One of my alma maters, the University of Kansas, will play in the NCAA basketball championship game tonight against the University of Kentucky! What is your prognosis?
One of my alma maters, the University of Kansas, will play in the NCAA basketball championship game tonight against the University of Kentucky! What is your prognosis?
One of the things we enjoy about professional football, frankly, is its violence. And as players get bigger and faster and meaner, we like it more and more. Still, we have ideals of sportsmanship. When a player gets hurt, both sides respectfully applaud as he gets carted off the field, and when it looks like a spinal injury, everyone piously says, “our prayers are with him.” But now it turns out that at least one team (and probably more) has been paying bounties for injuring players on the other team. The rate was $1,500 for inflicting a “cart off” injury. One player (not a coach) reportedly offered $10,000 for anyone who would put Brett Favre out of the game. The NFL came down hard on the New Orleans Saints, the team that formalized such bonuses, suspending their coach, assistant coach, a former coach, and even the general manager.
Thomas Boswell, one of the better sportswriters, acknowledges the cognitive dissonance between the appeal of the sport’s violence and the sense of going too far.
The NFL is in a fight for its soul, or maybe for its life. And it knows it.
We won’t grasp for a decade, maybe not for a generation, just how big a problem the NFL has in the wake of its pay-for-injury bounty scandal; which comes on the heels of studies showing the long-term brain damage caused by repetitive blows to the head, even in youth football; which comes on top of lawsuits by former NFL players who feel that premature bad health, mental illness or death may be related to the league’s disregard for their safety.
That’s a mouthful. But there’s a reason. The NFL’s half-century rise to power and profits has always been tied to its limited concern, tantamount to a lack of accountability, for the damage done to its athletes. Violence and danger are a core component of the NFL product. Too much safety is bad for business. . . .
Eventually, as players got bigger, faster and stronger, but the game’s rules and equipment couldn’t keep pace, an inflection point, and a crisis, had to arrive. Once a sport decides that too many quarterbacks and stars are being broken, and that you finally have to calibrate your carnage, how do you control that process, especially when you discover that a Super Bowl champion offers bounties for injuries — and that they won’t stop, even when the entire league threatens them? You can’t. You just cope with the crash.
The severity of Wednesday’s punishment to the New Orleans Saints, their coach, general manager and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has little to do with the league’s ethics and everything to do with its fear. You don’t see the NFL scared very often, but it is now and it should be. This isn’t just a month of reckoning for one team, but a trial for the NFL’s culture. . . .
The distance between old-fashioned hard-hitting and outright dirty play has always been bright as orange paint to anyone who ever actually played. If you hear an ex-NFL player say it’s a “fine line,” what you’ve learned is that he’s lived in the belly of the big-time football beast for much too long.
However, what we’ve got on our plate now is miles beyond such tame fare. There is a 100-yard-wide “line” between occasional dirty play and what the Saints did: a complete chain-of-command endorsement of trying to inflict “cart-off” level injuries ($1,500 each) with late hits, blows to the head and shots at the knees — all against the rules — all tolerated or even cheered.
The NFL’s corporate response — kneecap the Saints — falls squarely within the sport’s “pragmatic” traditions. Once the general public changes its opinion of the basic nature of a sport, and decides that it’s fundamentally uncomfortable with the values that the game represents, many things can change. Slow but inexorable go together. . . .
A sport’s flaw becomes a huge problem if it is also a central driver of its popularity. Of team sports, only football suffers from this combination. The more you remove fear and danger, the more you undercut the NFL’s power. Nobody pays to watch touch football.
The NFL is now at its crossroads. Can the sport find the right rules, the improved equipment, the necessary culture change — like the massacre of the Saints — to create a new balance between terror and some semblance of safety and honorable play?
Any idea what that would look like?
David Brooks argues that the nature of competitive sports is in conflict with Christianity and, indeed, all religions. Not just that sports can be rough–not all of them are–but that sports require pride, whereas faith requires humility. Here is part of what he says:
We’ve become accustomed to the faith-driven athlete and coach, from Billy Sunday to Tim Tebow. But we shouldn’t forget how problematic this is. The moral ethos of sport is in tension with the moral ethos of faith, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim.
The moral universe of modern sport is oriented around victory and supremacy. The sports hero tries to perform great deeds in order to win glory and fame. It doesn’t really matter whether he has good intentions. His job is to beat his opponents and avoid the oblivion that goes with defeat.
The modern sports hero is competitive and ambitious. (Let’s say he’s a man, though these traits apply to female athletes as well). He is theatrical. He puts himself on display.
