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    Young Vikings fan and dad enjoy a game

    Football and the Violence We Love

    The shocking near-death of NFL player Damar Hamlin has prompted new calls to fix football’s brutality. But is our outrage honest?

    By Reid Forgrave

    January 9, 2023
    • Robert F

      I'm sure Christians living in ancient times, after the Empire became "Christian", continued to attend the gladiator games with reasons very much like the ones offered by Christians today, even in the comments here. Now, I know American football is not as violent as gladiator games were, though it is gratuitously violent; and I know football player, unlike most gladiators, voluntarily choose to participate in the sport. But I wonder: Where on the the gradual spectrum between nonviolence and violence does a form of entertainment become unacceptable for Christians to watch or participate in a sport/entertainment? And would it be okay for Christians to watch and participate in a sport/entertainment if 10% of the participants died, or 5%, or etc., as long as participation was voluntary?

    • Stanley Koki

      football dangerous and should be banned? if not banned, all those who watch football are hypocrites? professional basketball players have died playing basketball. do basketball fans like to see people die too? nacar races are very dangerous and professional drivers die in horrific accidents. ban car races? what sports are acceptable? table tennis, pickleball, etc? do i watch football to see someone get injured or potentially die? if football were able to create protective gear so no one would get injured or die would i stop watching football? are there people who watch sports and really get excited when someone gets crippled or die? probably, and these people aren’t hypocrites, they are sick! the author has made a profound statement about himself. can he not watch a game that has risks of injury and pray that no one will get injured? does he think the only legitimate endeavors are based on whether he would want his son to participate? im shocked that he feels so strongly about this point that he would still watch football and have his son watch it. i think hypocrisy is understating what he is.

    • Jeremy

      I can relate to this article. I played football at a high school and town where it was worshiped. I didn’t really want to play, but I did because I was an athlete and the culture almost demanded it. I had a back injury in a game at age 15 and I have had back issues ever since (25 yrs). I also got a concussion that was responded to by a coach with, “Are you alright? You sure?” And my response as a developing adolescent male in a toxic masculinity culture was “Yes, I’m good to go”. Thank God I haven’t experienced (as far as I know) life long repercussions from the concussion. I have however over the years come to see the harmful effects of football culture on adolescent boys as n America, and it is very detrimental in my opinion. Yes, we should’ve bubble wrap boys (or girls). But teaching our kids to navigated the challenges of the world does not mean we have to encourage them to play this sport. There are many other life lessons that we can walk with youth in - the potential for violence in relationships, bullying, working together as a team without demonizing the other team with a desire to use violence to win a game. I am grateful my nephew made the decision on his own as a 13 year old to avoid the toxic culture he saw from his football playing classmates and instead play soccer with his althletic ability. I am grateful that my kids never felt the pressure to play high school football. Football has brought growth and meaning to some I know and there can be value in it as “sport”. But the violence that is interconnected to the sport and culture is very problematic if we are to be building loving and caring communities.

    • Jim Deacove

      I don’t know if I would go so far as to use the word “hypocrite”, but I have long felt that humans beating up on other humans for some kind of gratification is as much a mystery to me as watching a human with a cigarette blowing smoke out of his/her head.

    • Carol Timmerman-Yorty

      This article about football just shows how we won't change. Even the author is just writing, not indicating any way to change. He is going to continue supporting this violence, so what is the point of the article?

    • Paul

      Thanks for this piece. Writer Thomas Lake also had a thoughtful article on this topic at CNN, which came out before Hamlin's injury. It's nice to know I'm not alone as someone who loves football but also struggles with its level of violence and injury compared to alternative sports.

    • David Moriah

      This is a deeply disturbing article. Two sections stand out for me. First, "Football’s violence always stays. Because that violence is what we love about football" and " I’ve made my moral tradeoff. I may not love to admit it, but I’m a hypocrite too." I hardly know where to begin in expressing my disgust to read such a confession, not followed by an honest commitment to turn away from the violence and to confront the moral hypocrisy but instead rationalizing and justifying it. I am disappointed in Plough for publishing it. It does not call us to be better selves and citizens in our society, but rather to accept our love of violence and brutality and to be comfortable in a state of hypocrisy. We can be better. Turn off the damn tv and for God's sake, do not allow your precious six year old to "play" this so-called sport or you may have his broken body and damaged brain on your conscience.

    • Max Lewis

      I appreciate that you acknowledge the brutality of football and your assertion that those who watch it enjoy its violence. But as with other media coverage of football, you focus on injuries to players. But have you considered that football teaches violence, and how that teaching contributes to US people’s worship of violence? What does continuing to watch say about us?

