Swans Commentary » swans.com August 24, 2009  



Is The NFL Losing Its Game?
A Watered-Down Football is not Filling Anymore


by Raju Peddada





[Author's Note: This game begs our attention, more so because of the NFL's boom and its much coveted parity. When there is status quo, I see complacency, and perceive ominous signs of the game becoming what the society has become, politically correct. This is the only game left that provides a catharsis for most of us out here in the real world. By catering to the altruistic and elitist elements of our society, the NFL is reducing the game to parity with corruption. Let the game remain pure; let it be refreshingly anti-civil, violent, and savage. And more than anything, let it remain primal.]


"I don't feel good; I think I swallowed a finger."
—Anonymous Football Player


(Swans - August 24, 2009)   I was not looking for an angle to write about the National Football League. As I watched the game over the years, this angle surfaced like a tumor in former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue's regime in the early 1990s and grew irreversibly acute. Under seemingly minor reformations, the game regressed into a benign version of itself, almost prosaic. I became frustrated, and made a mental note that someday would become a tell all. As we go into another NFL season, this angle forced itself on me, and I would be remiss not to acquiesce in spilling my take.

"Football is not a game, but a religion, a metaphysical island of fundamental truth in a highly verbalized and disguised society; A throwback of 30,000 generations of anthropological time."
—Arnold Mandell, Football Psychiatrist from the 1970s

Dick Butkus would be suspended from the NFL if he were playing today. The National Football League, the world's richest and most visible sports organization, was founded on snot-propelling hits, and was essentially nurtured on strategic violence. The same NFL today is a sterilized version of its former self. I can say this with certitude that most of the pioneering knockers of the game would be suspended for their play or would be kicked out of the game. That is how diluted the game has become over the last 26 years.

While the workingman's salaries are shrinking, the player's remuneration and the NFL's revenues are expanding, from the personal seat license (PSL) fees, walk-in admissions, season-ticket holders, concessions, and corporate suites. But for all this financial density, the game's intensity is being atrophied. Many feel that they are shelling out almost $125 per seat in the end zone to watch mud wrestling. I am afraid that the NFL is transforming into a circus brand for the nouveau bourgeoisie, shedding its association with the common man's hard game. Perhaps because the new clients, with society ladies and trophy wives on their arms, are coy to see brutal collisions, or squeamish to take in good-looking quarterbacks getting crushed, but these very sophisticates would never flinch or bat their pretty eyelashes in laying someone off a job to preserve their suites and parachutes. This is unfortunately what the new NFL caters to.

I migrated to the U.S. and landed in Chicago in the vortex of Bears mania. I still get the chills when I replay old tapes and hear CBS's Brent Musburger simply say: "NFL Today 12:30 Eastern, the Bears & the Vikings" -- an understatement on black-and-blue division war in the offing. The 1985-86 NFL champion Chicago Bears was essentially the last team to sport real "unnecessary roughness." It was a team imbued with meanness, and was designed around defensive savagery, as taught and nurtured by defensive maestro Buddy Ryan. All Chicagoans regret that team had won only one championship, despite the caliber of its players.

Being a big sports fan, I took to American football as easily as a duckling takes to water. After only a few months of ingesting and comprehending this sport, I realized it to be the quintessential masculine outdoor team sport ever devised by man. Unequivocally, the paradoxical blend of team coherence and chess-like strategies with jarring violence was a game for the jocks as well as the judges. It was a game grown for every palate. The passionate acolytes included the intellectuals, invalids, inmates, imbeciles, introverts, and international stars.

"Football, after all, is a wonderful way to get rid of your aggression without going to jail for it."
—Heywood Hale Brown

Under the previous and present commissioners, changes are being wrought that have made the game softer. Such amendments temper and repress the original culture of the game that has always been about controlled violence and brutality. Many defensive players have been miffed at these changes. New England Patriots' Rodney Harrison claimed that the NFL "is a pansy league." Sports writer Jeffri Chadiha of ESPN questions whether the NFL is turning its game into a soft sport to protect the "money players." Pittsburgh Steelers' Pro-Bowl safety Troy Polamalu complained last fall that the NFL is becoming more like touch football, after a spate of fines levied by the NFL on the Steelers for vicious hits. I didn't know it had come to this, players being fined for playing the game the way it was supposed to be played -- it is ridiculous! Some top defensive players of the league expressed vociferous disdain for the league's obsession with heavy-handed disciplining on overly aggressive plays, claiming that it is more about money than safety. The NFL promotes the team game concept, and to not sell stars like the National Basketball Association, so why the zealous protection of some positions on the field of play?

