I know my readership includes many fans of pro football. After reading this post, I invite you to tell me why you support this sport.
Whether or not you’re a fan, you’ve by now likely heard of the flap concerning Larry Johnson, a successful Kansas City Chiefs running back. After yet another crushing loss last weekend, Johnson “tweeted” his disrespect for the team’s coach. His nasty provocation drew responses from some outraged “followers,” who couldn’t help pointing out Johnson’s history of violent run-ins with the law (including domestic violence, throwing a drink at a woman in a nightclub, and pushing another woman’s head).
Johnson decided, in that way that Twitter seems to have been created to foster, to kill the messenger. According to outsports (much of the rest of the blogosphere has maddening in its reserve), Johnson responded as follows:
“[T]hink bout a clever diss then that wit ur fag pic. Christopher street boy. Is what us east coast cats call u.”
Actually, this troubles me less than the rest of the story. I don’t expect civility (or…anything) from Twitter exchanges, and one might charitably laugh this off as part of a nasty, fleeting exchange. But then Johnson closed his tweet with this epigram:
“Make me regret it. Lmao (“Laugh my ass off”). U don’t stop my checks. Lmao. So ‘tweet’ away.”
U don’t stop my checks. That’s really it, isn’t it? Translation: “I make the big money, and I’m the sh*t,1 so I’m above your criticism (and the law itself.)” And of course the NFL enables this sort of thing: not so much by its reaction to the event (Johnson received a two-week suspension, which will only result in one missed game because of a “bye” week), but by its ceaseless glorification of these men who, for several hours each Sunday, collide with each other with force sufficient to…I’m coming to that.
Why wouldn’t Johnson, along with every other major football star, feel himself entitled to do whatever he wants, including this follow-up with the press the very next day: “Get your faggot asses out of here.”
Of course, the obligatory acts of contrition followed, but it was really no apology. It began: “I did not intend to offend anyone…” Are there responsibility-acceptance programs alongside those in anger-management? (Inexplicably, GLAAD applauded the statement.)
But it’s the NFL that has the last laugh, not the unrepentant players. For all pro football players strike a Faustian bargain: A few years of glory and almost limitless license, in exchange for a shorter life — and a cognitively and physically crippled one, at that. In this New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell raises this provocative question: How different are pro football and dogfighting, really? Is Michael Vick’s conduct (which ranks high on the reprehensibility scale, to be sure) any worse than what the NFL, and indirectly, millions upon millions of fans enable each week? Let’s end with this somewhat lengthy excerpt from the article, where Gladwell considers the case of now-retired offensive lineman Kyle Turley. Then let’s hear from the defenders of football:
He knew all the stories about former football players. Mike Webster, the longtime Pittsburgh Steeler and one of the greatest players in N.F.L. history, ended his life a recluse, sleeping on the floor of the Pittsburgh Amtrak station. Another former Pittsburgh Steeler, Terry Long, drifted into chaos and killed himself four years ago by drinking antifreeze. Andre Waters, a former defensive back for the Philadelphia Eagles, sank into depression and pleaded with his girlfriend—“I need help, somebody help me”—before shooting himself in the head. There were men with aching knees and backs and hands, from all those years of playing football. But their real problem was with their heads, the one part of their body that got hit over and over again.
“Lately, I’ve tried to break it down,” Turley said. “I remember, every season, multiple occasions where I’d hit someone so hard that my eyes went cross-eyed, and they wouldn’t come uncrossed for a full series of plays. You are just out there, trying to hit the guy in the middle, because there are three of them. You don’t remember much. There are the cases where you hit a guy and you’d get into a collision where everything goes off. You’re dazed. And there are the others where you are involved in a big, long drive. You start on your own five-yard line, and drive all the way down the field—fifteen, eighteen plays in a row sometimes. Every play: collision, collision, collision. By the time you get to the other end of the field, you’re seeing spots. You feel like you are going to black out. Literally, these white explosions—boom, boom, boom—lights getting dimmer and brighter, dimmer and brighter.”
“Then, there was the time when I got knocked unconscious. That was in St. Louis, in 2003. My wife said that I was out a minute or two on the field. But I was gone for about four hours after that….”
“They cleared me for practice that Thursday. I probably shouldn’t have. I don’t know what damage I did from that, because my head was really hurting. But when you’re coming off an injury you’re frustrated. I wanted to play the next game. I was just so mad that this happened to me that I’m overdoing it….That’s football. You’re told either that you’re hurt or that you’re injured. There is no middle ground. If you are hurt, you can play. If you are injured, you can’t, and the line is whether you can walk and if you can put on a helmet and pads.”
- Johnson apparently is closing in on a Chiefs’ career rushing record, although that’s not much better than closing in a Washington Nationals record in baseball. ↩