In explaining why pro football had just knocked baseball off its century-long perch as America’s most popular sport, the league’s authors did not shy away from the sport’s primal, magnetic allure.
That is, its violence.
“America has created her own vicarious warfare,” the book’s preface reads. “Professional football is basically a physical assault by one team upon another in a desperate fight for land.”
Think such a passage would ever get past the league’s Manhattan headquarters today? Not a chance, and we all know it.
The 1969 incarnation of the NFL practically glorified the game’s bloodlust appeal. By contrast, today the league practically disowns it.
The harshness of commissioner Roger Goodell’s suspensions in the New Orleans Saints ‘bounty-gate’ scandal — which he upheld Monday — is partially rooted in this.
Listen. I’m sure not defending anything the Taints did under head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. As I have previously written, their actions were deplorable, and good on Goodell and his iron fist for squashing them. Had to be done.
And I get it that hundreds of former players, or their survivors, are suing the league for failing to warn NFLers about, or protect them from, concussions.
But as an old football coach once said, this is not a sport for “ping-pong players and dancing boys.” It is a violent game. Trailblazing young commissioner Pete Rozelle understood this in the late 1960s and shrewdly exploited that fact for marketing purposes.
Are Goodell and the league today so hell-bent on improving player safety as to take the game in a diametric direction? Seems that way sometimes. They must be careful not to go too far. The finality of the ‘bounty-gate’ sanctions is a good time to raise this issue.
The comments various NFLers told league historians for that book in 1969 surely still apply:
Wayne Walker, linebacker, Detroit Lions: “Anybody who says this game is beastly, brutal and nasty, he’s right. You are out there to inflict punishment, but not to take it. You want to be the hitter not the hittee.”
Ernie Stautner, tackle, Pittsburgh Steelers: “It’s a feeling of exhilaration. Boy, you really knocked the hell out of that guy. You just feel great because you hit somebody.”
Howard Mudd, guard, San Francisco 49ers: “Football is a violent game. You are physically attacking another person. To do this, you almost have to change your personality to break down some of the things taught you, because this is not accepted in our society.”
Andy Russell, linebacker, Pittsburgh Steelers: “The fans wouldn’t like football without the hitting … If you take away the contact, you take away the danger and the discipline. It would be all fancy guys.”
Today’s non-fancy NFL guys are way bigger, way faster, way better conditioned than they were in 1969 — and no less nasty.
Today’s NFL just can’t cozy up to the latter point.
George Carlin was right, damnitall. Society is becoming one big, watered-down — and ultimately dishonest — euphemism. People don’t die anymore, as Carlin lamented a while back; they merely “pass away.” Not long before he himself died, Carlin observed that it had gotten worse, and he nailed it again when he acerbically asked, “Can’t anyone in this country die anymore without someone placing a teddy bear next to a fence?”
How much longer do you think we’ll see retro programs on the NFL Network glorifying hard hits and hard hitters? Not much longer, I fear. If it comes to the point where the NFL can no longer champion Dick Butkus, you know something’s very wrong indeed.
The league needs to understand that it still can embrace what it is, and at the same time distance itself from what it is not. Chuck Howley, a Dallas linebacker in 1969, understood that.
“A big man, he needs this physical contact. He needs to get beat up once in a while, and the football field is one place that he can go and do it,” Howley said in that old, smelly NFL history book of mine.
“On the other hand … I don’t think anybody is out there to put somebody in a hospital, or end his career.”
What he said … a few Saints notwithstanding.