There’s been a perfect storm of controversy over the National Football League, its players, and domestic abuse. Ray Rice beating up his girlfriend. Adrian Peterson strapping his son. Some backup running back from the Cardinals hitting HIS girlfriend. And on and on.
Good. We need this discussion. Hitting someone smaller and weaker than you, especially if you’re a professional American football player (with the physique, the strength, the conditioning) is abhorrent and reprehensible. I’m okay with spanking your son (probably because I was spanked, and I didn’t die or anything), but leaving grill marks on the kid’s genitals is in NO WAY okay.
For a long time, I’ve been drifting away from the NFL. I’m a football fan. I think it’s an amazing sport. It’s a combination of sheer brute force, intricate planning, a funny-shaped ball, amazing strategy, all sorts of plusses. I would MUCH rather watch a goal-line stand than a towering home run, or a forty-foot three-pointer. I played football, and I played it clean and hard, and I was pretty good at it. A team I was on came in third in the state (or fourth, depending on how you look at it. There wasn’t a third-place game, so maybe Banks High School was third, maybe La Salle was, and we’ll never know, though I would’ve killed someone for the chance to play those bastards again), and some of the happier moments of my life came on that brightly-lit field, with the band playing and the crowd cheering and the coaches shouting. I’m not going to say that sacking a quarterback is equivalent to giving birth to your first child, or marrying the love of your life, or getting that promotion–but it certainly ain’t a bad thing, lowering your shoulders and laying out the kid with the ball, hearing the whoof as the air leaves his lungs, landing on top of him and knowing you just made a third-and-long out of a second-and-two. It’s a hell of a sport, football is. It’s not as mythic as baseball. Never will be. Baseball has geometry going for it, and poetry, and George Will. Kevin Costner. Baseball lends itself to fantasies. Men, grown men, once they hit thirty years old or so, know they’re never going to play professional football. If you haven’t done it by now, you never will. But there’s always some chance that you might make an MLB roster. The sport doesn’t put a premium on physical fitness. There are fat guys playing professional baseball. Drunks. And, obviously, steroid hogs.
In the NFL you have steroid guys, and you also have wife-beaters.
You can’t be an idiot and play professional football. They’ve done studies on this. The smartest professional athletes are pro football players. They HAVE to be–the game isn’t what it used to be. In the old days you had maybe twenty offensive plays, and the defense would have stunts and blitzes and such, and maybe you’d have a couple of gadget plays for the right situations. Nowadays you have playbooks that look like novels, and your stunts and blocks and shifts depend on reading half a dozen signs, watching the sidelines, listening to your quarterback’s signals, and even then a million things can go wrong. A team like the New England Patriots, the closest thing we’ve had to a dynasty in this century, doesn’t have the best athletes. They have great athletes who are brilliant team players. Men who study the playbooks, study their opponents, drill and drill and drill. Back in the day you could have idiots playing the sport, their natural talent and blood thirst carrying them forward. You simply can’t do that anymore. Brian Bosworth, god love him, would get destroyed by today’s players.
Same with Ray Nitschke, or Hollywood Henderson, or even the greatest football player I’ve ever seen, Lawrence Taylor. I just don’t think they’d cut it anymore. That’s no slam on those men. They were warriors. They bled for their sport. They lost teeth, they got concussions, they jammed their fingers into facemasks until their digits stuck out in weird directions.
And, for all I know, they were good men who came home at night and treated their women and children kindly. Kiss the kid, hug the wife, eat the pot roast, and fall asleep watching Ed Sullivan. They didn’t coldcock their ladies in elevators. They didn’t make their sons pick a switch and then beat them until the children bled from their balls. Maybe those guys, the old guys, were better men than the current crop. I’d like to think so. I have romantic views of Ken Stabler, that left-handed riverboat gambler, of Mean Joe Greene (I wore his number)
of Joe Montana–the best quarterback ever, at least in my mind (I never got to watch Johnny Unitas, and Brady needs another Super Bowl win before he enters the pantheon), of all those guys with the mud and grass stuck in their helmets’ earholes. They’re like the Knights of the Round Table to me. Montana was Lancelot. Payton was Galahad. I can see Mike Singletary as Gawain, if I squint.
But there’s been a long, slow spiral downward for the league. For ALL leagues, actually. The whole Sosa-McGwire crap drug-cocktail home-run chase killed baseball for me. Rasheed Wallace and his ‘cut the check’ killed basketball for me. And now this, this goddamn culture of NFL jackasses beating up their women because, though they’re smart enough to learn half a hundred offensive plays and whom to block in each one of them, but can’t be smart enough to get off the freaking elevator and cool down.
The colleges aren’t much better. I’m not going to join the chorus that wants to crucify Jameis Winston for being a freaking idiot and jumping onto a table to shout ‘pussy’. But if he’s guilty of sexual assault then, yes, crucify the talented little bastard.
We give these young men our adulation, our praise. We give them excuses. We let them skate. And then they grow up and start to make millions of dollars. And occasionally they turn into O.J. Simpson. There’s no way to change the system. But, at least now, there’s attention being focused on the problem. And I, for one, am glad.