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

The game can kill boys — and save them.

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.”