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

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Photo: Jack Dean

I decided to quit the football team in August 1986, right before the start of the ninth grade. I was a little bigger than most boys my age, but smaller than most of the ones playing football. During one practice, so many of the freshmen tailbacks had gone out hurt that the coaches brought me over from practicing pass routes to the drill that had gotten them hurt in the first place, where the running back served as a kind of human tackling dummy for the junior-varsity linebacker. The quarterback would hand the runner a football, and he would almost immediately be slammed to the ground by an older, stronger boy.

During practice that summer I had established myself as the most inviting target for the JV. My survival instinct was irrepressible; when the moment of impact was at hand, I would automatically cringe and pull back, which only made it easier for my opponent to overpower me. This time, I went through the running-back drill against a perfectly nice but completely terrifying sophomore linebacker. He was sort of big and pretty fast, but the quality that set him apart was a lust for smashing his body into others. I haltingly stutter-stepped trying to take the unfamiliar handoff, and before I had even turned my head around, I was flat on the ground. One of the coaches shook his head, and said admiringly, “That’s the hardest hit I’ve ever seen.” Another, offering the confusion of cause with effect that is the hallmark of youth-football coaching tips, noted, “You stopped moving your feet.” It was true — this tends to happen when you’ve been knocked off them.

I stumbled to the back of the line. A freshman teammate sympathetically told me, “If I got hit like that, I’d be crying, too.” I had no idea I had cried. And I don’t think I actually had cried in the normal, physiological sense. The impact probably just knocked the saline out of my tear ducts. There was also mucous all over my cheeks and chin. The tackle had rapidly compressed my lungs and, essentially, blown my nose for me. (I had heard coaches urge us to “knock the snot out of someone” but assumed it was a figure of speech.) I had had enough physical punish­ment, I decided. Enough football. I would walk away and never come back.

Millions of Americans are walking away from football now. Five years ago, the New York Times reported on its front page that, even according to the NFL’s commissioned study, former football players appeared to suffer from Alzheimer’s and other memory-related diseases at a vastly elevated rate, spawning a horrifying realization that professional football exposes its participants to cruel torments previously unknown to, or unacknowledged by, its tens of millions of fans.

In the years since, the repercussions have rippled outward, through conversations about the health risks of life as a human tackling dummy for the 49ers, about labor rights and the obligations of the NFL to protect its players, about the gruesomeness of a public spectacle in which millions cheer while young men are thrown into collisions with one another that leave many of them close to handicapped and hopelessly reliant on painkillers before the age of 50. And that’s forgetting, for a second, the horrible toll of all those head injuries.

On that last point — the gruesome spectacle — football’s new critics have drawn upon those who have portrayed the sport, for a generation at least, as a cult of violence. When NFL star Ray Rice was found to have beaten his fiancée, the discovery seemed to taint not only the perpetrator himself, and the league that likely covered up the attack, but the whole sport. A period of serious and justifiable medical revelation is slowly giving way to a moral panic, and the entire place of football in American life has come under withering scrutiny. Writing about football’s domestic assault rate in Forbes, Dan Diamond took entirely for granted the argument that sports encourages off-field violence, but suggested also that off-field assaults “could be associated with more than the culture of football” — namely, the possibility that brain trauma creates aggression.

Of course, we don’t even know that the culture of football, let alone the physics of brain trauma, triggers aggression — it seems considerably more straightforward to think that a sport as violent as football attracts the most aggressive among us. Yet the most plausible explanations no longer satisfy the critics; pay close attention to the terms now mustered in outrage against football, and you’ll begin to see a far broader attack on the institution than has ever gained a wide hearing before. “Football is a pantomime of war, down to the pseudo-military tactics,” wrote Louisa Thomas at Grantland. “If we take the violence out of football, what’s left?” Writing about an earlier episode of violence, also at Grantland, Charles P. Pierce argued, “The entire existence of the NFL — and of football at any level, for all of that — rests on whether or not the game can keep fooling itself, and its paying fan base, that it is somehow superior to boxing and to the rest of our modern blood sports.”

