Saturday, October 23, 2010


A few weeks ago, I gave a talk on Jewish-Islamic dialogue at a national conference sponsored by the Eastern Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Just before finishing, I asked the people in the audience to close their eyes for a few seconds. Quickly, I reached into a bag and pulled out a football jersey, which I then pulled over my shirt. When the audience’s eyes were opened, they were treated to a short but impassioned plea NOT to approach peacemaking the same way they’d approach a football game -- as a partisan who empathizes with one combatant but not the other.

To make peace, I contended, we must not become cheerleaders for any one side. We must learn and respect the narratives of all who wage war, at least to the extent those narratives are grounded in fact and not in myth or bigotry. With respect in particular to the struggle over the Holy Land, peacemakers can’t be identified as being “pro-Palestinian” or “pro-Israeli” but must be steeped in love for both peoples and devoted to a long-term two-state solution. Holy activities like peacemaking require spiritual attitudes, and there is nothing less spiritual than sitting in front of a TV on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon yelling like Banshees -- after a turnover, a touchdown, or a blown call.

But my point was not to knock football. Far from it. I stressed that though human beings are known as “rational animals,” it is important to keep in mind that the adjective is “rational” and the noun is “animal.” However much we’d like to forget our animal nature, we can hardly eliminate it altogether. And that means that even for us peacemakers, there are times in our lives for allowing our more beastly sides to take over, and one of those times is when our favorite team is playing football. That’s when we can afford to put aside some of our even-handedness – indeed, that is when we can put aside some of our “Empathic Rationalism” -- and just bleed Black and Silver, Burgundy and Gold, or whatever colors our uniform happens to be. In my case, on the morning of my talk, I was bleeding Purple and White. My uniform was a 2006 Antoine Winfield Vikings jersey.

Why Winfield? Because pound-for-pound, he might be the hardest hitter in the NFL. The guy is only 5’9” 180 pounds, but he almost never misses a tackle and packs quite a punch in the process. Like every other Vikings fan, I enjoy watching him smack down running backs who outweigh him by 40 or 50 pounds but have no answer when Winfield throws his body into their legs. At that point, gravity takes over.

Winfield is known as a pure tackler rather than as an intimidator, but I have never been averse to appreciating bigger, more vicious hitters. I always considered that appreciation to be part and parcel of being a football fan. After all, lots of sports showcase finesse and athleticism, but what makes football unique among ball games is the violence of the collisions. Two grown men, and I do mean GROWN, run at full speed, sometimes with their eyes on each other and other times with their eyes elsewhere, like towards the ball as it flies through the air. When they collide and one or both crumble instantly to the ground, announcers go wild. “Man, did you see that hit. That was awesome!” As a kid or even a young adult, I thought nothing of such a collision; the more violent, the more “cool.” That’s the word I might have used under my breath to revel in the thrill of the moment.

Then one day, I realized something rather ugly about myself. I was watching a game between two teams I cared little about, when the quarterback for one the teams left the pocket and ran swiftly up the field. Rather than sliding (in which case he would be proclaimed down on impact with the ground), he headed for the sidelines, while continuing to gain more and more yardage. Just before he reached the sidelines, he was met squarely by a massive, yet speedy linebacker, Greg Lloyd of the Pittsburgh Steelers. And even though I’m no Steelers fan, I got a rush of joy at watching Lloyd simply pulverize the quarterback. My rationale was that the quarterback had been asking for it – he hadn’t slid to evade the tackle but was trying to get every yard he could as if he were a running back. But as the quarterback remained on the ground after the tackle, it dawned on me just how sick I was that I would so viscerally thirst for a violent collision just because a quarterback was too greedy for yardage to know when to evade the hit.

That ridiculous blood lust still resides deep inside me, and every now and then it reappears. Another common time for it is when I’m watching a bench-clearing brawl during a baseball game and find myself sufficiently enraged at one of the combatants that I’m hoping for a good clean punch to the jaw. I’m not defending this attitude. Of course it’s uncivilized. But I also accept that it comes with the testosterone. It comes with the recognition that whereas we may hope to be rational, we cannot escape being animals.

