My name is Hugh and I am a football junkie fan. I am fully aware that there is an overwhelming stench of corruption at the collegiate level and an alarming number of the players at both the pro and college levels are borderline felons — some of them over the borderline. I also know many of them almost certainly take illegal drugs to enhance their performance. And I am aware, thanks to recent allegations, that the “culture” in the locker room in at least one professional football team resembles a jungle. Still, I love to watch the game and see athletes perform at the highest levels. Mea culpa.

But let’s ponder the recent allegations about one of the borderline criminals who appears to be guilty of intimidation, harassment and bullying — words that are far too mild to describe the sorts of things that Richie Incognito has tweeted to the young Jonathan Martin who has left the Miami Dolphins football team under duress and now attempts to recover his mental balance. One of the texts, according to ESPN, is as follows:

“Hey, wassup, you half n—– piece of s—. I saw you on Twitter, you been training 10 weeks. [I want to] s— in your f—ing mouth. [I’m going to] slap your f—ing mouth. [I’m going to] slap your real mother across the face [laughter]. F— you, you’re still a rookie. I’ll kill you.”

Reporters who have followed this story are astonished to discover that the players in the locker room (where, as stated above the culture resembles a jungle) support Richie Incognito, who has been dismissed  from the team pending an investigation by officials of the NFL. Those same players — a majority we are told — fault Martin for being less than a man by quitting the team and blowing the whistle on his teammate. I kid you not. On the face of it we have a straightforward case of bullying and intimidation in the extreme, possibly including physical attacks against Miller — to the point where the victim suffered mental anguish. But apologists for Incognito explain that this is the way it is in pro football: older, more experienced players have to “toughen up” the younger players and make them angry enough to go out each Sunday and lay themselves on the line for the team. It’s been said that some coaches have urged the experienced players to work on some of the younger players to make them “mean dogs” rather than”house dogs,” despite the fact that psychological evidence strongly suggests that behavior such as Incognito’s is counter-productive.

In a word, we are faced with one of two uncomfortable truths: either Richie Incognito is a criminal and racist bully who deserve the severest penalties possible under the law, or this is the norm and the football players who play for the NFL are indeed more nearly animals than humans, which says something about those of us who glory in the spectacle of men warring against one another until one or both are carried off on a stretcher — after which we accord them a moment’s silence. But the game must go on, or, at any rate it assuredly will.

So, given these alternatives, why on earth would any self-respecting person admit that he or she is delighted to watch this spectacle? I suppose the answer is partly given above: the athletes who perform do so at the highest levels and it is exciting to watch. But I think it goes beyond that. I think those of us who watch football with great interest find it a release of pent-up emotions and the frustrations that accompany living in a society where so much seems to be wrong and change is out of reach– together with a ready substitute to fill the vacuum created by the absence of aesthetic or religious experience. It is certainly the case that the football stadiums are filled to the brim each week while the churches, art galleries, and concert halls are nearly empty. Further, there isn’t much the individual can do to effect change with the corporations and their millions of dollars in control of the political machine. And given the amount of money the entertainment industry can make from presenting the spectacle every week — in college or professional form 24/7 from August until mid-January — it is likely to become even more a part of the culture in years to come as we make excuses for the players’ behavior on and off the field on the grounds that this is simply the way it is.

I admit that my love of the game weakens as my awareness of the price we all pay increases. Soon, perhaps, I will wean myself completely from this brutal game where the cost to the players and the spectators as well may already have passed acceptable levels. In the meantime I ask you to excuse me while I check the schedule.


10 thoughts on “Confession

  1. I admit that I’m not a professional sports fan. They are overpaid, spoiled, protected, and in many cases, borderline criminals. Our local Fresno State team even has a past player or two in jail, one for murder.

    So I’m not objective in this matter. But I have to ask, are you not an enabler of this behavior? (I know you have the answer to that question). As long as millions of “Fans” throw their hands up in exasperation, and proclaim as though an exorcism washing them of responsibility and guilt, “What can I do about it,” then the games go on, the brutality goes on (see recent concussion discussions) and the greedy corporations continue to make their billions.

