I'm not much of a football fan, never have been, but I've lived most of my life in households where games dominated family schedules during football season. My father was a Notre Dame and Denver Broncos fan. My husband and three sons are diehard Redskins fans, and at least one of them wouldn't miss a University of Maryland game for anything.
But try as they might, they've never managed to get me to sit down and watch with them, at least not an entire game, not even the Super Bowl. But I'll gladly sit through basketball and baseball games, and I even like attending Washington Nationals games when I get the chance.
This week, I think I finally figured out why I can't stand watching football for more than a few minutes. Violence is a major part of the game. The point isn't just to advance the ball down the field and across the goal line. With few exceptions — the kickers, quarterbacks and wide receivers — the job of everyone on the team is to stop the other guy with brute force or to use muscle and force to push through. Hurting or being hurt isn't an accident; it's part of the game. And with better cameras and microphones, the audience sitting at home gets to see and hear the violence up close and personal.
This week, my visceral discomfort with football made me ask whether suspended running back Ray Rice's left hook to his then fiancee's face wasn't so much an anomaly as a byproduct of his chosen career. That's not to say football players are all likely domestic abusers — clearly they are not, and there are plenty of abusers who are milquetoasts in other aspects of their lives — but the NFL still has a problem with domestic abuse, and not just in the relatively light punishment it has handed out for the offense in the past.
According to an analysis by Benjamin Morris for the website FiveThirtyEight, NFL players have higher relative arrest rates for domestic violence than for any other violent offense. Now, Morris makes clear that players' domestic violence arrest rates are still lower than average for men their age — but that isn't the end of the story.
NFL players are both affluent and educated, which makes them fall into a cohort less likely to engage in violent criminal activity overall. But as Morris points out, when players are arrested, it is relatively more likely to be for domestic violence than for anything else. Domestic violence arrest rates are four times worse than the NFL's arrest rates for all offenses, he says, "and domestic violence accounts for 48 percent of arrests for violent crimes among NFL players, compared to our estimated 21 percent (of such arrests) nationally."
Of course, this may be the tip of the iceberg. Who is to say that many of the victims aren't too ashamed, afraid or even worried about losing their own affluent lifestyle to keep the real numbers under wraps?
And even if the Rice incident hadn't focused the nation's attention on the NFL's domestic violence problem, what about the violence the players themselves experience every week?
The NFL already has agreed to settle a suit with former players for the traumatic brain injuries they incurred playing the game, setting up a $765 million fund for currently retired players who can prove neurological damage. But even with better helmets and tougher rules, football players suffer brutally in their careers, and far more than players of most other sports. They get repeated concussions or sub-concussions that can result in neurological degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. Their hips and knees give out. They incur soft-tissue damage, torn muscles and ligaments, dislocated joints and broken bones. Even the sheer bulk required in some positions can lead to later diabetes and heart disease.
Yes, players get paid well — though the average player receives relatively less than those in many other sports, and their careers are short-lived. The real money goes to the owners and the networks that broadcast the sport. Call me a wimp or a bleeding heart, but I think none of this constitutes entertainment. Football is more controlled violence and mayhem than anything else. We want players to act like civilized men off the field, but maybe we should also figure out a way to civilize the sport itself.