In his new polemic Against Football, Steve Almond argues that the concussion epidemic merely highlights the sport’s inherent rotten core. “Our allegiance to football,” he argues, “legitimizes and even fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia.” This sort of argument would still get you laughed out of any sports bar in Chicago, but it increasingly speaks for liberal ­bien-pensant opinion in America, since football is a manifestation of traditional masculinity that is increasingly out of step with liberal society. What we are seeing is a safety-reform movement mutating into a culture war, where one part of America rises in visceral, often-uncomprehending revulsion against the values and mores of another. The thing is, that latter group includes me.

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Football Boys: A series of pee-wee portraits by Don Montague taken this football season and last in and around Orlando, Florida.
Name: James; Age: 6; Team: Lakeland Gators
Photo: Don Montague/All Sports Photography

He Died Playing This Game. Is ­Football Worth It?,” asks the cover of the September 29 issue of Time magazine. The story relates a tragic experience of Chad Stover, a 17-year-old high-school football player in Tipton, Missouri, who died last year after a traumatic brain injury.

The death of a child is obviously heartbreaking. What lesson should we draw from it? Time strongly implies that high-school football is a uniquely dangerous activity. “Eight people died playing football in 2013, the highest toll since 2001, when there were nine, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina,” the magazine reports. “All were high-school players. During the 2013–14 academic year, no other high-school sport directly killed even one athlete.”

Those statements are all factually true. The implication is false. The same organization cited by Time found that, over a 30-year period, football is not a uniquely deadly sport for high-school athletes. It is not even the deadliest sport. High-school football has a fatality rate of 0.83 per 100,000 participants. This is actually lower than the rates of boys’ basketball (0.92), lacrosse (1.00), boys’ gymnastics (1.00), and water polo (1.3). There were three heartbreaking deaths of high-school football players last week, each of which attracted wide media coverage the way that tragic low-frequency events often do. But the unusual cluster of unfortunate deaths does not indicate a broader trend any more than the crash of an airliner signals an increasing danger associated with air travel.

The tobacco and fossil-fuel industries have ruined the phrase “The science is uncertain” just as surely as Richard Nixon ruined “I am not a crook.” But some politicians actually aren’t crooks, and the science of the effect of concussions is, indeed, uncertain. We do know some things. The effect of concussions on the brain is serious and frightening. A set of eyes is all you need to tell that the problem is dire at the professional level, and participants endure far more punishment, from larger and faster competition, and for much longer, than a high-school kid might. Cases of broken professional-football players are everywhere, and they are getting younger; just last week an autopsy revealed that the brain of Jovan Belcher — an NFL linebacker who fatally shot his girlfriend and then himself at age 25 — showed signs of a degenerative disease.

But a set of eyes is also all you need to see that nothing like the effect of NFL brain damage is replicated at the high-school or youth level. More than a million boys play high-school football every year. If the effects of those games remotely approached those afflicting former professionals, there would be millions of American men walking around with brain damage and a national epidemic of male suicide. The tragic cases of brain-damaged NFL veterans that have filled the news — the Junior Seaus, the Dave Duersons — would be replicated on a scale a thousand times as large. That something like this has escaped attention until now defies plausibility.

It is true that the improvements of weight-training methods have made high-school football players, at least at the highest levels of competition, bigger and stronger than those of a generation ago, which may produce as-yet-unrealized hazards. And we do know that it may be a series of minor concussions that ultimately poses the biggest threat to the brains of football players. Thankfully, we also have data about how common concussions are in other sports, and that data gives us no reason to consider high-school football a dramatically riskier activity. Measures vary, but a recent study found the odds of sustaining a concussion during a football practice or game (6.4 times per 10,000 athletic events) runs ahead of sports like girls’ soccer (3.4 times per 10,000), boys’ lacrosse (4), and ice hockey (5.4). In other words, the concussion risk in boys’ football is about twice as high as in girls’ soccer and about one-third higher than in hockey. This is an incrementally higher risk — on the order of driving an older car versus a newer one, as opposed to the elevated risk of, say, taking a job as a drug mule over becoming a librarian.