The Minnesota Vikings' defensive end Jared Allen was fined $50,000 for two hits last year on Matt Schaub of the Houston Texans and Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers. In his defense Allen said, "We play a violent sport...we know that and willingly sign up for it. We are grown men and make the decisions to do what we do...why make rules to tame the sport." I agree -- it is basically the willingness of these players to play, knowing the risks, that renders the sport so visually arresting and compelling. The league in its zealous attempt to legislate the game has done it copious harm. They have effectively rendered cornerbacks obsolete by making it impossible to touch a wide receiver five yards behind the line of scrimmage. Everyone who has played it or has been involved in it knows the toll this game exacts, but you never see these men of the past eras complain about the harsh conditions of the game. Instead, they take pride in what they had accomplished and in their collective toughness. Many players of the bygone era, along with the ardent fans, see the culture of the game shift subtly, and this very change is decimating the vigorous edge of the sport.

"You have to play this game like somebody just hit your mother with a two-by-four."
—Dan Birdwell

Nobody can discredit the symbolic aspects of football. The game itself had metastasized into the biggest metaphor, now almost a cliché to which businesses, warriors, and life pursuers resort. "Soften up their defenses and pound them on the ground," "take the hits and keep getting up," "four prong attack to get results," "every position is responsible for their job if we are to win as a team," "win in the trenches and you'll win the war," or "defense wins the war" -- these are only some of the maxims that echo during the course of the day in any field of profession across the nation. The game's lexicon and nomenclature had seeped deep into our national psyche and had become a cultural phenomenon with the lexical proliferation of its terminology. The brand NFL and the game itself had seared into our national collective consciousness, and had affected us at a subconscious level, transcending the entertainment factor.

The NFL carries the highest per game attendance of any sports league in the world, with an average of 67,000 paid fans per game. The average value of an NFL franchise is around a "puny" $890 million dollars and some command upwards of one billion dollars. The Washington Redskins' franchise value has been estimated at $1.4 billion. The game is perfectly crafted for television, and the partnership of TV and NFL since the 1950s is the gold standard to which every sports league aspires. The inception of the Super Bowl in 1967 and its popular aftermath is evident in the acceptance of this event as an unofficial civic holiday. The title game and the Thanksgiving games have morphed into a national ritual and tradition. The NFL also does a fantastic and sincere job of wrapping itself in the flag with patriotic fervor, along with big name entertainment and charities at the their grandest venue, the Super Bowl, garnering the highest TV ratings. While baseball is now known as "national past prime," football is called "National Passion Time" and the Harris Poll affirms that NFL viewing is at 30% versus the rest of the sports lumped at 30%.

The networks and their use of the latest broadcast technology on game day is almost surreal, almost giving us a glimpse of a game of the future. But if this game of the future is to prosper into posterity, some of its chunky aspects and necessary roughness have to be resurrected or reinstated. As we hope for some reversion of this perversion of our favorite sport, there is more bad news streaming at us. The new NFL special teams rules for the 2009-10 season are as follows: 1) The prohibition of the wedge formation of kick-off returns, 2) The bunching of players for onside kicks and, 3) Blindside hits will be penalized when helmet to helmet contact occurs. This will unequivocally reduce the impact of the Bears' special teams play, which is the best in the NFL. These seemingly insignificant amendments will have an enormous impact, softening an already reeling game.

The game's playbook had evolved over generations to include squib kick alignments, the T-formation, and the forward pass, but what had remained constant is the violence. Wars are all blood and guts, but have we stopped the wars or have we sterilized our wars? Come to think of it, President Bush indeed tried to fight a politically correct sterilized war in Iraq and almost lost it. Let the game be mean and violent, in its original form. But let us mandate retirement and medical benefits, and psychiatric attention for the NFL players long term, and not corrupt the game's DNA. Wars had become geopolitical catharsis, and football represents personal catharsis; more than anything it is an outlet to all our frustrations, and the players of the NFL are the catalysts that dispense this psychotherapy for us. In such times, when the unemployment lines meander around the corners, and everywhere you see faces in fear and privations, the only redeeming intangible specter that elevates our spirit is the sport that comes through in the clutch.

