The National Football League, as an organization, trades in violence.
No matter how many rules the league puts into place to curtail injuries and prolong the careers—and lives—of its players, the NFL finds some other ways to justify the use of violence as a means to promote its product.
There's a reason for that. Big hits still make all the highlight shows, even with the growing realization that each crushing blow is doing irreparable damage to both the player getting hit and the one doing the hitting. The NFL athlete is unlike any other in professional sports—a professional gladiator through and through. And the league is banking on that…quite literally.
That's why situations like what happened this week at a joint practice between the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders is met with raucous cheers from the fans in attendance. Two teams duking it out on the field after a huge hit knocked one player to the turf, all right in front of the fans? That's NFL manna. That's why the fans show up to preseason sessions in the summer. That's what it's all about.
What happened during that fracas, however, should not be why fans show up, nor should it be what anything in the NFL universe is about.
The Dallas Cowboys announced on Wednesday that second-year cornerback B.W. Webb will not be punished after pushing a fan in the stands during the fight. The fan, as caught on video by The Black and Silver Way, instigated the situation by swinging a replica Raiders helmet at the player, striking him at least once.
Warning: Explicit language, video NSFW.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett addressed the situation with reporters when asked if Webb would be disciplined for going after a fan (via Gregg Rosenthal at NFL.com):
"We address it with him, and then we move on," Garrett said Wednesday via the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Garrett said "we're not for" Webb pushing the fans, but was impressed by Morris Claiborne's big hit on Raiders tight end Mychal Rivera, which prompted the skirmish. Garrett believes it's vital to stand up for your teammates in a joint practice setting.
"That's an important part of building a football team. At the same time, poise in that situation is important. I felt we demonstrated both and you kind of move on," Garrett said.
That is the NFL in a nutshell. A fight broke out between two teams that led to a player attempting to hit a fan—who admittedly hit him first—and the head coach of his team called the entire incident "an important part of building a football team" and feels his team demonstrated poise because, what, only one of his players went after a fan in the stands?
What if that happened in the NBA? What would they call it there?
I seem to recall an incident a decade or so ago where two teams got into a…what's the word…skirmish that led to fan involvement, and it fundamentally changed the NBA and the way players interact with fans.
When the Malice at the Palace happened back in 2004, people were irate. Pundits pounded their proverbial desks demanding reform. People suggested the NBA put up some kind of fencing or glass to protect the players from the fans, and vice versa.
That same year, in Major League Baseball, a fracas between the Texas Rangers players and fans in the stands in Oakland led Rangers reliever Frank Francisco to inexplicably throw a folding chair into the crowd. Francisco was charged with felony battery, a charge that was later reduced to misdemeanor assault.
Let's be fair. Webb's brief tussle with the Raiders fans was not as severe as Ron Artest running into the crowd in Detroit, nor did Webb throw a chair at anyone. In fact, it’s the fan in this case who should be the one to face discipline for hitting another person with a helmet.
Seriously, an NFL fan went to a practice to watch his favorite team and ended up swinging a replica helmet at another human being who then swung back at him with fists, and one of the people in charge at this event called it an "important part" of the NFL process.
This happened, in 2014.
Does it make sense that fans are allowed to get so close to the action during training camp? What benefit does that provide, other than to give die-hard fans as close a look as they can get at the violence? Twenty yards away, a hit might seem hard, but from 10 feet in front of me, man oh man I could hear that guy's bones crunch.
Listen to the crowd in this video, which shows another angle of the fight. Just listen to how excited they are.
The reaction to the hit was muted, surely because it was their player who took the blow, but when the other Raiders players decided to stand up for their teammate, the crowd went wild.
The longer the fight went on, the more excited the fans became, the more the crowd egged on the players to keep going.
This is the NFL preseason experience. This is what the league is really selling.
It's even true during the regular season, to a lesser extent. Sure there's touchdown passes and long runs and kickoff returns and all the drama that comes with a close game late in the fourth quarter. But nothing—not a damn NFL thing—gets people as excited as a big NFL hit, especially when a fight ensues from it.
That's the NFL's doing. The league wants the experience to be immersive, especially in the preseason, where the most rabid fans seemingly compete to show each other who can care about the team the most.
"I took off from work to be here."
"Oh yeah? Well I took off the whole week."
"I quit my job to spend the entire training camp here."
"I hit a guy with a replica helmet because he knocked down my favorite player in a scrimmage."
That guy wins. Or is that too immersive, even for the NFL?
That shouldn't even really be a question. It's just that the violence is what the NFL is, was and always will be the best at selling.
That fight this week will be a memory Raiders fans in attendance will never forget. By the end of the week, every single person at that practice will tell his or her friends they were the one swinging the helmet.
The fans crave the hits and the fights and the chance to be a part of it all. That's why fans are allowed into the preseason scrimmages in the first place. It's part of the reason why the NFL is the most popular sport in this country by leaps and bounds.
And it's exactly why it's become so damn confusing to be a fan of the sport in this day and age.
The violence in the NFL is never going to stop. It's what gets people to the gate every week. Hitting a player with a helmet is probably a bucket-list item for a lot of fans. And somehow, in the NFL, a coach sees it as no big deal when one of his players goes back at a fan—it's seen as a team-building exercise, not a reason to stop and wonder where it's all going to go next.
Maybe Garrett is right and this was nothing more than a skirmish between two teams eager to start the season that fell into a smattering of fans, one of whom got a tad overzealous. Or maybe it's one more warning sign that the violence has permeated the boundary.
Maybe that's what the NFL really wants. After all, that's what sells.