Football is choreographed savagery
The Daily Texan
AUSTIN, Texas — Knowing the origins of football explains a lot about its karma. A millennium ago, when camp dogs fought over the scraps of an ancient huntsman's kill, children thrilled by the vicious spectacle would ape the wrestling beasts. As technology progressed, men fashioned balls from the stomachs of pigs and goats, stuffed them with straw or fur and developed games of toss and tumble with them. The most popular games involved fighting for control of the ball and attempting to take it to some goal. Brutality and death were encouraged.
This is the pedigree of modern football.
For the most part, however, American football dates to 1906 when rule changes "civilized" the brutal sport. The disastrous college season of 1905 witnessed 18 deaths and 159 crucial injuries on the gridiron. A public uproar ensued and President Theodore Roosevelt himself stepped in to save the game. His defense came as no surprise, since he was elected for his famed soldiering, gamesmanship and prowess as a hunter. Despite changes, though, football has always remained — at heart — a blood sport.
According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, 155 deaths resulted from injuries received playing football in American high schools between 1982 and 1998. That's about 10 a year. Colleges, being fewer in number, scored 24 field kills during the same time. No single sport save boxing even comes close — not skiing, not motor sports, not even hockey.
If its destruction were limited to the field, arguing football's relative safety might be a moot point: Let those who play suffer the consequences. But, just as the prehistoric children aped wild dogs, inevitably football fans aped the players. We need look no further than this year's biggest news stories to see how the violence too often goes out of bounds.
Two months ago in Illinois, several "average" boys, probably egged on by the destruction on the fields, took it to the stands. Their resulting two-year suspension from school for fighting and "mob action" left millions wondering: Why the double standard? Football not only legitimizes public violence but monopolizes it as well.
When two boys walked into a high school in Columbine, Colo., on a killing rampage, they selected football players as targets. It was the idolatry of the players they sought to dismiss. Their sentiment, extreme and misguided as it was, was not new. The first Roman combats were derived from Etruscan funeral games in which mortal combat provided companions for the deceased. It was the idolatry of the games, even more than their brutality, that horrified Christian protesters. Compare this to modern Christians in Santa Fe, Texas, invoking prayers to begin football games and any logic gets sacked by irony.
Didn't Moses have a low opinion of trophies and wasn't he God's referee?
The University of Texas, too, has been embroiled in controversy over the game as season after season sees the stadium turned from an institution that once celebrated our egalitarian ideals into one which segregates fans by age, influence and tax bracket. Nowhere but in the ubiquitous festering sore of the football stadium could such hypocrisy multiply in the first country to outlaw aristocracy — at least not so publicly.
Try as we might to ignore its barbaric roots, modern football is plastic-coated, choreographed savagery — the same dogfight over skulls and spleens it always has been. Televised games are edited, censored and neatly packaged. Cameras focus on the ball, not the blood. Live, the fans sit too far away to hear the cries of agony, the crushing of bones and the cursing of mothers. The ancient huntsmen's prey, once regal foes, are silhouette icons on helmets, uniform in size and civility, their power usurped and assimilated yet as plastic as the grass they graze on.
Fortunately, while some cavemen pulled sticks and bones from the fire to play with, others used them to write and pass on knowledge. In many ways, nothing's changed. That's how karma works.
Khy Chapman is an education senior. at the University of Texas at Austin. This column originally ran November 29, 1999, and is reprinted here courtesy of the U-WIRE.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not neccessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Tuesday, November 30, 1999