I’m gonna come straight out and say it: I’m a pussy. For the first thirteen years I was on this earth, I was an only child of a young, single mom. We watched Gilmore Girls and Friends and Clueless and Grease (my mom had at thing for John Travolta). Movies I missed out on include (but are not limited to): any Star Wars movies, any Indiana Jones movies, Jurassic Park, Gladiator, Terminator, Rambo, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Aliens, The Matrix, Se7en.
I could go on for awhile, but do you see a pattern here? My mom didn’t do violence, blood, nor gore, so I never developed a tolerance for such things. We once watched an episode of ER (I later found out Quentin Tarantino directed it – big mistake, Mom) where one of the doctors gets chopped in half by a helicopter blade and the top half of his body is tossed off the roof. I had nightmares about it for a week. When I was in high school, I walked out of I Am Legend in the movie theater because being the last person on earth was one of my greatest fears, at the time. You catch my drift here-I simply cannot deal with most types of adversity on TV, let alone IRL.
That’s why, upon recent reflection, I find it a little strange that I enjoy football as much as I do. Violence is front and center in every football game. I have this deep, guttural, caveman-like reaction to every hard hit. When it’s my team doing the hitting, the cheer comes out of my mouth before I know why. It’s a gladiator battle, each half of the stadium crying for blood. It turns polite, well-meaning citizens into animals. Fans can’t get enough.
The reason I bring this up is because there’s been a lot of buzz in the media about how violence on the field translates to violence in the players’ real lives. In the past year alone – Ray Rice cold-cocks his girlfriend in an elevator, Adrian Peterson beats his 4 year old son with a switch, and super-fuckboy, Greg Hardy, beats up his girlfriend and threatens to kill her-though no one really cared until Deadspin leaked graphic photos of her injuries. Then we get to the really dark situations – the OJ Simpsons, the Ray Rices, and the Aaron Hernandezes.
Those of us not profiting from the NFL money-making machine act outraged by these situations. These men are supremely talented, paid handsomely, elevated to superstar status. Most have been treated like celebrities since college. We tweet about it, we write think pieces, we blame the coaches and the front offices for laughable punishments and lack of preventative measures.
But those same people, myself included, manage to forget all of that when it’s game time. During the Chiefs bye-week, a broadcaster on a morning sports radio show said that one of the keys to the Chiefs beating the Broncos would be Alex Smith’s willingness to hold the ball in the pocket a little longer and wait for the play to develop, at the risk of taking far more hits. Smith is 36 years old and has been playing in the league for ten years. I’ve never played football, but I’m guessing that after that amount of time, getting hit by 300-lb sacks of raging muscle running at full speed begins to get a little tiring. This year alone, he’s been sacked 23 times in the first six weeks of the season. I can’t say I blame Smith for getting rid of the ball, though maybe too quickly, in order to avoid being sacked, again.
It is the nature of the game. Watching the defense on your team demolish the opposing team’s O-line and take down their quarterback-the traditional leader of their team-is one of the most exciting things the sport has to offer. The defense gets fired up, the crowd loses their minds, and the morale of the team getting sacked takes a beating. Those moments are why we watch football.
But we shake our heads and wag our fingers when the same players who deliver punishing sacks treat their personal lives with the same mentality as their on-the-field jobs. We want them ferocious on the field and squeaky clean off of it. The fact of the matter is, a lot of people don’t have the mental capacity to completely separate their job from the rest of their life, and it’s crazy of us to expect that out of all professional athletes.
If we were really that outraged about players beating their wives, girlfriends, and/or kids, and the meager punishments the league doles out for these infractions, we would stop going to games, stop watching on TV, stop buying merchandise for ourselves and family members, and sacrifice the enjoyment and entertainment we glean from football. But we don’t, and we won’t. Football is ingrained in our culture, from Pop Warner, to Friday night lights, to Saturday tailgates to Monday Night Football. It is a part of who we are from September to January, not to mention a billion-dollar industry. No matter what transgressions the players commit, football will never go away.
The solution has to come from within the NFL, and it will definitely take a changing of the guard before that happens. Maybe it’s even bigger than that. Our entire country has a problem with mental illness. We stigmatize it, we try to treat it with pharmaceuticals instead of therapy, we say the people who ask for help with their mental illnesses are weak or whiners. If we can treat mental illness as seriously as we treat physical ailments, instead of placing blame on people who are affected by it, to get them the help they need, then maybe can continue to enjoy our blood sport without our star players (and bench players too) committing violent acts off the field (this is nothing to say of long-term injuries players may sustain from getting hit so hard for so long, but that’s another rant for another day). If the NFL can recognize what it takes to foster a healthy environment among the harsh realities of the game we all love, and implement great mental health programs for players and their families, it could be a giant leap toward the rest of the country following suit.