    • SP West

      Ok… apply the same logic to cars. No one has died on the field since 1971, you say. How many people in the US have died in cars since then? Or died falling down the stairs? Do we think of banning cars or staircases? And surely the word violence is too wide? Not all physical struggle is the same violence, is it? There is the violence of war, the violence of domestic abuse, and the violence of gang fights. Surely the violence on the football field is of a different sort? That American football is violent is a given - it’s a contact sport, as is rugby, boxing, wrestling, shinty, etc. The players are in the game by mutual consent. They understand the risks and accept them; otherwise, they wouldn’t play, would they? And perhaps this is the important point. It was long assumed in the UK that boxing was an essential part of a boy’s education. This is still the case in the military. Violent contact in a sporting context where there are rules, referees, and a winner/loser, trains the participant to keep a cool head when provoked - even if the provocation is physical violence. Is this not widely understood? Finally, I notice you headline the article with a picture of a man and a boy as if violence is a male issue alone. The implication, too, in the image is that the man is passing on this love of unacceptable violence to his son, that he is perpetuating toxic masculinity. This is nonsense. Every study has shown that women are equal in violence to men, if not more so. The outcome of their violence is less, due to the strength disparity, of course. How would the article look if you had chosen a more general image? In fact, if you look closely at the picture, you will see a woman and a girl just off to the rhs. Altogether a poor piece caught up in vague contradictions and non-sequiturs. I’m afraid I expect better from this magazine.

    • Jonathan Richards

      Thank you for your honesty. I am Welsh and Rugby Union is my sport. There are concerns about early dementia in players in that sport. I struggle to watch it now. I was relieved when my grandson was no longer a star player at the age of 10 due to illness. I cannot tell my son that I hope that the lad does not become an elite player because I would then fear for his safety and well being.

    • Michael Nacrelli

      It's a bit premature to start pontificating before we even know what happened to Hamlin. If his cardiac arrest was triggered by a blow to the chest, such an extremely rare injury occurs more often in baseball than in football.

    Nine days before the most terrifying moment in recent sports memory, I was a father taking my six-year-old son to his first NFL game. It was Christmas Eve. This was his early Christmas present. We were way up in the 300 level to watch our Minnesota Vikings play the New York Giants, but Lincoln couldn’t have cared less. He sang along to the “Skol, Vikings” song. He shouted at first downs. He learned the proper way to open peanut shells. He chose his very own Viktor the Viking stuffed animal. He danced the Griddy, star wide receiver Justin Jefferson’s touchdown dance that’s wildly popular among the elementary-school set.

    Young Vikings fan and dad enjoy a game

    © Hector Acevedo/ZUMA Press Wire

    On a Monday night nine days later, I was putting Lincoln to bed. I checked my phone for the score of the much-anticipated matchup between the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals. Instead, I saw tragedy: Damar Hamlin – a Buffalo Bills player from my hometown of Pittsburgh, who attended the same university as my parents – had gone into cardiac arrest after what appeared to be a routine hit to the chest. Medical staff revived him with CPR. Players cried on the field. As I tucked my son into bed, Hamlin’s mother was rushing from her seat in the stadium to her own son’s side. An ambulance rushed him to a nearby Level I trauma center, where he was intubated, sedated and clinging to life.

    It was a shocking scene: The urgency of medical staff, the emotions of players, the disbelief of fans.

    But we should not think for a moment that it was a surprise.

    Shocking and tragic things have happened to NFL players before, though we’ve never witnessed something quite like this, where a player fought for his life on the field where he was playing moments before. When something terrifying happens in football – the suicide of a player like Junior Seau after a career filled with hits to the head, or the multiple concussions Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa sustained this season, including one where he appeared to have a “fencing response,” where his arms flexed awkwardly in front of his face for several seconds – America immediately makes calls for reform. We chastise the NFL for its checkered record with player safety. We pledge we’ll stop watching football. We claim to truly care for the human being wearing that uniform. We tweet about how horrified we are at football’s violence and the NFL’s money-at-all-costs machine.

    But we aren’t being fully authentic in our outrage, are we? The next weekend, players play, fans watch, commercials air, and reform ends up only happening at the margins – tweaks to the rules, improved equipment, better concussion protocols, but nothing that ruins the sanctity of our brutal, beautiful national sport.

    Football’s violence always stays. Because that violence is what we love about football.

    We talk about finding a solution to the player safety problems that plague football, but we don’t really want a solution. Because the only real solution is to stop playing football.

    And that’s the last thing we want.

    Football’s violence is not a bug of the game; it’s a central feature, the reason we watch. It is the sport our nation has long called on to turn boys into men, and what better way to create a red-blooded American man than by teaching boys to conquer their fear of grievous bodily injury and to endure physical pain? Sure, we love nothing more than the acrobatic catch by a wide receiver that shows athletic feats we cannot comprehend, like the catch-of-the-century Justin Jefferson made earlier this season against Hamlin’s Buffalo Bills. What makes football’s athleticism so breathtaking, though, is that we know the potential for body-wrecking violence is always right around the corner. Jefferson may have caught that ball, but a defender like Hamlin – he was a few steps away from Jefferson on that catch – may have punished him a millisecond later with a bone-crunching, brain-rattling hit. Aaron Judge hitting a towering home run is a stunning thing to watch, but it’s not as if someone is trying to knock him off his feet as he swings.

