Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Theatre and the Reality

There's an old saying in England: "Rugby is a hooligans game played by gentlemen and football [soccer] is a gentleman's game played by hooligans." I'm not sure how we'd classify american football on the spectrum, but I've often been troubled by it's disheartening resemblance to Roman gladiators in the Arena.

We've been through all sorts of medical controversy withe football and it's only going to get worse. The level of mental and physical toll these guys put themselves through for our entertainment is downright irresponsible. We can go back and forth about whether something should be done to stop or limit this damage or if the money and the knowledge of consequences are enough to allow grown men to make such a dangerous choice. There's a lot of merit on both sides and it's an important ongoing conversation.

At the same time, there's another conversation to be had - an individual conversation within each of us - do we continue to support such a venture. Can we justify standing by and watching, enjoying, cheering the mutilation and degradation of our fellow human beings? Is the barbarism of the act itself unweighted by the knowing and willing participation of it's players?

This is more than just a question of steroids and concussions. There is a mental aspect to such violence, analogous, albeit on a lesser plane, to that of soldiers in battle (something else we don't often like to talk about in stark reality). People are not made, designed, evolved, to willfully give and receive the kind of physical punishment doled out on an NFL field. Everything about us is geared towards self-preservation. It takes real feats of training, condition, and often tricks, to make our minds and bodies do such things they were never meant to do.

This was on evidence in stark display after the NFC Championship Game in Seattle Sunday. Seahawks Cornerback Richard Sherman blew up social media and sports talk radio with his honest comments about San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree:

The guy's not an idiot. Arrogant? Sure. Intense? Definitely. But he's got a Stanford degree (and was salutatorian of his High School class) and he writes a weekly column for Peter King's website. In fact, he had time to go home after the game and write his regular column explaining his perspective on what happened.

I wouldn't want to react the way he did. I wouldn't want to defend it. I agree with those people who say this incident, take on its own, is bad sportsmanship, is less than ideal. The problem is, it can't be taken on its own. This is a professional football player (and one apparently guarding a receiver he's already had personal, off-field beefs anyway) at the end of an emotional, high-stakes game.

These guys have to become superhuman on the field and it often requires them to be subhuman in other ways.

Peyton Manning and Tom Brady can get away with being friends and being "professional." Their job is mostly cerebral and they're never on the field opposing one another. Defensive linemen and offensive linemen; linebackers and running backs; cornerbacks and receivers have to, if not literally do battle, at least adopt the battlefield mindset to do the jobs we pay them to do.

We can point to the mass of players who say the right thing after the game, talk about the thrill of playing high quality competition, the respect they have for each other, and whatever else makes us happy. But that's not what they're saying to each other for sixty minutes on the field during the game. That's not how they speak to each other in the locker room. It's for our benefit, partly so we can avoid the disconcerting nature of the mental transformation necessary to play professional football.

Richard Sherman embraces the reality of what he's doing. He doesn't try to mask the difference between acting properly in polite society and doing what he has to do to perform on the field. It's an anomaly, but it's also a reality.

The fact that Crabtree and various media types are responding to him as if football should be just another part of normal life feeds the mirage. It plays up the storyline of good, clean fun that the league has been peddling forever.

Competition and physical dominance are not pretty. The things an athlete has to do to bring out the absolute best in their own performance isn't pretty. It's not political correct and it's not sanitary. It's not just football, either. Larry Bird spent his whole career spouting devastating, alarming levels of really mean trash at whoever stood in his way (and often at teammates in practice). Michael Jordan was the same way. The physically violent nature of football just ups the stakes.

It's fine for us to say, "I wish Richard Sherman would act like everyone else." It's much nicer to be coddled and allow the difficult realities of what's happening in front of us fade to the back of our minds. I just think we have to recognize our own complicity and our own hypocrisy in the midst of it all.

I continue to watch. Every year I'm troubled by the brain injuries and the 50 year old men who can no longer walk with joints so messed up there's no reason to even bother with replacements. The violence and damage inflicted on the field in troubling. I almost gave up a few years back, but like many I was lured into a false sense of righteousness by the league's efforts to make the game safer. I'm not so sure the real difficult elements can ever be removed. What's more, I don't think the public wants it that way. We like our gladiators - our heroes - giving their own bodies for our entertainment.

I'm not trying to take a "holier than thou" tact here, I'd just like to counter the notion that Sherman is the outlier rather than the reality. I just don't believe that's true. Not every player hypes himself up by yapping, but enough do - and they all have to talk themselves into the kind of unrealistic focus necessary to play the game. The end result is the same, even if we don't always see it.

It's the same kind of theatre you see in pro wrestling - just the inverse. Big, hulking guys who talk crap to each other in public, but are good friends in private. The NFL does it the opposite way - these guys make nice for the cameras and kill each other on the field. They may manage normal relationships off the field (although Sherman and Crabtree prove this isn't always the case), but the actual spectacle itself is a different kind of world.

In the end, we want to think the NFL is a bunch of guys like us who just happen to be gifted with immense physical gifts. It's more than that and we need to give credit where credit is due. These guys kill themselves for our entertainment. They may not get it right all the time (and lots of time they don't), I'm just not sure any of us has any standing to criticize. We don't exactly occupy the moral high ground ourselves.

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