It’s taken some time, but I think I have a decent handle on this whole New Orleans Saints bounty thing. At least I have a decent handle on how I feel about it. I’m not sure I can tell anyone else what to think, and that’s really rather the point: This story isn’t about the Saints. It isn’t about the NFL, or Gregg Williams, or conspiracy theories, or anything else. It’s about us, the fans.
Before I go much further, I’ll recommend Grandmaster Wang’s excellent writing on the subject. (If you don’t have the patience to read all of that, don’t worry, it’s okay to skim in places.) The take is a good one, and it calls to mind many questions. Ultimately, it veers too closely into “anything is defensible” territory, and that’s where I differ.
A few days ago, I termed the allegations awful or some such and a friend of mine told me he envied us “righteous” folks.
I didn’t much care for the implication that I was “righteous” or even had much patience for people who were. I mean, if you aren’t hurting anyone, you’re a-okay by me, and that’s just the philosophy I live by. When people try to tell me how to live my life, I bristle. Surely I’m not one of those “righteous” people, right?
The online dictionary I looked the word up in defines “righteous” as “characterized by uprightness or morality.”
Shit again. Because I AM a moral person. I do think certain stuff shouldn’t fly. When I encounter racism and general ass-baggery, I try to speak up and put an end to it. Whenever I disagree with the politicians, the media, or the other fools in the world wanting to tell me what to think, I protest appropriately. Injustice pisses me off. And if I have a problem with something on (or off) the sports field, I’m not just going to shrug my shoulders and accept it as being “the way things are.” Why does it have to be “the way things are?” Why can’t we change our reality?
We can. I’m watching the trailer for this the other day, and it moves me. That makes me a sap, yes, but it moves me just the same. Because when I started the trailer, I thought to myself, “Bullying won’t ever go away. That can’t change. It’s just the way kids are.” And then slowly but surely, the trailer tries to systematically destroy that line of thinking. And it’s pretty darn successful, too. By the end of the thing, I’m thinking, “Maybe…”
This is the thought process of a hopeful person.
And what I’m saying is not that everyone should be a hopeful person, but rather I hope that everyone would consider being a thoughtful person. It’s not enough to say, “I support this, and will forever, and that’s that.” If the bounty story should teach us anything, it’s the beautiful little truth that our favorite sport is ugly. And that ugliness should be faced, not buried.
I can’t remember the last time I crowed over a big hit without immediately thinking about the safety of the person on the receiving end (it’s been awhile). But I do remember the last time I labored under the assumption that college football had yet to get too big for its own good. That moment was directly before I found out about the Penn State issues with Jerry Sandusky. Sure, that was one isolated incident, and I’m not sure child rape is a growing problem within the sport of football, but it said a great deal to me that the fans could defend Joe Paterno in that case. They had lost their perspective. They had put this man on a pedestal, a pedestal that entitled him into thinking he knew what to do better than the police did, and because of this, more children were put at risk and ultimately harmed. And then afterwards, these fans continued to defend him. They continued to bury their heads in the sand and avoid growing as people.
Because of the pedestal.
I hate the pedestal. I mean, I get it. I sometimes do it myself. But I still hate it. If it grows too big, people get hurt. That’s how it always works. And it may not be child rape, but it’s going to be something, and people will get hurt. All thanks to a bunch of people putting too much importance on something that ultimately doesn’t matter a whole heck of a lot.
The Saints tried to hurt their opponents. I understand the cheating side of it, the too stupid for getting caught side of it, and even the “everyone does it” defense, but none of those things are at the center of the matter. The key issue here is really the violence of American football, and what we all think about it. Because we all have to decide for ourselves, “Am I okay with this? Am I okay with paid assassins trying to hurt each other for my entertainment? Or am I putting the violence itself on a pedestal?”
My personal answer is thusly: I am not particularly okay with the dirty underside of the game. I don’t like bounties, and cheaters, and sleazy assbags, and child rape, and really all of the stuff one might term “bad.” I accept all of it, because it is part of the whole, and the whole (our little sport called football) is still one of the most amazing things in the world, but god-damn if it isn’t also a difficult thing to put up with at the same time.
Similarly, I accept the violence, but I don’t like it. I wince when a man gets hit nowadays whereas I used to cheer. Now, when I see Brett Favre crumpled on the cold turf after being battered into submission by the Bears defense, a 40-year-old man with a family who hung on too long, and a culture that celebrates this fact, I feel nothing but sadness. I can’t think about the players as robots. They are people.
I often say football players deserve every penny they earn, and I really do believe that. They put their bodies on the line for money, and it’s brutal, but it is their choice. They enter the sport of their own free will, and this is how I come to grips with it. They have chosen a risky lifestyle for the benefit of themselves and their families. Is it any different for a soldier in the military? Maybe. But it’s a concept I understand and respect. These men can do what they want so far as their own bodies are concerned.
However, I can’t help going back to my thinking that everyone can do what they want, so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.
Doesn’t hurt anyone else…
Bounties hurt other people. Yeah, so do tackles and big hits, but like they say, it’s a violent game. The tackles are part of it. The illegal hits? The bounties? They don’t have to be. I’ve made my defense of football, and it is called Eyeblack Odyssey (available for purchase soon!). And I could go on and on about why I think it’s a beautiful game with a place in our culture, but then you wouldn’t buy my book (rimshot!). But the sport is simultaneously savage and difficult to stomach. And when it veers into the land of being illegal or immoral, that’s basically my tipping point. These guys, like soldiers, have a right to defend themselves out there. They don’t have a right to assault one another recklessly and put careers at risk.
And that’s really what it comes down to. How much violence is okay for everyone? Is the game itself so flawed that it needs to be discontinued? Or is it perfectly fine the way it is and let’s all watch someone get their head torn off?
Or is there, perhaps, a middle ground? A middle ground that requires thoughtfulness and rationality? A middle ground that acknowledges the violence of the game, yet still tries to limit it? A middle ground that asks more of its fans, players, and administration? A middle ground that discourages pedestal thinking?
A middle ground that allows me to remain hopeful?