"Football is like Nuclear warfare, there are no winners, only survivors."
—Frank Gifford

NFL games' singular appeal lies in the fundamental stress and agitation between grace of movement, relentless targeted violence, and application of strategy at its minutest iterations to affect winning. It is a contradictory and incongruent coalescing of elements like vision, brute force, diligent preparation, and explosive precision that render it larger than life in quality. The strategic violence and the hard hits in the game are being systematically weeded out by the proponents of longer careers for the players. It is being strained out by mothers against violence, and is also being reduced by the interference of other societal pressures. Why are we letting this beautiful game be whittled down to a touch game? Why are the fans not being protected? Is there any roughing-the-fan, instead of roughing-the-passer recourse? Ask any average knowledgeable fan, who are the great ones? They will almost always mention the great hitters and decapitators of yesteryears. Dick Butkus will be the overwhelming favorite over the peacock-plumed Deion Sanders any day.

"What is football? Is it a sport or a concussion?"
—Jim Murray

We need some unadulterated savagery! It is game that needs to be played at an elemental level. I miss those days when Wilbur Marshall came in from the blind side and exploded on a quarterback, and I certainly relished Richard Dent diving headlong into Joe Montana and was thrilled to the gills at Steve Puller being decapitated by Shaun Gayle and Mike Singletary in a high-and-low job...all these hard plays never got the fifteen-yard penalties. Today I see more yellow flags and official interferences in the game than before. You get a fifteen-yard penalty just for sneezing at the QB or a receiver. I cannot understand how one can stop oneself on the dime at full speed, when the inertia alone carries you a few yards.

Players played harder when their salaries were still in the thousands of dollars, compared to today's players who are being paid millions as back-ups. The players were slower and smaller from earlier eras, but their ferocity and attitude was gigantic. Today, players are bigger and faster, but their self-focus is the only aspect that is enormous with some exceptions. The players in the previous generations and most in the present put all of their energy into that moment for impact and did not worry about getting hurt or their longevity, but today's star prima donnas routinely pull up before impact.

Steve Sabol of NFL Films had a list of 40 players who are the toughest ever to play football. Today's softened NFL game will never accept these pioneering hitters to play as they played back then. Players like them are anomalies now and would be targeted by the NFL. Sabol also offered iterations of toughness that made sense, and these are just a few examples:

•  Getting the snot knocked out of you and keep going in the middle -- Chris Carter, Minnesota Vikings
•  Can't be intimidated -- Steve Tasker, Buffalo Bills; Steve Largent, Seattle Seahawks
•  Never quit toughness, no regard for body - Dick Butkus, Walter Payton, Chicago Bears
•  Mental toughness -- Joe Montana, Tom Rathman, San Francisco 49ers; Payton, Mike Singletary, Chicago Bears
•  Toughness displayed by play -- Dick Butkus, Payton, Chicago Bears; Mark Bavaro, New York Giants
"His career stands as the most sustained work of devastation ever committed on any field of sport anywhere, anytime."
—Steve Sabol on Dick Butkus

Butkus defined overt rage, and on the other end of the spectrum, Walter Payton's suppressed rage and violent restraint more than anything represented and encapsulated the average male out there. I still wonder why they referred to him as "Sweetness" when he drove over out defensive ends, stiff-armed linebackers to oblivion, and bulldozed safeties all over the field. There was nothing sweet about his will to destroy the defense, while racking up yards behind a putrid offensive line that probably negated hundreds of his yards to holding calls. He was the very embodiment of toughness and played rough, to say the least.

The average fan out there is awaiting a great season, and a great season means big hits. We the people deserve the Neanderthal attitude in our players, despite the NFL. And most of them agree with my diatribe here. In the meantime, the best way to prime ourselves before the season begins, at least in spiritual abstraction, is to listen to Butkus again, as his words have more impact than the NFL today can muster.

"I wouldn't ever set out to hurt anyone deliberately unless it was, you know, important like a league game or something."
—Dick Butkus


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About the Author

Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines.



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Published August 24, 2009