Boxing fell from favour as we became less tolerant of violence. Will American football follow?

Ed Smith’s Left Field column.

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When Joe Louis fought Max Schmeling in 1938, two-thirds of Americans tuned in to the radio broadcast. Now, most sports fans can’t tell you who the current heavyweight champion is without recourse to the internet. I can’t, either, though I used to follow boxing closely. Tastes change. Boxing never had to be abolished. Betrayed by bad governance and marginalised by increased intolerance of violence (notwithstanding the very occasional big night), it has been quietly pushed off centre stage. Will American football – the favourite sport of the US, as well as a patriotic showcase and the preferred vehicle for big business interests and mass media – go the same way as boxing?

American football is a brutal game: intense physicality courses through its veins. Recently, I stood on the touchline of the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey watching the New York Jets play the Chicago Bears. From the distance of a few feet, I saw men the size of small trucks charging, marauding and careering towards each other. The collisions were seismic: enormously muscled players, psychologically wound up like coiled springs, intent on imposing their physical dominance.

I have watched many cricket balls, intended to hit me, go past my nose at 90 miles per hour. Yet I gained a new insight into sport’s primal DNA in just a few moments ringside at an American football game.

The fury of the NFL lies in its capacity to combine the brevity and intensity of sprinting with the aggressive intent of boxing. A boxer seeks to hit his opponents on the head, whether scoring punches or knockout blows. Other games demand that violence be abstracted; boxing leaves the darkness pure. Yet a boxer must also evade and endure, over as many as 12 rounds of three minutes. Boxers must be endurance athletes as well as fighters. Each of them, to a greater or lesser degree, blends defence and attack.

Sprinters – although there is no physical contact, let alone confrontation – hone their bodies and minds to operate at the limit of their primal instincts. A sprinter worships explosiveness and hones his fast-twitch muscles, training himself to the full extent of fight-or-flight capacity. Sprinting takes an evolutionary trait and exposes it to cutting-edge science. Where boxing is violence tempered by time and endurance, sprinting isolates explosive power and aggression while divorcing them from violent ambition.

The NFL mixes these two elements to create a compound effect: explosive violence. A typical play lasts only a few seconds, often less. Years of mental and physical conditioning are expressed in a moment of urgent destructiveness. That’s why, for all its tactical sophistication and abundant skill, the NFL boils down sport to its primal residue.

These facts are not new. But other, more disturbing facts are now interacting with football’s underlying rhythms. First and most troubling is brain damage. According to the New York Times, the NFL concedes that it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop “long-term cognitive problems”. Three years ago, the former player Dave Duerson killed himself with a shot to the chest. He was 50 and suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, causing dementia and depression. He hoped to leave his brain in one piece so that his decline could be examined and explained.

Off-field crises proliferate. The celebrated running back Ray Rice was videoed punching and knocking out his fiancée (now his wife) in a lift. He was initially suspended for two games, which became an indefinite suspension when the video became public. Child abuse charges have been initiated against Adrian Peterson, another running back, after he allegedly beat his four-year-old son with a tree branch. He was first cleared to play, before being forced to miss all his matches until the case has been heard.

Logically, intrinsic on-field health risks should be unconnected to a string of off-field scandals. Yet, in reality, the two subjects are intertwined, as the financial imperatives that encourage clubs to forgive erring star players at the peak of their career are the same ones that discourage investigation of injuries that could blight them in their retirement. The more general question is reinforced: just what kind of sport is this?

The NFL has introduced a raft of safety measures. It is now illegal to tackle or charge leading with the crown of the helmet; a neuro-trauma consultant must be present at every match; teams are allowed only one full-contact practice session per day; there is a campaign at youth level to educate players about safety, as well as a $60m programme to develop diagnostic technology.

As an ex-sportsman, I will always defend people’s right – and sometimes need – to take risks. But American football, so strong as a corporate machine, is engaged in unprecedented soul-searching. Barack Obama has said that if he had a son, “I would not let [him] play pro football.” Many of us who love rugby union feel something similar.

Obama’s comment was braver than it sounds to English ears. American football remains the sport of the US establishment. When I discussed Obama’s opinion with Troy Vincent, until recently a star player and now a senior executive at the NFL, he replied with lightness and mischief but also with an underlying seriousness: “That’s one less player for my boys to get past!”

Will American football go the same way as boxing? “Without being prideful, I can’t see that happening. Football is strong. Players are much more educated on these issues around safety,” he added. His final, rousing comment was this: “[American football] is not going anywhere!” But in 2014, something indefinable gave way in the great American love affair with the NFL. Vincent may be right but not necessarily in the way he intended.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article appears in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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