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Name: Brandon; Age: 6; Team: Lake Howell Pop Warner Photo: Don Montague/All Sports Photography

But risk is not something Americans assess coolly. We prefer to alternate between ignorant bliss and spasms of moralistic hysteria, and as the moral panic around football has spread, it has not only expanded beyond the NFL, a well-deserved target, but has at times left that target behind. Buzz Bissinger, author of the classic 1990 Texas high-school football chronicle Friday Night Lights, argues, “There is a sickness in football, but one that has to do with its overemphasis in academic settings, high-school kids as gods and college players in college only to play.” Bissinger has argued for banning college football, and Malcolm Gladwell has compared the sport to dogfighting.

The NFL is, for all its cultural centrality, a case apart: a professional organization with plutocratic owners and the freakish tail of the bell curve as labor, which ignored for years evidence of the dangers of concussions (even resisting funding long-term post-retirement health care). Roger Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice case is just the latest instance of his complete moral blindness; he absolutely has to go. The NFL must continue to reform its approaches toward player safety and domestic violence, and it is even possible that the safety level cannot be brought within tolerable bounds given advances in weight and speed training and that professional football as we know it will have to die. But the matter more immediately at hand is a broader indictment of a ritual of socialization for American boys that sits uneasily alongside modern tolerant mores. Before we prosecute that American obsession, we ought to try at least to understand it.

Football tends to attract boys suffering from testosterone poisoning, and certainly it is far from a surefire cure. Perhaps we’d all be better off if boys could be guided into totally peaceful pursuits, but not all teenagers are cut out for chess club. Football channels boys’ chauvinistic belligerence into supervised forms, shapes them within boundaries, and gives them positive meaning. These virtues, like those often attributed to the military, can feel like clichés imported from an earlier era — and yet discipline and directed ambition are, as every social scientist knows, the bedrock of success in adulthood. And also like the military, that other bastion of social authoritarianism, football has actually changed with the culture — its disregard for player safety and its misogynistic conflation of weakness with femininity have shrunk from the norm to the hoary exception. To cite just one example, over the last dozen years, the program Coaching Boys Into Men, which uses coaches to teach male athletes to respect females, has flowered nationally. Football has fallen victim to the paradoxical dynamic by which liberal culture’s awareness and sensitivity have succeeded in reducing violence but in so doing made the problem of violence seem even more anachronistic.

Over the last generation, the social experience of American youth has rapidly liberalized. The cultural mores of my school life largely resembled those of my parents’, but the socialization awaiting my children has transformed beyond recognition. Rather than allowing kids to “settle their differences” — i.e., allowing the strong and popular to prey upon the weak and vulnerable — authorities aggressively police bullying. Schools are rife with organizations to support gay students, something unimaginable not long ago. Nerdy and cool, once antithetical terms, now frequently describe the same things, like affinity for comic-book characters or technological savvy. American schools have mostly moved beyond a world where football players (and, correspondingly, cheerleaders) embody the singular hierarchical ideal of their gender. This is entirely to the good, a triumph of egalitarianism.

In fact, it is a sign of this advance that American society is now questioning whether football has any role within it at all. But it also marks a point where the advance of social liberalism has swung from the defensive (creating a place of respect and value for those who have long been excluded) to the offensive (suggesting that only a world conforming closely to down-the-line-liberal values is worth living in).

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued that people naturally gravitate toward competing notions of morality. Some of those, like fairness and caring, are associated with liberalism. Others, like loyalty and respect for authority, are associated with conservatism. Football is obviously not just for conservatives, but it does embody the conservative virtues. The backlash against it is a signpost of a new social system unwilling to consider that the worldview of one’s political adversaries might have any wisdom to offer at all and untroubled by the fear that, perhaps, football exists because it channels a genuine, deep-seated impulse. In this case, that discipline might be a helpful response to impulses of aggression, and not just a false-heroic myth used to legitimize and justify brutality.