Ah, but when we escape from the heat of the moment, when we take some time for reflection, we Empathic Rationalists can do some things to regulate our animal sides. And I’m afraid the time has come for those who oversee the game of football to get busy in this regard. Scientists no longer debate the destructive nature of this game. It destroys the feet, the knees, the ribs, and ultimately, the brain. Players don’t even realize what is happening to cause them permanent brain damage. Every shot they take that jars the helmet – and for that matter, every shot they administer to another player – destroys their brain cells. The results include headaches, nausea, dizziness, memory problems, severe depression, and just plain old permanent stupidity.

Did I say stupidity? When it comes to the NFL, that appears to be the word of the week. Last Sunday, players dropped like flies from one head-to-head collision after another. Two of those players dropped at the hands (or should I say the “head”) of Steelers defensive lineman, James Harrison. Here were Harrison’s comments after the game: “I don't want to see anyone injured," Harrison said, "but I'm not opposed to hurting anyone. There's a difference. When you're injured, you can't play. But when you're hurt, you can shake it off and come back. I try to hurt people."

The number of players carried or carted off with head injuries reached such an absurd proportion last weekend that the league felt obliged to talk tough about the problem. President of Football Operations, Ray Anderson, said that “There's strong testimonial for looking readily at evaluating discipline, especially in the areas of egregious and elevated dangerous hits. Going forward there are certain hits that occurred that will be more susceptible to suspension."

Suspensions, huh? Not this weekend. In response to Sunday’s hits, the league continued with its customary approach of fining players, but not suspending them. And we all know what a fine means to a zillionaire football player: little more than a slap on the wrist. Harrison, for example, was fined $75,000 for his two lethal hits, but he’ll be on the field tomorrow. And lest you feel sorry for the hit his wallet his taken, keep in mind that in 2009, Harrison signed a six-year $51 million contract. Trust me, when it comes to that $75,000, he won’t feel a thing. By contrast, for Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi, the two Browns receivers he knocked out, their brains will be feeling the effects of that game for the rest of their lives.

I thought Cribbs was asleep," said Harrison about one of his two victims last Sunday. "A hit like that geeks you up -- it geeks everybody up -- especially when you find out that the guy is not really hurt -- he's just sleeping. He's knocked out, but he's going to be OK. The other guy, I didn't hit that hard, to be honest with you. When you get a guy on the ground, it's a perfect tackle."
And Harrison wasn’t the only Steeler who enjoyed the opportunity to philosophize about the events of the day: "[Harrison] plays hard like that every week," said Steelers linebacker James Farrior. "Today was especially good because he took out their top dog, really. He took out the biggest weapon they had. He didn't do it intentionally, but with the intensity he plays with, it's liable to happen sooner or later."

Actually, it is liable to keep happening, over and over again, until the league does the only thing that is possibly capable of stopping this madness: suspending players for multiple games whenever they administer head-to-head tackles that hurt another team’s player. And I did say “hurt,” and not “injure.” That Harrison would differentiate between those two words when it comes to head trauma suggests that he’s probably not playing with a full deck himself. But surely the suits who run the league know better. Surely they realize that hits to the head are like puffs of tobacco. In the short run, you can survive them; in fact, you don’t even notice any damage. In the long run, however, they’ll destroy you as surely as night will follow day. And we fans, no matter how much catharsis we might enjoy from watching a good hit, simply cannot afford to support this kind of activity any more.

The irony of all this is that when I brought my jersey to the Peace Fellowship conference, I really did have the right idea. Antoine Winfield is a hitter, but the proper kind of hitter. Winfield, unlike Harrison, isn’t a head hunter. He hits in order to tackle, not to knock people out. Winfield, to be sure, has the capacity to sprain a guy’s ankle or even take out a knee. But Harrison thinks nothing of taking out a guy’s brains. And that simply must no longer be tolerated.

So write to the NFL. Let the Commissioner know where you stand on the issue of head-to-head collisions. Tell him you’re not going to any more NFL games or buying any more NFL memorabilia – no more Winfield jerseys, even – until he draws a line in the sand. Tell him you are willing to see your own team lose a key player for several games if that’s what it takes to preserve the sanity of the sport. Tell him that if the NFL has a chance to minimize head trauma and refuses to take that chance, it belongs in the category of drug dealers, another class of people who think nothing of inflicting brain damage on others … for profit.

No comments: