Disturbing news from the NFL these days. It seems that the Saints — and probably others –have been paying people to hurt players on the other team. Some of you may be wondering what in fact players get paid for, having assumed that smacking 320 pound slabs of solid muscle into other, smaller slabs of solid muscle was not in fact some sort of ballet, but you are wrong. Players get paid to do positive things — throw touchdowns, run to daylight, rip the head off the receiver, hurl the quarterback to the turf like a sack of flour, and so on.
Still, the sporting press is aflame. They decry this this development; it is shameful. Football, they would have us know, is all artistry. Complex game plans, split-second timing, graceful leaps and sizzling swerves are at the nexus of the brilliant choreography of any given NFL play. Overt violence — attempting to gouge out an opponent’s eye, snap their leg off at the knee or bite their thumb off at the bottom of a fumble pile — all these are illegal, and strongly discouraged by penalties, fines, suspensions and public opprobrium.
Still, it’s hard to imagine Bill Belichick saying to Butch Wilfork: “See that guy wearing number fourteen there? When they hike him the ball, I want you to run over to him and hit him as hard as you can — but try not to hurt him.”
And now, we read that the career of Peyton Manning may have been ended — and certainly has been seriously interrupted — by a deliberate hit by a Saints defensive player, who reportedly screamed after the play that knocked Manning out of the game: “Pay me the money! Pay me the money!”
Well, that guy must be a Republican, is all we can say. Who woulda thunk it?
Come on. I am a football fan, and I love to watch it. But seriously, how many people really think that you can put 22 people on a gridiron in front of tens of thousands of shrieking people, amped to 11 on jolts of adrenalin sufficient to enable facing a charging rhino, cover them in space-age armor, with millions of dollars at stake, and expect them all to behave like English gentry on a cricket pitch?
Well, many of us do, in fact. We don’t want to admit that the price of the savagery we enjoy so much is, from time to time, actual savagery. We can try to pretend that increased vigilance against “hits to the head” or smacking a “defenseless receiver” somehow mitigate the realities of the game, but no one is going to pay to watch flag football. The vi0lence is as much a part of it as the artistry.
The artistry is certainly there, and even more certainly a joy to behold. But the biggest roars in any game tend to be those following a hit that echoes around the arena like a cathedral bell. Do you really think a $1,000 bounty is the motivator for this? Most of these guys spend more than that in one night at a topless bar.
And pretending that we are outraged at the thought that some players might seek deliberately to injure someone else betrays the same kind of hypocrisy that permits college coaches to recruit thugs with serial felony convictions to play basketball with the other “students.”
Male primates tend towards aggression, and letting those feelings out by watching, cheering for and identifying with our favorite teams is a pretty good way of harmlessly discharging them. Yes, soccer has its hooligans, and Rangers fans may get a little rowdy, but, by and large, sports have proven to be a fairly useful channel for our deeply-ingrained urge to grab the other fellow by the throat, throw him to the ground and smack his head against a stone. We should not, however, pull a Claude Raines when we are suddenly confronted by evidence that this is in fact sometimes exactly what happens.
Peyton Manning is a very good example of what I am talking about. Here is a man who is clearly very, very smart. He has made tens of millions of dollars. He can continue to earn millions of dollars without ever again putting on a helmet.
His father said recently, “I think Peyton has seen four of the top neurosurgeons in the country.”
Well, if you have seen four of the top neurosurgeons in the country in their professional capacity because of an injury to your neck — do you think maybe that should tell you something? Wouldn’t a sane man think that before he risks permanent paralysis, this would be a good time to hang it up?
Perhaps. But Manning wants to play football. Millions of people want Manning to play football. He knows the risks. And he is free to make his choice. We would be the last to say that we know what he “should” do.
Professional athletes understand the risks they take, or ought to. As Hyman Roth notedly observed to Michael Corleone: “This is the business we have chosen.”