Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Why the NFL Problem Is Worse Than You Think

Ray Rice
Diverse interest groups have rushed to judgment about the recent NFL domestic abuse scandal. Besides directing personal harangues at Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, advocates have called for Commissioner Roger Goodell’s ouster, major shakeups in team ownership, and ending the NFL’s federal anti-trust exemption. But all these solutions are strictly organizational. The violence suddenly dominating sports headlines has deeper, more intractable origins, demanding bold interventionist solutions.

Football has a relatively violent history. Keeping relatively recent and high-profile, Michael Vick’s dogfighting, Plaxico Burress’ weapons possession in a nightclub, and OJ Simpson’s… ahem… charges recount a pattern of violent behavior. And while the overwhelming majority of football players are hardworking, law-abiding professionals, football’s macho berserker culture offers poorly adjusted personalities freedom to enact undesirable tendencies. Then, somehow, we expect them to compartmentalize. Cuz that works so well for soldiers.

I’ll concede personal bias here. Back in middle grades Phys-Ed, football—frequently an unregulated environment—provided certain elements an opportunity to exercise their frustration with the skinny, defenseless book nerd who frequently wrecked the grade curve. Especially after classmates discovered I could catch and run, but not throw, I became a common sacking target. Funny how often touch football progressed from “unintentional” tackles to bruise-inducing melees.

However, my issues notwithstanding, football often permits combative youths to enact violent whims with relative impunity. Considering that concussions, a common football injury, often damage the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that governs impulse control, it’s hard to specify cause and effect. However, whether football attracts violent people, or football creates violent people, it certainly rewards them. Extreme chest-thumping football rhetoric is so common, it’s become a hoary media stereotype:

Though Ray Rice’s mean left hook to his wife’s face precipitated the current debate, and his Players’ Union appeal keeps his story active, Adrian Peterson has become this controversy’s public image. Having been benched until his team, the Minnesota Vikings, got creamed last weekend, Peterson’s now nominally still active, despite having lashed his four-year-old son bloody. His head coach called Peterson’s team standing “fluid,” so who knows? Everything remains frenetic.

Peterson justifies physically disciplining his son, even whipping him until his genitals bleed, by asserting that his mother whipped him too. He insists that having been beaten in his youth offered him the personal discipline necessary for NFL success. This calculus overlooks the fact that Peterson’s father did a ten-year prison hitch for drug and financial crimes. Peterson’s half-brother was murdered in 2007. And a son he never met was beaten death by the mother’s boyfriend.

A friend of mine claimed physical discipline is okay, boasting: “My parents spanked me, and I suffer from a condition known as respect.” Okay, so she’s quoting a greying old Internet meme so what. But we’re not talking about spanking here. My father spanked me; he never beat me bloody. Such savage punishment doesn’t cause people to feel respect, or institute an awareness of consequences; it teaches children only to fear authority.

Adrian Peterson
Adrian Peterson arose from a culture of violence, a culture so pervasive that he doesn’t recognize how it still influences him. He’s passing that culture to his children. And the NFL, which demands its players “fight” an “enemy”, while engaging in blitz attacks, quarterback sneaks, and power runs, rewards violent thinking, provided it wins. Don’t pretend football isn’t violent. Players wear helmets, pads, and mouth guards because they risk severe injury.

However, our responses vary starkly. Ray Rice, whose statistics peaked in 2011 and whose last season was notably sluggish, was punished severely—after public outrage, not before. His career, Players’ Union actions notwithstanding, was already on the wane, and now is probably over. Adrian Peterson beat his son, too young to read, until his scrotum bled, because he hogged a video game, but he’s still winning. The NFL isn’t a moral institution; it’s a profit-generating enterprise. Cutting Rice likely won’t hurt football’s bottom line. Cutting Peterson would.

So long as audiences continue watching Sunday football, the NFL will provide financial motivations for violent players not to change. Two years ago, Americans worried themselves sick over concussions leaving players essentially brain-damaged, until we didn’t. One year ago, the 24-hour news cycle wet itself over a hazing process so extreme, it drove one player to the brink of suicide. Now it’s domestic abuse. The problems persist after news cameras go away.

If we’re truly horrified by the NFL’s domestic abuse scandal, we fans have the ability to make it stop. If it persists, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

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