He is assertive, proud and intimidating. He makes himself the center of attention when the game is on the line. His identity is built around his prowess. His achievement is measured by how much he can elicit the admiration of other people — the roar of the crowd and the respect of ESPN.
His primary virtue is courage — the ability to withstand pain, remain calm under pressure and rise from nowhere to topple the greats.
This is what we go to sporting events to see. This sporting ethos pervades modern life and shapes how we think about business, academic and political competition.
But there’s no use denying — though many do deny it — that this ethos violates the religious ethos on many levels. The religious ethos is about redemption, self-abnegation and surrender to God.
Ascent in the sports universe is a straight shot. You set your goal, and you climb toward greatness. But ascent in the religious universe often proceeds by a series of inversions: You have to be willing to lose yourself in order to find yourself; to gain everything you have to be willing to give up everything; the last shall be first; it’s not about you.
For many religious teachers, humility is the primary virtue. You achieve loftiness of spirit by performing the most menial services. (That’s why shepherds are perpetually becoming kings in the Bible.) You achieve your identity through self-effacement. You achieve strength by acknowledging your weaknesses. You lead most boldly when you consider yourself an instrument of a larger cause.
The most perceptive athletes have always tried to wrestle with this conflict. Sports history is littered with odd quotations from people who try to reconcile their love of sport with their religious creed — and fail.
In terms of this blog, Brooks is arguing that playing sports, professionally, say, is not a legitimate vocation for a Christian. Do you agree?
I don’t, and this column has precipitated a request from another blog to write about whether or not some vocations are forbidden to Christians. I’ll link to what I wrote when it comes up on the blog that invited me to contribute. In the meantime, how would you answer Brooks?
University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson has written a fascinating essay entitled “Do Sports Build Character or Damage It?” The short answer is “both,” or “either.” In the course of his discussion, which draws on his own experience playing football, he points out Plato’s observation that human beings have a need for thymos–the thirst for glory–but that this passion needs to be subordinated to reason. Edmundson illustrates his points by contrasting the two major figures of Homer’s Iliad: Hector and Achilles.
In the Western heroic tradition, the paragon of the humane warrior is Homer’s Hector, prince of the Trojans. He is a fierce fighter: On one particular day, no Greek can stand up to him; his valor puts the whole Greek army to rout. Even on an unexceptional day, Hector can stand up to Ajax, the Greek giant, and trade blow for blow with him. Yet as fierce as Hector can be, he is also humane. He is a loving son to his aged parents, a husband who talks on equal terms with his wife, Andromache, and a tender-hearted father. He and King Priam are the only ones in Troy who treat Helen, the ostensible cause of the war, with kindness.
One of the most memorable scenes in The Iliad comes when Hector, fresh from the battlefield, strides toward his boy, Astyanax. The child screams with fright at the ferocious form encased in armor, covered with dust and gore. Hector understands his child in an instant and takes off his helmet, with its giant horsehair plume, then bends over, picks his boy up and dandles him, while Andromache looks on happily. Astyanax—who will soon be pitched off the battlements of Troy when the Greeks conquer the city—looks up at his father and laughs in delight.
The scene concentrates what is most appealing about Hector—and about a certain kind of athlete and warrior. Hector can turn it off. He can stop being the manslayer that he needs to be out on the windy plains of Troy and become a humane husband and father. The scene shows him in his dual nature—warrior and man of thought and feeling. In a sense, he is the figure that every fighter and athlete should emulate. He is the Navy Seal or Green Beret who would never kill a prisoner, the fearless fighter who could never harm a woman or a child. In the symbolic world of sports, where the horrors and the triumphs of combat are only mimicked, he is the one who comports himself with extreme gentleness off the field, who never speaks ill of an opponent, who never complains, never whines.
But The Iliad is not primarily about Hector. It is the poem of Achilles and his wrath. After Hector kills Achilles’ dear friend Patroclus, Achilles goes on a rampage, killing every Trojan he can. All humanity leaves him; all mercy is gone. At one point, a Trojan fighter grasps his knees and begs for mercy. Achilles taunts him: Look at me, he says, so strong and beautiful, and some day I, too, shall have to die. But not today. Today is your day. At another point, a river close to the city, the River Scamander, becomes incensed over Achilles’ murderous spree. The hero has glutted its waters with blood and its bed with bodies. The river is so enraged that it tries to drown the hero. When Achilles finally gets to Hector, he slaughters him before the eyes of his parents, Hecuba and Priam, and drags his body across the plains of Troy.
