If you asked reporters why they were there, they would give some mumbo-jumbo reason that as hard as it may be, it was important to get reaction from the family in a case as sad and stunning as this one. Seau had been an absolute force during the prime of his playing days with the San Diego Chargers, ferocious, relentless, maniacal, beyond intense. Now that he was dead, it would be easy to say he was a joy to watch. But he wasn’t a joy to watch. He was scary to watch, just like the National Football League is scary to watch, which is one of the primary reasons we love to watch it, a human car crash on every play.
I have to disagree with this. I don’t like football because it’s violent, and I imagine the vast majority of football fans feel the same way. Sure, it’s nice to see a really solid, well-executed hit from time to time, but it’s not why I watch the game, and it probably wouldn’t even make a list of the top ten reasons why I like football.
If I really liked violence over all of football’s other positive attributes, I wouldn’t be watching football at all. There are many sports that are far more violent: boxing for example, K-1 and other MMA sports, even NASCAR or pro wrestling if two-by-fours, barbed wire, or Pabst Blue Ribbon are involved. In fact, if I really got a rise out of violence qua violence, I probably wouldn’t even watch sports at all. Instead I’d be watching Spartacus: Vengeance or Scarface or the evening news – unquestionably the most violent program on television.
Accordingly, I don’t think there is anything controversial about the research coming out from everywhere showing that concussions lead to early dementia, and I don’t think there is any sane conclusion other than that the NFL could be doing a lot more to protect the safety of its players. There are concerns that limiting violent contact in the NFL will destroy the sport, but again, I just don’t think those concerns are legitimate, because I don’t watch football for the concussions and don’t know anyone else who does.
So why do I like football then? Probably it has something to do with understanding the game and appreciating skill and strategy, but it can’t be just that or else I’d enjoy watching golf or chess on television as well, which I do not. Playing golf may be one of my favorite activities in the entire world, but I cannot stand watching golf on television.
Perhaps Christopher Hitchens had some insights into why we like football:
…picture this: I take a seat in a bar or restaurant and suddenly leap to my feet, face contorted with delight or woe, yelling and gesticulating and looking as if I am fighting bees. I would expect the maitre d’ to say a quietening word at the least, mentioning the presence of other people. But then all I need do is utter some dumb incantation—”Steelers,” say, or even “Cubs,” for crumb’s sake—and everybody decides I am a special case who deserves to be treated in a soothing manner. Or else given a wide berth: ever been caught up in a fight over a match that you didn’t even know was being played? Or seen the pathetic faces of men, and even some women, trying to keep up with the pack by professing devoted loyalty to some other pack on the screen? If you want a decent sports metaphor that applies as well to the herd of fans as it does to the players, try picking one from the most recent scandal. All those concerned look—and talk—as if they were suffering from a concussion.
Wait! Have you ever had a discussion about higher education that wasn’t polluted with babble about the college team and the amazingly lavish on-campus facilities for the cult of athletic warfare? Noticed how the sign of a bad high school getting toward its Columbine moment is that the jocks are in the saddle? Worried when retired generals appear on the screen and talk stupidly about “touchdowns” in Afghanistan? By a sort of Gresham’s law, the emphasis on sports has a steadily reducing effect on the lowest common denominator, in its own field and in every other one that allows itself to be infected by it.
Since I like sports, I can’t really agree with Hitchens here, although I think his idea of sport as template for deep-set tribalism is spot-on. The real reason I like football is that it’s in my nature to like football: team sports are playing at war – they require physical prowess, chemistry, strategy, endurance, loyalty, and a lot of luck.
I guess this means that I actually do watch football for the violence but in a whole different way than the media and the various interested parties in the ongoing concussion > dementia > suicide imbroglio imagine. This means we can still have all the more refined violence of the game with a bit less of the dangerous kind, and football will be none the worse for wear.