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In Defense of Male Aggression: What Liberals Get Wrong About Football

The day I decided to quit football, I stayed in line thinking of what I would tell the coaches. When I reached the front, a whistle blew, signaling the end of the drill and giving me some time to think about it. What I decided was to stick it out. Nothing I have ever attempted in my life comes close to being as hard as the task I set before myself, which was to suppress some of my most fundamental instincts. That sort of discipline can be found in most sports, but football is unusual in the way it requires you to master your fear. I would never suggest that all boys need to do it; not everybody should master the violin or learn Mandarin, either. But those who do often find it rewarding or even transformative. All sports require effort and discipline, but the discipline required to hurl your body directly into somebody else’s is unique.

The critics who call football militaristic are correct. It is not just the marshaling of collective love and hate, territorial acquisition, intense male bonding, and subordination to authority. It is an ­institution that attracts boys filled with unrealistic dreams, who discover that up close it involves blood and piss and incoherent screaming. (By the way, that discovery is a vital one.)

But the critics make two fundamental errors. The first is their belief that the physical punishment embedded in the game is analogous to, or even causes, violence off it. “The issue is violence, which is what the league has packaged and sold as entertainment for decades,” argues New York Times sports reporter John Branch. “What has the N.F.L. reeling now are the violent acts committed by its players against women and children. The disease of violence is spreading.”

In fact, as Steven Pinker has shown, the disease of violence has been shrinking for decades. It may feel as though violence is spreading, but this is only because our tolerance for it is shrinking. And those who attribute violent and misogynistic qualities in modern American life to the culture of football ought to explain how the sport’s establishment and growth coincided with America becoming an overwhelmingly gentler, safer place. That football has helped this along, by creating a regulated outlet for boys to use their anger and hate against one another, is unprovable. Surely, though, the historical long view rebuts the assumption that football is the cause of male violence.

The related notion that the physicality of football cannot be distinguished from assault, or even spousal abuse, has grown so popular as to be almost banal. It is true that NFL players are likelier to be arrested for domestic violence than for other crimes, but as a study of 25-to-29-year-olds conducted by FiveThirty­Eight.com has recently shown, overall the league’s arrest rates, including those for assault, fall below the national average. Now remember, this is a sport that disproportionately attracts aggressive males, many or most of whom use steroids, human growth hormone, and other drugs that elevate testosterone levels, and therefore possibly aggravate their violent tendencies. Is it not more likely that football restrains or redirects those violent tendencies rather than foster them.

My junior year, a few of my classmates headed out to a house party. A large group of students from Berkley High, the school we had defeated during the game, some of them football players, followed them there. This was in an affluent suburb like the kind depicted in a John Hughes movie, not some football-crazy small town in Texas or even Ohio. But you could still find faint echoes of ethnic-inflected hooliganism.

Detroit’s Jewish households tended to clump together, and my school, by now about one-third Jewish, had become the “Jewish” school of our Oakland County sports league. Anti-Semitic chants of some kind were common at sporting events — “We’ve got Christmas, yes we do, we’ve got Christmas, how ’bout you?” — but Berkley used them with unusual vehemence.

That night, one of my teammates, Bob, a non-Jew, walked into the house, and a huge Berkley player demanded he hand over his varsity jacket. He refused, and the Berkley kid clocked him in the face. Another teammate tried to break it up, and Berkley students surrounded him, pelting him with punches and kicks.

I have no recollection of any of our students responding in kind. I remember riding the bus to Berkley for a rematch the next year, walking from the locker room to the field past a line of jeering students, and winning the game, which, in my atavistic tribalism, I took as a measure of vindication for my school and my people. Our star middle linebacker tackled the Berkley assailant so hard he made him cry.