The Ethics of Highlight-Reel Hits: Should We Really Glorify Suffering?

Ty SchalterNFL National Lead WriterMarch 25, 2013

A running back flares out for a screen, then turns and watches the ball into his hands, like he should. A cornerback sniffs out the play, and aims his shoulder for the back's chest, like he should. The resulting explosion is unforgettable:

Are we not entertained?

The hit Sheldon Brown, then a cornerback for the Philadelphia Eagles, put on then-New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush was as clean as it was spectacular. It brought TV viewers around the nation to their feet in appreciation—including then-Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, per AOL's Enrico Campitelli.

This is the kind of defense everyone wants their team to play: fast, aggressive, explosive and terrifying. This, for many fans, is the reason they watch the sport. This, we have been taught, is capital-lettered Real Football.

Yet, the image of Bush curled up on the turf in pain is one that's hard to celebrate.


Football Violence Is Nothing New

For all of the publicity brain and spinal-cord injuries—and their debilitating long-term effects—are getting right now, football’s violence is not new.

In fact, that violence once kept professional football from the mass popularity it now enjoys. Before World War II, the small-time salaries and unchecked violence of professional football made it a niche attraction compared to the national pastime, baseball.

After the war, the role of television in Americans’ lives exploded, and the NFL along with it. The speed, excitement and frequent short breaks of the gridiron made for compelling TV. Yet, despite being broadcast to many suburban living rooms after church each Sunday, pro football wasn’t family-friendly entertainment.

Spearing, clipping, chucking, leg-whipping and chop-blocking all are technical football terms because they used to be common football techniques. That's not to mention the eye-gouging and finger-breaking that occurred in the trenches on a regular basis. Yet America began watching, in bigger and bigger numbers.

Without modern surgical techniques, common soft-tissue injuries like ACL ruptures were unrepairable; many careers ended when players "blew out a knee" or ruptured an Achilles tendon. Yet, we watched.

Worse yet, pro football players didn't make anywhere near the money today's players do, and nothing was guaranteed. A player being carted off with a ruptured patellar tendon was likely being carted off to a life of hobbling around a car sales lot. Yet, we watched.

Violence has always been part of the game, often more brutally and less athletically so than Brown’s hit on Bush.


The Cost of Doing Business

Former players have spent decades complaining about the NFL's evolution from black-and-blue trench warfare to air-and-space bombardment. They've complained whenever the NFL has instituted changes to make the game safer, up to and including last week's change preventing ball-carriers from using the top of their helmet as a weapon.

Former Houston Oilers running back Earl Campbell, whose punishing running style got him into the Hall of Fame just before debilitating injuries took his ability to play, spoke out against the rule on CSN Houston (via Chris Strauss of USA Today):

"I think Roger Goodell at some point has to stop and let football be football. The way I ran the football, the way I played, I played football with my whole body which I think the game should be played at certain positions like running back."

As Strauss pointed out, this is the same Campbell whose legion of injuries, physical problems and mental-health issues led to alcohol and painkiller abuse, as Sports Illustrated painfully detailed.

Campbell has not joined any of the retired-player lawsuits seeking compensation for late-life struggles; he seems to be at peace with the idea he traded quality–and possibly length–of life for fame and glory.

Whether players are willing to be used up and thrown away for our entertainment, are we as fans willing to cheer for that?


The Social Compact

I grew up as a Detroit Lions fan; as a child, I watched the paralyzing spinal injury of Mike Utley happen live on TV. Not only the injury, but the terrifying minutes of wondering what had happened and if Utley would be OK. For the first time in my life, the degree of violence inherent in the game was made absolutely clear.

For the first time in my life, there was a real-life force big enough to penetrate football’s escapist bubble: death.

Utley’s legendary “thumbs-up” sign let everyone know everything was going to be alright. It let us, as Grantland’s Jordan Conn once brilliantly wrote, off the hook.  The escapist bubble reinflated, the game was back on, the hits kept coming and the Lions went on a tear. With “Thumbs Up!” banners and signs hung around the stadium, the Lions made a deep playoff run for the only time in the past 50 years.

Everything, though, wasn’t going to be alright. Utley was paralyzed from the waist down.

As an adult, now knowing football’s terrible risks, I still taught my preschool-aged daughter to yell "Jacked Up!" along with the hosts of ESPN's Monday Night Countdown:

It was an easy way to teach my kid about the fast, furious fun football is all about. That fun, though, comes at a cost—a cost even higher than most thought. Eventually, as concerns over head impact and brain trauma grew, ESPN stopped airing the “Jacked Up!” segment.

My own ethical dilemma had been decided for me.


The No-Win Situation

This is the painful choice the league, media and fans must collectively make: Will the NFL cling to its violent roots—and risk again becoming a niche sport like MMA or boxing—or try to eliminate the violence, focusing on speed, athleticism and big plays?

What will happen to the game these men played and modern fans still love? Will it eventually become seven-on-seven, or—as Campbell and many others have suggested—flag football? Is it physically possible to make football safe and sustainable—and would anyone watch it if it were?

The NFL is betting the answers to those last two questions are “yes.” Clearly, it's hoping the speed and athleticism of safer, modern football will be easier to sell than the vicious brutality of the early and mid-20th-century game.

Many players and fans would love to have the simple, reckless brutality of the 1960s and 1970s back, even knowing the trade-offs involved. 

More, though, won't want their own children to eventually see today's gridiron heroes slog through painful, terrible postgame lives...and deaths.

Can we still cheer for big, clean hits like the one Brown put on Bush? Can we feel OK about the game we love even when they're bringing out ambulances, stretchers and neck braces? Can we ethically glorify the suffering of victimized players?

If you think about it, that's pretty jacked up.