The market for American football is a hardy one at that.
But what is it about the NFL that makes it the best attended sports stage in the world (based on average attendance per game)?
Is it the sportsmanship? Surely not.
What about the excitement of last second plays, spectacular catches, thunderous throws, and marquee maneuvers? Maybe.
I have two words for you: Big hits.
American football today is highlighted by players like Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and Washington Redskins defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth—players who don’t just tackle, they murder people.
These guys are out for blood.
Since the invention of football, the sport has experienced a higher rate of injury and player death than any other major sport.
Everyone knows football and violence go hand in hand; but if fans and players want the league to survive, there needs to be some serious changes—and this idea begins and ends with defense.
Trained To Kill
Defensive players in the NFL (as well as lower levels of football) display a level of brutality and ruthlessness on the field unlike that of any other sport (with the exception of Rugby).
It’s understood that players like Ray Lewis make the game more exciting. They play hard, promote a strong work ethic, and I’m sure every team in the league would love to have a player of Lewis’s caliber on their squad.
These guys are playing for a paycheck, which is probably the biggest motive behind their blistering hits; but how many linebackers hit and tackle harder than they need to?
How many acts of brutality have we seen on the football field?
How many players hit with the force of a freight train when a hard shove would suffice?
The answer is a lot, if not all.
This stuff is being ingrained into the minds of young players at the peewee level.
From a young age football players are trained (or, for lack of a better term, brainwashed) into an “all or nothing, no mercy” standard of playing the game.
We can blame this on coaches.
Personally, I have never met a football coach who didn’t teach his players to hit as hard as they possibly can; many even go as far as punishing players who ease up on plays.
In other words, players are punished for showing compassion—and this, my friends, is the problem with American football.
The Irony of Ray Lewis
Many sports maintain a level of viciousness (often mistaken for competitiveness) that seek to define the game for what it is at the professional level: hard work, big plays, big hits, and absolutely no mercy.
Even baseball players aren’t immune to the occasional nasty play from an opposing player.
But it doesn’t happen as often as it does on a football field.
When Ray Lewis knocks the life out of an opposing player, he is revered for it. On every play of every game, Lewis is looking to end a career.
Because Ray Lewis is a head-hunterand I don’t throw that term around loosely or to portray Ray as a bad person. In fact, it’s not even his fault that he plays with such murderous intensity. The blame belongs to the men who coached him at such a young age, barking at him to tear the head off every 12 year-old that ran his way.
Ray Lewis is a head-hunter because that’s what his coaches, his fans, and all of professional football wants to him to be.
Ray’s coaches taught him one thing above all else: KILL, KILL, and KILL ‘EM HARDER.
He is ruthless on the field because that’s what he gets paid to do. He gets paid to end careers, and that is what will ruin the future of football in America.
When in Doubt, Stomp It Out
For those of you who are angry that I have placed the plights of the game on the shoulders of a single player (Ray Lewis), don’t get your panties in a bunch just yet, as the notion of “kill ‘em hard” didn’t begin with Ray.
It began with a man named Dick Butkus.
Butkus was a pioneer. He set the example for hard work, intensity, and the all-or-nothing attitude on the field.
Over the decades since his reign over the sport, however, players have taken the Butkus intensity to another level.
In today’s game, unforgiving brutality has replaced compassion and sportsmanship.
Take, for example, defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. He is respected as probably the best defensive tackle currently playing the game, and how does he repay the sport which has treated him to stardom?
In 2006, during a game against the Dallas Cowboys, center Andre Gurode fell to the ground while his team scored on a rush by Julius Jones. Following the play, Haynesworth, then playing for the Tennessee Titans, removed Gurode's helmet (Gurode was still on the ground) and stomped on his head—twice.
Gurode required thirty stitches and experienced headaches and blurred vision years after the incident.
The most ironic part about this episode is that Haynesworth was only ejected from the game after he threw a tantrum for receiving a 15-yard penalty. He was suspended five games—a punishment that the NFL Player’s Association would later appeal, describing it as being “too harsh.”
There is obviously something wrong when a player is still allowed to play on a field where he once stomped on another players head with spiked cleats.
Following his return to action, Haynesworth was fined for slamming Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew to the ground after a tackle. In response to his behavior, Haynesworth joked, “I’m not going to be more gentler or whatever. Maybe I’ll just help them up next time.”
What’s wrong with all this, you say?
What’s wrong with blistering hits and murderous intensity?
Isn’t that what the game is all about?
Yes and no.
Yes, because that’s the way it has always been, from Butkus to Romanowski to Lewis; but no, because the game of football needs to change before government officials begin to realize that the Sunday entertainment of Americans isn’t worth the lives of NFL players who are dying off faster than Joe Camel at a smoke out.
The saga continues in Part II .