    I know there’s no easy answer, but someone has to begin taking responsibility.

    Thanks for the heartfelt honesty in your post.

  2. Hugh, provocative blog, as usual — and one that makes us think about our own role in permitting this stuff to continue in our society. It’s big money, yes, but also is revealing itself to be ever more barbaric.

    I think it’s possible there’s a third way to think of the NFL in the wake of the Incognito situation. You wrote: “In a word, we are faced with one of two uncomfortable truths: either Richie Incognito is a criminal and racist bully who deserve the severest penalties possible under the law, or this is the norm and the football players who play for the NFL are indeed more nearly animals than humans…” I don’t know that it has to be either/or. I think it is both. This is the norm AND it is criminal and racist behavior.

    Add in the growing number of concussions and the NFL’s continued insistence on downplaying them and there’s probably another example of something being the norm and being negligent, if not criminal, behavior. Sometimes, I wish Teddy Roosevelt would have just outlawed football when he had the chance.

  3. Hugh, thanks for the response.

    Today’s NY Times features a column by Frank Bruni, “Violence, Greed and the Gridiron,” about the brutality of the game and the physical price being paid by the players in later life.

    I think finally attention is being paid to the NFL and the game, not all in a flattering way, and your blog certainly contributes to shining the spotlight on the NFL. well done

  4. Hugh, my football fandom has been waning, although I do watch pieces of games. Even when I am watching the Panthers play, I would rather see them win a close one than see a blow out. My interest has waned in all sports, due to the free agent mindset, the catered egos from a young age (good atheletes are coddled early on), the performance enhancing drugs, and the unnecessary taunting and look at me selfishness. When someone scores a TD, it is as much due to a well blocking line as to the scorer. I say this for context. Incognito is just a jerk. And, the behavior of jerks should be highlighted as ways not to act. Being a man is not being a jerk. Being a man is doing your job day in and day out and working with other folks. In this case, linemen must work together to function well and even have hand and verbal signals to each other. When that trust is broken by someone who is a jerk, then it cannot function as well. Sorry for the rant, but Incognito is personifying all the bad behavior in sports. Thanks, BTG

  5. 1st – I was surprised to see only one ‘like,’ though i’m guilty of often forgetting to like a post that i enjoy reading.
    2nd – i think all of us enjoy watching the natural athlete in top form, just as we enjoy basking in the angelic voice of a gifted songbird in the choir or on the stage or a cappella while sweeping the floor. my favorite sports to watch are of the very young, like when someone steals the basketball and dribbles all the way to the other end then hurls the ball to the moon! sigh, he/she missed it – and i delight in their moment of untainted innocence that, with time, will be replaced with a seriousness to win at all costs… sigh…”did you have fun?” instead of “did your team win?’ might help a tiny bit.

    3rd – (perdon the epistle!) it is so normal to take pleasure in the unique parts of our culture. my father was a sportsman and took his hunting and fishing very seriously. i grew up with a toughened attitude about hunting/killing animals, and i slowly grew out of it as i got older. i am grateful for those lessons, as i know how to track a jaguar or mock a howler monkey or to stay upwind from an elusive animal in the wild that i’d like to photograph. it’s hard when i go ‘home’ and see most of my loved ones still wrapped tight in the ‘beat-the chest’ glory moments of bagging that big buck or seeing the arsenal of rifles and shotguns while ithe sport is imprinted on the little ones to pass on to their little ones.

    i’m typing on the back deck of the riverhouse as i watch the egrets, pelicans, frigates, ibis, etc return to the roost, and i cannot imagine someone poised and ready to drop them from the sky, just to say that they did.

    you have reached – with sports – what i reached with hunting, only i had to move away from the culture before i saw it through new eyes. you’re the wise one for seeing a larger picture and for the art of calling our attention to what’s happening.


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