American Football, A Ritual Of Violence

Football means something to me. But it also means violence.
03/28/2017 05:43 pm ET Updated Mar 29, 2017
Dan Thornberg / EyeEm via Getty Images

Scoring a goal in professional fútbol is an impressive physical feat, even to an alien visiting Earth to study human games.

But the alien would be as impressed that the casual fan could even follow the game from her seat. Consider the complexity of the basic rules of most agonistic human games. Consider concepts such as opposing teams, scoring, and winning. And then there is the unique set of skills required to play soccer.

The alien would hardly be able to differentiate between a garden-variety goal and something special, such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s wondrous 30-yard bicycle kick. Over time, however, it could learn.

Americans know a lot about sports, and little else. We can analyze particular plays from “the big game” last week, assess how particular players on those particular plays performed. Critically speaking, this requires a deep pre-existing knowledge of the sport itself, its rules, its gestures, its tendencies. Present a complex poem to a random sampling of American adults. For many, it might as well be etched in Assyrian cuneiform.

Americans tend to know less about fútbol and more about “violence,” also known as “American football.” Despite being a concussion factory, fans flock to the game because they know how dangerous it is, because they know there will be blood. If you can tell from 300 feet away whether a pass interference call in American football is legitimate, you can tell that 300 pounds of bone and muscle and bone running at you full tilt will concuss.

Professional players make money while they can. They know the game will leave them in physical discomfort for the rest of their lives.

It’s wilfully ignored from a safety standpoint. It’s wilfully exploited from a fiscal standpoint. In the absence of a juridical culture such as ours, the National Football League wouldn’t think twice about head injuries. Professional players make money while they can. They know the game will leave them in physical discomfort for the rest of their lives. And, due to head trauma, they may not be able to distinguish an Ibrahimovic miracle goal from the most mediocre strike.

We really don’t know much about history or politics or science. Does the Earth go around the sun, or the sun around the Earth? Americans aren’t sure. Why was the Cold War fought? Don’t ask. Americans tend not to know about health care systems in other so-called first-world countries. Our current president, bless his heart, has finally admitted that he finds it rather complicated.

Oh, but he knows plenty about American football. He had a strong opinion about a particular play from 2016 in which Vontaze Burfict nearly decapitated Antonio Brown. “We have become soft,” Trump pleaded to his rabid base, violently. “What used to be considered a tackle, a violent head-on, a violent—if that was done by Dick Butkus, they’d say he was the greatest player.” But now, Trump lamented, the hit was penalized for being dangerous.

American history belongs to rituals of violence. America marched chain-bound Native peoples across its many borders. Think of the slow, mechanized violence of her internment camps. The rhythmic lashings of her chattel whips.

Actually, lynchings were highly ritualized. Without Sanctuary, with a foreward by John “All Talk, No Action” Lewis, documents the many postcards sent to Southern mailboxes, postcards featuring graphic lynching photographs. In fact, many of these photographs contain carefully placed Christian symbols to intensify the viewer’s experience of this dark ritual. I choose not to enumerate here.

45’s loyal supporters are not ignorant that he supports violence. He has openly celebrate torture, advocated war crimes, encouraged violence against those disrupting his pep rallies. These folks want blood. This is not a metaphor. This is not a game.

I grew up watching American football. The Denver Broncos were my team. I had a stuffed ape named Brutus who wore a 1987 AFC Championship jersey. I’d sit with my dad and my grandfather and watch every game, religiously, as they say. It was a ritual. Everything was ritual. What we wore, the food we ordered, where we sat on the couch, where Brutus was situated.

We have to imagine other things. Please. We have to.

In my home city, we just got a soccer team, the Atlanta United. I’m learning how this game works, what constitutes offsides, when a player has been fouled. If the player hasn’t been fouled but acts like he has, it’s called “diving.” I heard an Irish announcer describe a particularly egregious instance of diving as “pantomime villainy.” It was dramatic—and it was knavish—but there was no blood.

Look, football means something to me, too. It means my dad and my grandfather and Brutus. But it also means violence. Perhaps it’s time for some new rituals. Perhaps we can think of them as rituals of resistance.

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