between what a rough sport and what a violent sport is blurry at best. I feel confident in saying most Christians would agree that it is probably immoral to participate in or be a fan of an outright violent sport. Going to the Colosseum to see a Gladiator get torn to bits by a lion is not exactly manifesting the love of Christ. Although the body-checking hockey Jesus or the Black Belt martial arts Jesus figurines would seem to bely that assertion.

So, when does a rough sport become a violent sport, and therefore something that a Christian should not be participating?

As with most ethical issues, the answer is far from clear cut. Some people would see something seemingly innocuous as good ole' American baseball as violent. Certainly, a bench clearing brawl is violent, but then that is something outside the rules. Brawling players are ejected and usually have to serve a subsequent suspension after the fact. Even within the game, a player comes rounding 3rd Base and there is a collision at the plate with a catcher, that could be labeled as violent. As could what happens when a pitcher gets hit in the face with a line drive. The spitball was banned in Major League Baseball back in the 20's because a player died from being beaned in the head by that pitch.

Those later three examples in the preceeding paragraph, however, were part of the game and perfectly legal (at least until the spitball was banned.) There is a certain amount of risk to any sport. Some sports have more risks than others. Olympic Curling (for sake of argument we'll call it a sport) and Water Ballet (also recognized as a sport by the Olympics, although now called sychronized swimming)  are less rough than say rugby or Irish hurling (which is a truly great sport by the way.) The ethical question one must ask as to when a rough sport becomes a violent sport is two fold.

One is to question whether the risk results in the more likely than not hurting of oneself or others. The second question has to do with motive itself. Is the game or play intentionally designed to inflict harm on another team or player, or is the potential harm, to use a military term, a matter of collateral damage that the other player or team has reasonable assumed.

For instance, a "game" of throwing Gladiators to the lions is 100% guaranteed, in fact designed, to harm either the players or lions or both. Thus, we can assume that the sport of Gladiatorial death matches would be both unethical and immoral. Baseball is not designed for anyone to get hurt, and steps are taken to prevent physical harm. The likelihood of getting hurt in baseball is less likely than not. Thus, baseball cannot be considered a violent sport.

American Football is a grey area in this analysis, however. You can get hurt on any given play, as it is an inherently rough sport. The second question of whether or not it is designed to hurt people is the debatable issue. Flag football is not designed to have people get harmed. Touch football, it could be argued, is designed to inflict some level of damage on opponents offensive and defensive line. For instance, watch this famous half time speech (particularly the fighting language near the end) from legendary Notre Dame head coach Knute Rockne:

Certainly, motivational speeches in football use the language of violence. Plays can be drawn up to be violent. The Quarterback sack, for instance, is pretty violent. Everyone says that play is not designed to hurt the quarterback, but everyone who has a rudimentary understanding of physics knows bad things will likely happen when a 250+ pound lineman going full speed and hits a blindsided quarterback. And yet "that's part of the game," proponents will always say in self defense.

In theory, you are not supposed to intentionally hurt a player, at least permanently. And yet listen to crowd noise and the excitement of modern color commentators when someone lays down "a good hit" (which is usually code word for a particularly nasty but still legal hit.) You are intentionally taught to "wear down the opponents by "hitting 'em, and hitting 'em hard."

In a subsequent post I will be discussing the difference between force and violence, which is also at play here but I don't have time to go into.

Does that make football inherently violent? It certainly has violent elements. Perhaps football is greater than the sum of its plays.

I honestly don't know.

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