Achilles is drunk on rage, the poem tells us. His rational mind has left him, and he is mad with the joy of slaughter. The ability to modulate character that Hector shows—the fierce warrior becoming the loving father—is something Achilles does not possess. Achilles, one feels, could not stop himself if he wished to: A fellow Greek who somehow insulted him when he was on his rampage would be in nearly as much danger as a Trojan enemy. Plato would recognize Achilles as a man who has lost all reason and has allowed thymos to dominate his soul.
This ability to go mad—to become berserk—is inseparable from Achilles’ greatness as a warrior. It is part of what sets him above the more circumspect Hector on the battlefield. When Hector encounters Achilles for the last time, Hector feels fear. Achilles in his wrath has no idea what fear is, and that is part of what makes him unstoppable.
Achilles’ fate is too often the fate of warriors and, in a lower key, of athletes. They unleash power in themselves, which they cannot discipline. They leave the field of combat or of play and are still ferocious, or they can be stirred to ferocity by almost nothing. They let no insult pass. A misplaced word sends them into a rage. A mild frustration turns them violent. Thymos, as Plato would have said, has taken over their souls, and reason no longer has a primary place—in some cases, it has no place at all.
This comparison, I think, can apply to modern warriors in the military, and to athletes, and to “warriors” in the business world and other professions. It’s possible for a lawyer, a scholar, a salesman, or maybe even a pastor (you think?) to go so all out that normal human feelings are extinguished in favor of winning at all costs, exerting power over other people, and achieving glory. They can never “shut it off.” Even when this means harming their families and ultimately themselves. (Achilles himself being brought down by the weakling Paris whose arrow hits him at his one point of vulnerability.)
This has to do, of course, with vocation, when the vocation is twisted into a means of aggrandizement for the self rather than love and service to the neighbor.
Gerard Baker of England has become a convert to American football. He explains why:
In its energy and complexity, football captures the spirit of America better than any other cultural creation on this continent, and I don’t mean because it features long breaks in which advertisers get to sell beer and treatments for erectile dysfunction. It sits at the intersection of pioneering aggression and impossibly complex strategic planning. It is a collision of Hobbes and Locke; violent, primal force tempered by the most complex set of rules, regulations, procedures and systems ever conceived in an athletic framework.
Soccer is called the beautiful game. But football is chess, played with real pieces that try to knock each other’s brains out. It doesn’t get any more beautiful than that.
As the bowl season get under way, let us contemplate the nature of football and why we like it so much.
HT: Ace of Spades
Football has a new wrinkle, thanks in part to the phenomenon of youth soccer programs:
NFL place kickers are connecting on their field goal attempts at a higher rate than ever, threatening to make even long-distance kicks nearly as automatic as extra points. . . .
NFL kickers have been successful on 86.5 percent of their field goal tries this season. That is the highest percentage at this point in a season since at least the 1987 season. NFL officials say it would be the best percentage in history over a full season with at least 100 field goal attempts if kickers are able to maintain that pace. . . .
Through seven weeks last season, NFL kickers had connected on 81.9 percent of their field goal attempts. They hit 84.4 percent of their tries through seven weeks of the 2008 season, when they finished the year at what league is thought to be the record full-season percentage of 84.5 percent. Data on the number of field goal attempts and success rates wasn’t always kept reliably throughout league history, but it is generally accepted that field goal accuracy has improved greatly in recent years. . .
“The biggest difference is the kicks from beyond 40 yards,” said Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL’s competition committee. “That’s where the improvement really is. That was the impetus behind us wanting to change the overtime format for the postseason [eliminating the possibility of a team winning with a field goal on the opening possession of overtime] because the accuracy has become so good.”
Kickers even have been accurate on field goal attempts of 50 yards or longer, making 70.7 percent of them this season. Scobee is 5 for 5 on such kicks and Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowski is 5 for 6.
Several people said kickers’ skill has been improving for decades, citing everything from the quality of the young athletes who take up kicking to the sophistication of the instruction they receive.
“You’ve got guys that are starting at a younger age, taking it way more seriously, training seriously,” Akers said. “You have kicking camps. Guys are specialized, and even specialized in the way they train.”
Gary Zauner, an NFL special teams coordinator for 13 seasons with three teams, now works with individual kickers and runs development camps and combines for kickers.
“The kids who are the better soccer players, they’re coming to football to kick,” Zauner said. “In high school, they’re getting instruction. They get to college and they get instruction. In the old days, nobody was really working with guys at a higher level. When you get better instruction earlier, it pays dividends down the line.”
Zauner said the large number of kids playing soccer in the U.S. has made the quality of kicking in football better.