I went to see “The Hunger Games” the other night. In this science-fiction movie, 24 people fight to the death in a forest as entertainment for the masses. As I walked out of the theater, I found myself drawing parallels to ancient Roman gladiators and even Monday Night Football—and then wondering: Are we so different now?
“It’s gonna be a battle out there today, men”
I know the metaphor of sport as warfare is cliché. The comparison is, at best, lazy, and, at worst, blatantly offensive to those who make the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country. After all, NFL players are extremely well compensated, playing a game, and doing so with few, if any, altruistic motives.
But even if the metaphor is both lazy and offensive, it is not irrelevant. The culture in an NFL locker room, for better or worse, is similar in many ways to military culture: A team of young men, maniacally focused on a common goal, operating under a strict chain of command with enormous resources built around winning a brutal conflict. Both cultures use routine and repetition to familiarize and, in some cases, desensitize fighters to the unnaturalness of what they are asked to do.
I played strongside linebacker, a particularly gruesome position, often charged with taking on the fullback in what’s known as an “iso block.” It amounts to having two 250-pound men start ten yards apart and sprint full speed at each other. Create a pile. Disrupt the play and let someone else make the tackle. This was my job, in large part, for eight years in the NFL.
Scientists have used accelerometers to measure severe NFL hits. The equivalent in terms of g-force? Jumping off a diving board from 10 feet and landing on pavement. According to Popular Mechanics, a typical roller coaster exerts about 4 g’s of force. The most violent collisions in the NFL exceed 150 g’s. As our athletic trainer would explain when I’d hobble into the facility on a typical Monday, I’d endured the equivalent about 20 mild car wrecks the day before.
It turns out that’s not good for you. But everything about my training as a football player led to the act itself and the next day’s soreness being accepted as part of the job.
We romanticize the savagery of war with video games like Call of Duty and Modern Warfare and movies like “The Hunger Games.” The visual artist Wafaa Bilal, who endured the torment of the Saddam Hussein regime growing up in Iraq, captured the phenomenon chillingly in his “Shoot an Iraqi” exhibit.
Bilal lived alone in a prison-sized room with a camera and remote-controlled paintball gun that allowed viewers around the world to fire at him. His point was that experiencing a war fought on the other side of the world isolates us from the real tragedy. It feels more like a video game. My real fascination is in why so many people were prepared to shoot him in the first place. Was it for entertainment?
The hidden side of sports is rife with steroid use and astronomically high injury rates, but most fans would prefer not to think about that. We don’t see the whole carcass, we just want to enjoy our steak.
The thrill of victory?
At the beginning of the 2009 Academy Award Winning Best Picture, “The Hurt Locker,” a quote from The New York Times journalist Chris Hedges flashes up on the screen: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”
As the words lingered on the screen, my mind replaced “war” with “football.”
Former soldiers and NFL retirees both struggle with transition to the real world. Never again do I anticipate having the adrenal rush, intense focus, and dramatic catharsis that take place over the three and a half hours of a football game. That rush is addictive. That rush makes the banality of everyday life unsatisfying to those who can’t adjust.
An NFL kickoff most closely resembles a battle scene from “Braveheart.” Table, for a moment, the incentives that lead to people playing football for a living, and consider the reasons you, the fan, watch. As Ariel Kaminer articulated so well in her New York Times piece, we watch sports, in general, and football specifically, in part because of that risk, that rush. Like an Evil Knievel stunt, much of thrill comes from knowing it could go wrong. The greater the gasp, the louder the cheer.
All NFL salaries are bounties
I can’t discuss the ethics of watching, competing in, or celebrating the violence of football without mentioning Bountygate, the scandal that resulted when coaches for the New Orleans Saints paid players to target opponents for injury. There were three collective reactions among current and former NFL players:
1. Complete lack of surprise
2. A degree of wonder that the media got so much mileage out the story
3. Shock that Gregg Williams and particularly Sean Payton suffered such harsh punishments
After hearing the smoking gun tape of Williams coaching his players to target existing injuries on the 49ers, he went from scapegoat to buffoon (as Bill Simmons describes here). But, as with most scapegoats, Williams is more a symptom of NFL culture than a cause.
While I was never instructed to cause a specific injury, I was told to “take his head off,” or “hit him in the teeth.” You can’t coach football well without coaching violence. The game is about force. It’s about fight. It’s about battle. So where does the line get drawn between Williams’s misguided tirade and Al Pacino’s famous pre-game speech in “Any Given Sunday?” (Stop now and watch this speech, its worth four minutes of your life.)
If you’re in a hurry, fast forward to about the 2:40 mark, just before Pacino rants, “In any fight, it’s the guy who’s willing to die who’s gonna win that inch.” That scene captures the mood in an NFL locker room perfectly. There’s something basic, something visceral about the mindset of a pro athlete. I still get chill bumps when I hear the National Anthem. It’s not because I’m particularly patriotic; it’s because there’s something Pavlovian that tells my mind and body to get ready for battle, because for 16 years that anthem sounded right before every football game I played.
I’ve never been offered money to injure a player, but I’ve injured players, anyway. I broke DeShaun Foster’s ankle in one playoff game against the Panthers and injured Deuce McAllister (I think it was a knee) in another against the Saints. I had no intent to cause harm, but how do you hit someone with every ounce of violence you can muster and say you had no bad intentions?
In the locker room before a game, an NFL player psyches himself for battle. Head down, music blaring, you focus on the enemy at hand. You prepare to impose your will. You know they’re doing the same. You convince yourself that you’re a gladiator about to enter the arena. Violence and aggression are as central to the game as running and catching.
Would you watch two-hand touch?
More than anything, Bountygate puts in plain site what we as players and fans might choose not to contemplate: Violence is not just a part of football, it’s a huge part of the allure of football.
What does the appeal of football’s violent streak say about us? This is the question I found myself asking as I walked out of “The Hunger Games,” my stomach sour. I wonder what future generations will make of the NFL. Why do we play? Why do we watch? Why are our most popular video games simulations of war and violence?
The NFL must protect its players to protect itself. As the lawsuits stack up and huge collisions go from celebrated to condemned… or more accurately, from celebrated to celebrated and condemned, the NFL has to draw the line. Otherwise, all of professional football will begin to look like bounty hunting, or Hunger Games, and the masses will stop watching.
Maybe I’m the biggest hypocrite of all. I love the game. Football made me great friends, a degree of fame, and a lifetime of financial security. I still tune in on Sundays and I still cheer. And yet I would do anything in my power, should I ever have a son, to keep him from playing.
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HUNTER HILLENMEYER played eight seasons with the Chicago Bears. He was a founding member of both the NFLPA Player Safety and Welfare Committee and the Mackey-White Traumatic Brain Injury Committee. He attended Vanderbilt University and Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and now works with Internet startups in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @hthill.
STORY ART: Main image made in-house using photo by John Martinez Pavilga/cc.