All athletic contests are types of warfare, and those who are put off by that simply do not understand human nature or the nature of God’s created order. What sports are the most violent? I guess one could make a case for bull fighting, because it always ends in death. It’s a contest that has something deeply to do with the Spanish soul.
But one should not be surprised that the three violent sports that have been most historically popular in the United States–baseball, basketball, football–were all invented in New England. My Puritan ancestors were not by culture or by nature real warriors, so they made up games that simulated warfare, but all had boundaries and rules.
Baseball was the ultimate small town game. It needs space, and intimacy. Almost any town could get nine players to come together on a decent field and throw a hard ball 90 or so miles an hour while the opponents tried to hit it with a stick. If you look at the cultural history of baseball you will find that it’s a joyful community sport, played by black men and white men all over the rural areas of this country. I’ve heard complaints lately that there aren’t enough black players in the Major Leagues. It certainly has nothing to do with quotas or prejudices, as it once did; nowadays black boys grow up in cities that have no spaces, so they play basketball.
Basketball has become an urban game, although it wasn’t necessarily when Milan, IN won the state championship in “Hoosier” days. It’s a playground game now, and so completely dominated by black boys and girls (especially at the professional level) that most fans have forgotten that there wasn’t a black man good enough to play in the NBA until Sweetwater Clifton. It’s also become a more violent game, gradually. What Shaquille O’Neill has had to endure in his career would have put Kareem out in a year or two.
For those who have played rough games, however, we all know there is nothing like football. I grew up playing tackle football with no pads, with one boundary being a concrete sidewalk and the other a twelve-foot drop-off, and one end zone a gravel driveway. I also played lacrosse and seven years of highly competitive rugby, which despite its outward appearances is nothing like football. Players today turn themselves into human torpedoes, and hit each other with a viciousness that has no counterpart in any other game. Australian Rules Football comes close, but for very good reasons does not match the American version.
These thoughts are prompted by the number of players who went down during the first week of the NFL season. I played football for a total of about fourteen years, and rugby for seven. In all that time I saw one player with a real concussion–ONE–and maybe ten men get serious knee injuries. Since I have been coaching at the D2 college level a season has not passed without ACL or MCL injuries, concussions galore, young men turned old by the age of 22. The reason, I think, is twofold.
First, the game at the highest levels has turned into high-stakes individualism. Players and agents have to shop themselves around. Loyalty is to the dollar. This just reflects the culture. Team at the upper levels of all violent sports is a secondary notion.
Second, the technology of football fields and padding, meant sincerely to protect players, has instead made them much more vulnerable to serious injury. High-tech helmets and face masks have made players feel invulnerable. Artificial turf has made them feel fast. Statistics show that disastrous knee and back injuries have vastly increased on artificial turf, and that concussions and neck injuries have vastly increased with “improved” helmets and ever more sophisticated face masks. This just reflects our faith in progress.
Missiles launched in human bodies, however, end up compressing spines and shoulders and twisting other body part into unnatural positions. Violent sports should be played in a way that the violence is experienced as naturally as possible. Remember William Wallace and his big friend throwing stones at each other’s foreheads in “Brave Heart?”
I have a modest proposal which everyone who really understands the true meaning of football will understand: ABOLISH ALL FACEMASKS. All of them, no exceptions. On the one hand, this would take about 80% of the nastiest violence out of the game. Few of even the toughest guys are willing to lead with their heads if they have nothing to protect their teeth, noses, and jaws. Second, it would go far to give quarterbacks, who are now basically defenseless, a means of retaliation. How would you like to be over zealous in your hit on Brett Favre and be faced on the next play with a ninety mile an hour pass thrown directly at your nose when the offensive live let you through? Quarterbacks once did that, and there were many fewer injuries to them. I did it myself once, as a junior in high school, and it felt mighty good after some guy had tried to swipe his forearm across my face as a play ended.
Much of the violence in today’s games is gratuitous violence, allowed on a willy-nilly basis by referees and umpires who don’t know the game but have been given far too much authority by bureaucrats who themselves have too much authority.
And here’s another modest proposal: NO MORE STADIUMS BUILT BY PUBLIC MONEY, in any sport, on any level. War is indeed a public thing, but games that emulate war are not.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.