I get together with a group of 60 year old ex-athlete friends from Princeton 3-4 times each year for a casual dinner in Manhattan. Each of my classmates excelled in a sport in college, including football, basketball, lacrosse, baseball and me, the lone wrestler. These guys were all world class athletes; most of them could have played at a top level college program (remember, the Ivy's produce our share of professional athletes).
We were together last night and the subject came up about the New Orleans players being punished for the bounty system. I am sure you have read about encouraging violent behavior against select opposing players, and in particular, quarterbacks.
Truthfully, we were all a little stumped.
Contact sports in the U.S. provide a purpose for both those playing and watching. Of course, we can all get excited about the lessons learned as a child in team sports; cooperation, working as a team member, stick-to-itiveness, discipline. By the time you graduate high school all of the important lessons have been learned. In college the emphasis goes from developing the character of the individual to winning at any price.
Contact sports play an important role in our society. Just look at the billions invested in stadiums, many of which get limited use other than a few football games and a Who concert every few years. Or the billions spent on top talent salaries. Or the billions earned in TV rights. OK, you get it, but why? With talent going to the highest bidder, coaches and players changing teams, there is no real sense of "our team". So why are people so enthralled?
Maybe contact sports have replaced the gladiator games of ancient Rome. While we may have experienced a drop in testosterone over these millennia, the populace still needs the excitement and thrill of violent sports. Maybe it satisfies some genetic need of being the victor, albeit extemporaneously. Or, living vicariously through these athletes of the kill or be killed, survival of the fittest world. Maybe it mirrors a genetic need for hierarchy in the tribe, knowing who's the top guerilla. But just observe the screaming fans at an NFL playoff game, and images of thumbs up or down of ancient Rome come to mind. There is no coincidence that we give our stadiums names like "The Coliseum"!
Last night we reflected on the messages we received as student athletes. "We are going to kill these guys", "No one left standing", "Take that guy out of the game", "Knock his lights out", "Winner take all". How about the messages from some of our respected sports legends,
Dick Butkus -- "I wouldn't ever set out to hurt anyone deliberately unless it was, you know, important -- like a league game or something."
Jack Tatum -- "I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault."
My son Chris is now 31. He was the captain and played linebacker at Columbia University. He had some great games while there. In one game toward the end of his senior year he suffered a massive concussion. He was knocked out and totally disoriented for days. In school he was dazed, couldn't concentrate for months. The amazing thing was over the few weeks after the injury the head coach badgered him to get back on the field. Horrific, but not unusual! (The good news is that he recovered.)
Our society celebrates violence in sports. What about the hit of the century when Chuck Bednarik knocked out Frank Gifford.
This blow put Gifford, the Giants' star running back, out not only for that season but also the next. In fact, it was a perfectly legal hit, even by today's far more stringent standards. A blow to the ribs that was so hard that it knocked Gifford's head to the ground, causing a concussion. It was celebrated in Philadelphia while called a cheap shot in New York!
You know the old saying, "There was a fight and a hockey game broke out!" If we really wanted to eliminate violence in sports, we would do it. Fines, suspension, expulsion would end it. My guess is that hockey without the fights would drop attendance by half! OK, the New Orleans bounty was stupid and crass, but who caused this? America lives for the violence, and promotes it.
So, who are we kidding? Are we trying to live up to some new sensitivity to the weak? I remember my brother Max playing football at Columbia when head coach Buff Donelli designed a helmet with a 1" thick pad running like a Mohegan hair cut over the top of the helmet. The players were furious; they felt they were at a disadvantage. This was a successful and smart coach who knew the problem of head injuries. Needless to say, it didn't catch on!
I would like to sum up my high school and college sports career. In summary, broken nose three times, broken cheek bone and cracked sinus, 8-10 concussions, broken and dislocated elbow, torn cartilage in both knees, broken and dislocated fingers and broken toes, and broken and sprained ankles. And I am not the exception. Sure I might creak a little in damp weather, but overall, I was lucky and have recovered. And given a choice, I would do it all over again. Football, wrestling, rugby, a lifetime of memories, lasting relationships based on intense camaraderie. And looking back, it was my time as a gladiator.