    We know football players risk their health each time they take the field. Players know it too, whether it’s broken bones or torn ligaments or long-term, life-threatening injuries to the brain. We hear stories about the Dave Duersons and the Mike Websters, the Aaron Hernandezes and the Demaryius Thomases, who die young and tragically and are posthumously diagnosed with the debilitating brain disease known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). We rarely hear the stories of the high school players or college players whose brains and bodies have been wrecked by football, people like Zac Easter, a twenty-four-year-old from rural Iowa who died by suicide in 2015 after playing football through high school, and who left behind a remarkable diary detailing his struggles with CTE.

    We talk about finding a solution to the player safety problems that plague football, but we don’t really want a solution.

    The most visible tolls of football are the stingers and the bruises and the broken bones, badges of courage for a football warrior. And yet still we watch, because the worst tolls the sport takes on players – brain issues stemming from concussions or a lifetime buildup of subconcussive hits – typically happen years or decades after their playing careers are over. It certainly doesn’t happen in real time, on national television, like what we saw with Hamlin. As terrifying as what happened to Hamlin is, it was a freak incident, something we rarely if ever see on a football field. What’s more terrifying is the banal injuries, the hits to the head we witness every play, knowing that later in life some of these players’ brains will pay the price for our fandom, for our obsession with football.

    As of this writing, Damar Hamlin is alive. After days of uncertainty whether he’d live or die, he’s showing signs of progress. He is no longer unconscious. Doctors have said his neurological condition appears intact. He initially communicated through writing, a trach tube still in his throat, and according to reports, he asked doctors in writing who won the game. His breathing tube was removed overnight Friday, his team announced, and Hamlin spoke to his family and doctors, then FaceTimed the team, saying, “Love you boys.” If he survives and thrives, whether playing football again or not, it will be called a miracle, and it may be just that: a nation of football players and football fans, united in prayer for a 24-year-old and his family.

    But the bigger miracle may be that we haven’t seen an NFL player die on the field of play since 1971, when Chuck Hughes of the Detroit Lions collapsed and died during a game.

    I’ve long assumed it’s not a matter of if but of when we witness a football player die on the field. I remember when Antonio Brown was brutally hit in the head during a playoff game in 2016. Just days before, I’d spent hours with Zac Easter’s family in their living room in the immediate aftermath of his suicide, so the risks of football were fresh in my mind. When Brown was splayed on the turf that evening, I remember thinking: This is it, the moment we expected would come. I bet I’ve had that same feeling watching football at least a dozen times since then.

    Maybe that’s what it takes for America to reevaluate our relationship with this sport: an in-your-face, can’t-deny-it instance of the sport’s brutality.

    I doubt it.

    Whether Damar Hamlin lives or dies – and please, please, please may he live and thrive, which certainly sounds like it may be the case – Americans are still going to play football. We’re still going to watch football. We’ve long since determined that the moral tradeoffs of this sport – the excitement and brotherhood and ferocity and machismo, in exchange for the health and safety of our boys and young men – is worth it. We say we shouldn’t wrap our boys in bubble wrap, because there are lessons to be learned from putting your physical safety on the line and learning physical toughness. As old-fashioned as it may sound, I believe there’s plenty of truth in that.

    Over the past week, as I’ve heard the outpouring of feelings about how we must care for Damar Hamlin as a human being, not just as a football player, I of course agreed. How could you not feel the depths of sorrow for this young man, his family, his teammates?

    I also thought that we, the football-watching public, are a bunch of hypocrites.

    We say we care about players’ humanity, then we complain about them not helping our fantasy football teams. We believe the NFL when it says the health and welfare of players is paramount, then we hear the announcers Monday night tell us players had five minutes to warm up before continuing play after Hamlin was taken away in an ambulance. (The game ended up being postponed and later cancelled.) We say we care about our children’s well-being more than anything, then we put helmets and pads on elementary-aged kids and send them onto the field, despite increasing evidence that it’s not the big concussions that are most problematic to the brain – it’s prolonged exposure to hundreds of smaller subconcussive hits over years or decades that most likely leads to CTE.

    I love football. I have tickets to this weekend’s Vikings playoff game. I’m planning a dudes’ weekend where a bunch of grown men will sit around an AirBnB, drink beer, and watch playoff games.

    I bought my six-year-old a sweatshirt of Justin Jefferson doing the Griddy. But he will never be allowed to play competitive football. No way. I’ve made my moral tradeoff. I may not love to admit it, but I’m a hypocrite too.

    Contributed By portrait of Reid Forgrave Reid Forgrave

    Reid Forgrave, a journalist and author in Minnesota, wrote about America’s complicated, tortured relationship with football in his book, Love, Zac: Small-Town Football and the Life and Death of an American Boy.

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