If football is America’s sport and the Cowboys are America’s Team, the election of that clueless, groping, Nazi-appeaser in the White House makes perfect sense.
Professional football exemplifies the worst in American culture. It’s nothing more than choreographed violence with the spectacle of oversized Stars and Stripes, swaying breasts, and jarhead jargon thrown in to appeal to people’s most juvenile and violent tendencies.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Or at least I haven’t always seen it this way.
As an awkward kid, I gamboled over the lawn south of our farmhouse and tried to emulate Alan Page’s ferocious pass rush, Fran Tarkenton’s scrambling, and Jan Stenerud’s soccer-style kick. I pored over the Vikings’ color pictures in the Sunday paper during the years before they left Met Stadium’s natural grass and arctic cold and moved into the Metrodome, what Mike Ditka disparagingly called the “Rollerdome.” I remember reading that when Bud Grant replaced Norm Van Brocklin as head coach in 1967, one of the first things he did in order to bring some respect and discipline to the team was drill players in how to line up and hold their helmets for the pregame ceremonies.
Today, however, players devote far more time to rehearsing the Ickey Shuffle or the Dab or figuring out a crude plan for mooning Packers fans at Lambeau Field or pooping the ball during the Super Bowl. Too often these self-centered sophomoric pranks get more attention, commentary, and even praise from announcers and fans than the players’ performances during the game itself. Of course, the NFL justifies much of this behavior by claiming they’re bringing fun back to the game. But fans’ own immaturity and gullibility encourages players to continue taunting through increasingly crude pantomimes and suggestive dances intended only to antagonize opponents, divert attention from the team to the self-centered individual, and market the player’s own outrageous personal “brand.” It’s advertising at its lowest, basest, most Donaldesque.
Language, too, dehumanizes what used to be a sport and its participants. Football has become so militarized, despite the NFL’s efforts to tone this down, that announcers describing the action might just as well be calling a play-by-play of the joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises on the Korean Peninsula. They could, with equal enthusiasm and accuracy, characterize elements of either event by using terms like “ground attack,” “aerial assault,” “blitz,” “bomb,” “gunner,” “war,” “invade,” “march,” “shotgun,” and even “sack.” But it’s not just the terminology that changes the way we perceive the game; players are also dehumanized by making them more machine-like, both as targets and projectiles: faces concealed inside polycarbon helmets and birdcage face masks, eyes invisibly shifting behind tinted visors, bulked-up shoulders and chests encased with shock-resistant plastic, and hands and forearms covered in high-density pads. Football weaponizes people so that they can be propelled helmet first and missile-like above the artificial turf with enough force to unhinge a shoulder, fracture a fibula, mangle a knee, or splash a brain against its case.
With nearly daily celebrations of on-field carnage and assault, it’s inevitable that fans not only associate the glamour of militarized football with the killing power of the U.S. military but also consider their devotion to team and game the equivalent of unquestioning patriotism and obedience to authority and power, no matter how corrupt, inept, or ignorant. How long before halftime shows at AT&T Stadium resemble May Day parades in Red Square — tanks rumbling down the sidelines, intercontinental ballistic missiles bristling in Cowboys blue and silver, laser cannons swiveling at midfield, and armed drones circling overhead while they feed the jumbotron images of the firepower below?
Things have deteriorated so much over the past several years that the atmosphere both inside and outside NFL stadiums is about as family-friendly as last month’s chaos in Charlottesville, VA.
You think I’m exaggerating? You think the game doesn’t inspire similarly violent behavior and disregard for human beings? Last October the Washington Post looked at five years’ worth of statistics from police departments and found that from 2011 through 2015 “police made 24.58 arrests per game” at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, nearly 22 per game at New York’s stadiums, over 17 per game in Oakland, and over 16 per game in Pittsburgh. In 2013 a fan was assaulted at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City and later died at a hospital. Two years ago outside AT&T Stadium in Dallas a fan was shot to death. Too often fans brawl, pull out weapons, throw punches and bottles, harass the opposing team’s supporters simply for cheering, and generally disrespect, mock, and assault others. Don’t tell me they aren’t emulating what players do on the field.
It’s this violence that’s glamorized, glorified, and served up continually on big-screen replays and in cable highlight shows. And to vent the bloodlust, the sheer hatred, players hunt for opportunities for the most violent collisions with opponents, the full-speed helmet-to-chest impact that echoes over the stands, jars the ball loose, and drives the player into the turf, his head bouncing off the surface. Then, the hitter jives and shuffles and twerks over the motionless sprawled-out body as the crowd, in feverish spasms of hysteria and blood-lust, hoot and holler and curse.
Smack him! Paste him! Hit him! Strip him!
Pop him! Nail him! Maul him! Rip him!
Blast him! Smash him! Cream him! Drill him!
Slam him! Bash him! Crush him! Kill him!
Finally when the twerking and chest thumping and mocking winds down, there’s a strange realization, and then the players’ response, which has also been rehearsed, takes center stage: Oh, no. The poor guy’s unconscious. Circle up. Take a knee. Hold hands. Bow your head. And the stadium gets quiet, and those remorseful, kind-hearted, faithful behemoths pray.
But when the broken guy is hauled off the field on a stretcher, everything returns to normal:
Maul him! Nail him! Hit him! Sack him!
Knock him! Paste him! Rip him! Crack him!
Cream him! Smash him! Blast him! Drill him!
Crush him! Nuke him! Bash him! Kill him!
Of course, once the season starts, the country becomes an echo chamber, and the sound of D.T. goading police officers to knock heads and encouraging his supporters to “punch someone in the face” or to “knock the crap out of” protesters will be nearly indistinguishable from the noise filling football stadiums across the nation.