The Hot Corner
Issue   |   Tue, 12/05/2017 - 21:55

The National Football League (NFL) announced last month that it would fine Miami Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso for hitting Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in the head as he started to slide. Flacco, on a third-and-10 play on the Dolphins’ 20-yard line, dropped back to throw before scrambling to his right past the line of scrimmage. Alonso, who had dropped back toward his team’s end zone to defend against the pass, charged in to stop Flacco before he reached a first down. Alonso lowered his shoulder right as Flacco started to slide, crashing into Flacco’s head and knocking off his helmet. Flacco, visibly dazed, motioned to the sideline and then crumpled to the ground. A melee broke out around him, and the referees flagged Alonso with a personal foul. Flacco was led off the field and left the game with a concussion.

This provided the sports networks with a couple days’ worth of fodder. Commentators hemmed and hawed over whether Flacco had slid late, if Alonso could have backed off the gas at the last minute and how desperate the NFL should be to protect their quarterbacks. A week later, Flacco met the media with a tempered response to Alonso’s hit.

“A lot of times for those [defenders], it’s not avoidable,” Flacco said. “You’re going and hitting guys. It’s football. That’s why people love this sport … they get to watch people go to battle. That’s what separates this sport for fans and players.”

That may be why some love the sport, but it also is increasingly posing a serious problem for the NFL and football in general. Brutal stories of players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), from Aaron Hernandez to Fred McNeill, have made America’s most popular athletic obsession a little bit harder to stomach. Though it is not news that football is dangerous, recent studies on CTE, a brain disease common among those who have experienced repeated brain trauma, are making it tougher to pretend that the violence we watch on television stays within the white lines.

In 2014, Eric Kester wrote an op-ed in The New York Times chronicling his experience as a ball boy in the NFL. The piece is devastating. In particular, he describes one of his primary tasks, which was to give smelling salts to players after they absorbed particularly brutal hits.

“After almost every crowd-pleasing hit, a player would stagger off the field, steady himself the best he could, sometimes vomit a little, and tilt his head to the sky,” he wrote.

The ball boy would run over with a packet of smelling salts to give the player some supply of superficial alertness, and the player would return to the field to start it all over again.

Football is not the first American fixation to threaten the well-being of its participants. For decades, boxing captivated the public imagination. Iconic personalities, from the U.S. and countless other nations, became characters in a mythical drama. Many boxers from working class backgrounds traded their rags for celebrity. The ring was also a theater for social battles. Max Baer wore a Star of David on his shorts when he beat Max Schmeling — a German fighter of whom Adolf Hitler was quite fond — in Yankee Stadium in 1933. Joe Louis later fought Schmeling twice and beat him both times, dealing the Nazis a good deal of embarrassment. Decades later, Muhammad Ali became a key figure in the civil rights movement and was famously arrested for draft evasion before the Supreme Court overturned his conviction. Boxing displayed unapologetically the totality of American ugliness and beauty, deftness and brutality. The “sweet science” that had cost boxers their lives since Baer killed Frankie Campbell in 1930 still maintained the aura of a ballet.

The list of boxers who died of injuries sustained during boxing matches is depressingly long. About 500 fighters have died of boxing-related injuries in the past century and a half. Many of these victims did not succumb until hours, days, or even weeks after they left the ring to the cheers — or scorn — of spectators unaware they were watching a dead man walk.

A common-sense narrative of boxing’s decline is that we realized the danger of the sport as a society, and many of us decided we no longer cared to watch. The reality, however, is less satisfying. For one thing, boxing’s dangers were never much of a mystery, and there was not too much effort to sanitize the sport. Boxing’s decline began not from more enlightened sentiment, but from organizational failing. From 1921 to 1963, the National Boxing Association, now the World Boxing Association (WBA), was the sport’s major governing body, awarding champions in eight weight classes. Now, the WBA competes with the WBC, WBO and the IBF and awards a dizzying 17 world championships for men and 13 for women. For all but the most dedicated fans, this became too much to handle. Though stars like Mike Tyson, Ann Wolfe, Oscar De La Hoya, Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather attract periodic attention and make millions for pay-per-view companies, boxing commands very little interest among the general public. The average fight simply does not mean that much and, consequently, is not that interesting.

As recently as a couple of years ago, the idea that football would go the path of boxing was preposterous. Ratings were soaring and the league was making money hand over fist. Despite football’s documented ugliness, the country’s fanaticism had never been stronger. Today, however, the NFL cannot seem to get out of its own way. TV ratings are plummeting while the league continues to trot out bizarre promotions and soporific primetime matchups. Meanwhile, college football ratings are doing just fine, and UFC is carving out a sizable following. As was the case with boxing, the NFL is not losing traction because it is violent, but because it is boring. In a sport with overzealous refereeing, interminable replay reviews and an inexplicable shortage of talented quarterbacks, ugly hits are really all there is to talk about. The league that once seemed to big to fail might now be on the ropes.