Theodore Roosevelt is remembered today for his populist economic sentiments, but the more coherent theme of Roosevelt’s life is a way of thinking about strength, honor, and violence. As a boy, Roosevelt fanatically built up his sickly body and developed an obsession with athletics, danger, and war. This is one of the many things that we love about him — and yet it is an attitude about self-­mastery, aggression, and courage that is completely alien to the way we think of coming of age today. Any good contemporary liberal could reuse, with modest syntactical changes, Roosevelt’s speeches assailing greed or exhorting the rich to accept social obligations. But his beliefs about masculinity could not be repeated without embarrassment. “A coward who will take a blow without returning it is a contemptible creature,” Roosevelt wrote in a 1900 essay, which naturally ended with a rousing football metaphor: “In short, in life, as in a foot-ball game, the principle to follow is: Hit the line hard; don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard!”

That Roosevelt was an imperialist who loved war is hardly incidental to his views on football, and to revive Roosevelt’s blueprint for raising boys on a broad scale would be insane — not even Ted Cruz would advocate it. But it is not entirely devoid of moral value even by contemporary standards. “A healthy-minded boy should feel hearty contempt for the coward, and even more hearty indignation for the boy who bullies girls or small boys, or tortures animals,” he wrote, expressing the paternalistic code of honor that his contemporaries saw as the alternative to the law of the jungle. The question is not whether Rooseveltian social thinking should guide our own thinking but whether, in an age heralded by Hanna Rosin as “The End of Men,” any of it should be salvaged.

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Name: Marlo; Age: 7; Team: Avalon Wolves Pop Warner Photo: Don Montague/All Sports Photography

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.

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Name: Giovanni; Age: 8; Team: Oviedo Knights Photo: Don Montague/All Sports Photography

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.

Maybe hearing that story confirms all the horrible things you suspect about football — the mindless hate, the way violence blends seamlessly in its participants’ minds from sanctioned scholastic activity to assault. I see it very differently. The assault infuriated us not because the physical injuries were so much worse than something that could happen on the field but because it violated a code of behavior. Football players signal their acceptance of risk by their presence and expect to be hit. Within the sport, there are rules limiting the scope of violence. You can’t be ganged up on. The ethical difference between tackling a fullback at midfield and sucker-punching him at a party is not very hard to grasp. We saw it clear as day. And football gave us a way to vindicate our irrepressible teenage-male sense of honor; none of us contemplated staging an ambush of our own.

Now, my adolescence in comfortable suburban Michigan might not translate perfectly as a model for helping underprivileged teenagers elsewhere — say the boys who lived miles south of us in Detroit. But football just might be one way it does. The problems facing many of those kids were real — are real — much realer than the ones that I faced. But that doesn’t make a regimen of discipline and structure directed toward self-improvement any less relevant. Quite the opposite. And for many of those kids, identification with football supplies the vouchsafe of masculinity that might otherwise need to be demonstrated in far more dangerous ways. Football may be the safest way for a boy in a crime-ridden neighborhood to prove he is tough. If sports seem to a teenager the only plausible path out of the underclass, that’s not a failing of the sport but the society it’s embedded in.

Why do Americans not only accept high-school football, but, in certain regions, worship it?” asks Almond in Against Football. “I think there’s some kind of shame mixed up in it, the shame of men whose dreams have collapsed.” The current wave of indignation has revived this old archetype, which Bissinger himself probably did more than anybody else to etch upon our landscape with Friday Night Lights. That harrowing book followed a Texas high-school football team and its sad dénouement of the former jock-God spending the rest of his life reliving youthful glories. The archetype manages to capture something real, at which point the reasoning goes horribly awry. One of the guys I played with, Vishal, swung through town a few months back. We went out to dinner with my kids, and he told them what I think of as the red-hatchet story — or half of it, anyway. It is a story I have been turning over in my mind for the past 25 years.

