Despite the Danger to Players, Why Do We Still Love Football?
It’s a time of reckoning for NFL football, as well as soul searching for its legion of fans as we’re reminded once again that our national obsession has a dark side.
Scientific studies—like the one published recently which found CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) in 99% of deceased NFL players’ brains—have made it abundantly clear that football exacts a terrible price. Playing football is risky, dangerous business.
Yet despite the health hazards, NFL football is more popular than ever. Why does the game have such a powerful hold on us?
Why Do We Love Football?
Author Steve Almond explained it this way: “Football is like the Doritos of sport: It’s been engineered to hit our bliss point.” So let’s begin with some of the more obvious ingredients.
Football is a sanctioned vehicle for venting male aggression. Most men no longer serve in the military and have never participated in any kind of warfare. Steeped in military terminology — blitz, aerial attack, trenches — football is a form of symbolic war that evokes the warrior in men.
Anthropologists will tell you that one of the things we love about football is that it embodies men’s most primal life-sustaining and death-defying activity — chasing game during a hunt and being chased by predators.
In a time of tumultuous social change, football reinforces classic gender stereotypes about men and women. On the (battle) field, armored men fight over territory while scantily clad women cheer from the sideline. Is it a coincidence that the more empowered women become, the more popular football is among men? As the necessity and social importance of men’s strength and physicality has been eroded by industrialization and technology (as well as women in the workforce), men have had to confront an existential dilemma — what is a man’s role? Football symbolically restores men to the center of the action.
Yet, none of these reasons we love football explain our tolerance for the now undeniable health hazards players risk. We need a larger context to help us understand the love it-hate it paradox of football violence.
THE DARK SIDE OF TECHNOLOGY
Just as the dark side of football has come to light, so too we’re discovering the dark side of our vaunted technology. Lately, the media has been full of digital dread: from a deluge of articles about how robots are taking over more and more of our lives; to gallows humor by New York Time’s columnist, Maureen Dowd, who recently quipped “I’m not looking forward to servitude under my iPhone;” to warnings from the likes of Stephen Hawkings and Elon Musk, who both caution that artificial intelligence may ultimately be the greatest threat facing humankind.
To use a football metaphor, the 1st half of the great game of civilization was Man vs. Nature. We created technologies — fire, language, tools, agriculture, and so on — that helped us adapt, colonize and ultimately vanquish Nature. We reshaped the world in our image, and now live in one that is increasingly man-made. But our technology not only transformed Nature, it also transformed us.
As we adapt to our man-made world, we’re being reshaped in technology’s image. Machines have their own logical imperatives; technology has its algorithmic DNA. As we adapt, do we risk becoming algorithmic versions of ourselves and losing some essential aspect of our humanity? If the first half of civilization’s epic game was “Man vs. Nature,” the 2nd half is and will be “Man vs. Machine.”
Sliding down the technological rabbit hole into an increasingly frictionless, machine-world of screens, software and apps, we may have greater need for the communal spectacle of humans battling against one another in violent competition. In some paradoxical way, football’s violence — the secret sauce that both attracts and repels us — celebrates our humanity. We may even crave football’s violence as a protest against living inside technology’s immaculate glass cage.
NO RISK, NO GLORY!
I’ve thought a lot about football and technology while writing a sci-fi novel about an NFL team that’s “time-napped” and transported 100 years into the future when robots instead of humans play football. Unwitting pawns in a diabolical plot, they are forced to play against state-of-the-art robots in the Ultra Bowl, where nations compete for technological supremacy, market share and global power.
Before taking the field, where they’ll face certain defeat and likely death, these 21st century football players are addressed by one of the architects of this 22nd century “robotopia.”
“You’ve shown me a greatness that the most sophisticated machines will never know. You’ve shown me what makes humans great — their heart, their capacity to love and be loved, their willingness to sacrifice themselves for those they love, to risk their lives and die for what they love. No machine, no robot, no matter how intelligent or how indestructible, can risk. No machine, no robot can achieve such glory.”
The Super Bowl is our greatest communal event and some have called football our “secular religion.” Why? Perhaps because football celebrates our humanity in a way no other sport does. Football players are our heroes not only because of their skill, strength and agility, but also because they risk themselves on the field. In our increasingly virtual and machine-enabled world, every time a football player steps onto the field, he’s demonstrating what only a mortal human being can. Courage! No Risk, No Glory! And that’s something no machine can do.
For more articles about football by I. J. Weinstock: