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Opinion: Violence of football turns a player into a 'thing'

Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers is carted off the field after being injured in the third quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals during the AFC Wild Card Playoff game on Jan. 9. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

When I was a graduate student in social anthropology, my university’s football team played an arch rival the same autumn weekend the Boston Red Sox were playing in the World Series. Our football team was noted for its talented wide receivers. And opposing teams were noted for trying to knock our wide receivers out of the game.In football calculus, knocking a skilled player out of the game is sometimes (but not always) worth the penalty for some form of unnecessary roughness. Some players specialize in this tactic, and are rewarded by fans and coaches when they get away with it. Unnecessary roughness is necessary in this calculus.


I went to this football game, and became curious when the opposing team knelt to pray in the end zone before the game. It was an odd gesture, I felt, for any team contemplating tactics of unnecessary roughness to injure an opposing player.

I decided to write a letter to the student newspaper making the argument that God was not watching the football game that day but was in Boston watching the World Series. Of course, I really didn’t know what God was doing, but I didn’t think trying to injure another player was part of God’s handiwork. After my letter was published, players from my school’s football team challenged me to a college radio station debate about God and football. At least I started a discussion.

I thought of this long-ago incident while watching the recent NFL wildcard playoff game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers. I watch football for the usual reasons: to witness grace under pressure, the drama of close competition, the beauty of skillful athletic performance, etc. But I usually annoy my friends by saying that I will watch a game with them until the first concussion. After that I feel too much like a fanatic at the Roman Colosseum watching gladiators tear each other apart.

But, of course, this is a cop-out on my part because most of football brain injuries are the result of constant, repetitive sub-concussive blows.

The Bengals-Steelers game evoked my usual ambivalence in watching football. At the end of the game when the Bengals were winning 16-15, their linebacker got a penalty for “unnecessary roughness” for a late hit to the head of a Steelers’ wide receiver that caused his limp body to crumple to the turf. That penalty and another Bengal’s 15-yard penalty at the same time for another player’s “unsportsmanlike conduct” brought the Steelers 30 yards to the 17 yard line and led to an easy game-winning field goal. If you live by “unnecessary roughness,” you may die by the consequences.

Commentators often blame the individual football player for “despicable” and “disgraceful” behavior, or the coach for not controlling his player. This misses the broader point. Blaming the individual is like blaming the canary in the coalmine when it dies from a lack of oxygen. It is like blaming brain damage on a player’s personal health habits while strategically denying a systemic pattern of concussions in the sport.

Football violence might be better viewed from a distance, like an anthropologist studying a foreign culture. From a distance, we gain insight into what is close.

To give an example I use in my classes: The French philosopher Simone Weil thought that she could better understand the violence around her, as she escaped Nazi-occupied France in World War II, by reading and writing about the violence in the Trojan War depicted in Homer’s poem, “The Iliad.” This was her way of trying to understand what it means to be a human being in the extreme circumstances of violence, by comparing the “near” violence she was experiencing with the “distant” violence of an ancient foreign culture.

Weil learned an important lesson from Homer’s portrait of war: violence turns the human being into a “thing” — “in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.” Homer’s poem never “wearies of showing” that spectacle of a human being becoming no more than a “thing,” undeserving of sympathy. Even “the hero becomes a thing dragged behind a chariot in the dust.”

Compare this ancient hero dragged in the dust with injured Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was carried out of the stadium on a cart in the Bengals-Steelers game. Cincinnati fans jeered and threw trash at him.

At that moment a football hero, a human being, had become a “thing” — undeserving of sympathy.

William P. Murphy is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Northwestern University. He teaches classes on the anthropology of violence and African civil wars.

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