My senior year, I had moved from wide receiver, where I was a bit too slow, to outside linebacker, where I was stuck on the second string. In the third game of the season, I came in during the fourth quarter against Troy. On one play, Troy sent its fullback in motion to the left slot, and I knew from watching previous games and film that they always did this in order to give the fullback a better angle to block down on our strong safety for a toss sweep to that sideline. On the snap of the ball, I launched my body just where I knew the ball carrier would be. He had managed to take a couple steps laterally when I hit him, all my momentum firing straight upfield, square in the chest, flattening him probably before he even saw me coming, just as I had been flattened as a freshman. Every week, when my coach reviewed the previous game, he would recognize the best individual plays by handing out little stickers to affix to the back of the helmet. The most cherished prize, for the most punishing hit of the game, was a red-hatchet sticker. Only one was awarded that week. When he singled out my tackle with the red-hatchet sticker, it served as my validation before the whole team. I still have it.

That was the part Vishal told my kids. Here is what happened next. Having mostly ignored my play until then, the coaches became completely enthralled with me. The red-hatchet tackle had so impressed them they announced in front of everybody that they planned to move me to middle linebacker and center and start me at both positions. I should have told them right away their plan couldn’t work; learning a newer and more complex position in a single week, let alone two of them, was impossible. During practice that week I could see the excitement drain from their eyes, and by the time the next game came along they had given up and sent me back to my old position, where I made a number of tackles that were more difficult than the red-hatchet play in spot duty and practice but never again made it past the second string.

This story sounds deeply pathetic, which is the point. I have never stopped regretting it, never stopped constructing scenarios of how I could have persuaded the coaches to give me a more plausible chance to crack the starting lineup. And there are millions of American men like me.

I recently tracked down an old teammate named Mark, whom I’d seen only once since high school, at our ten-year reunion. Mark was an average athlete, mostly stuck to the bench, and, like me, lacked natural ferocity. He was a smart, thoughtful, funny kid. We used to share a lot of sardonic, Catch-22 jokes in practice about the absurdities that come with having to follow unquestioning orders from authority figures who are not brilliant. I assumed high-school football wouldn’t have much meaning for him, that he was too gentle for the sport and probably on the team just to placate his father or hang out with some buddies. Instead Mark told me he had still harbored bitterness toward the coaches for not giving him a chance. He had constructed his own march-into-the-coaches’-office scenarios, turned the various permutations over in his own head a million times. Eventually he got into weight lifting — he told me he could lift 225 pounds 27 times, an NFL-linebacker-like amount — and dabbled in martial-arts fighting.

In this way, Mark resembles the cliché. Except he has also started a highly successful ­private-equity firm. And Vishal is a surgeon, married with a beautiful family in San Diego. As for me, my own post-high-school life is not a story of collapsed dreams, either.

And yet in this way we are not much different than the sad, washed-up jocks of West Texas. Football is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me. Absurd as it may sound to say this about a career as a second-stringer for an average team, nothing I’ve done in my life felt as important at the time I was doing it.

This is not because my life is a failure, and it is not because football stole my youth. Football’s enemies have an accurate sociological observation, but their conclusion is backward. Nothing else pumped so much adrenaline through me that I couldn’t feel my feet underneath me as I ran and could barely remember my name, or made me weep or scream uncontrollably. It is the adventure of your life, a chance to prove yourself as a man before other boy-men who, even if you never see them again, you will always regard as brothers-in-arms.

This is an increasingly antiquated conception of male socialization. George Orwell, the old socialist, was well ahead of his time when he scribbled out an angry rant against the sporting ethic, which, he wrote, “is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.” That is all more or less true. But shooting is precisely the problem with war. War minus the shooting is actually pretty great.               

*This article appears in the October 6, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.