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The NFL and Violence: A Dangerous Love Story

From helmet-optional beginnings to lenient punishments for domestic violence, the history of the National Football League is one that prioritizes profits over people.

by Steven Blum
Dec 10 2015, 7:00pm

Photo by Cliff McBride via Getty Images

If you've ever walked past a sports bar on a Sunday, you've likely seen NFL fans cheering, howling, grimacing, and clenching their fists, invested in the events on screen with a seriousness no reality show or awards ceremony lover can match. Unironic displays of emotion, color-coordination, and comfort hugging strangers seem to be prerequisites for joining the club. For the snob, or gay man, it's baffling. Okay, you think, but why such a fuss?

"To be a football fan is to enter a world where you can paint your face, whoop and holler, and wear the silliest hat you can find—provided it's in team colors," wrote Hampton Stevens, defending the sport in the Atlantic in 2010. "You can be primal, tribal in a way that's simply not socially acceptable in any other context. If life-and-death issues were at stake, it wouldn't be entertainment."

One could argue that interest in the NFL continues with fervent intensity because the League represents a kind of animalistic masculinity at a time when we're all mostly Snapchatting and Candy Crushing, feeling so detached from our hunter-gatherer instincts that we have to go to the gym just to feel alive. Football, in theory, allows us to access our aggressive animal instincts without hurting anyone.

Except, in many ways, it does hurt someone. Because the history of the NFL is one in which players' mental and physical health, as well as the safety of those around them, has been sacrificed on the altar of entertainment.

The Chicago Bears in 1924. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Origins

The NFL was born at the Jordan and Hupmobile auto showroom in Canton, Ohio, in 1920. Initially called the American Professional Football Conference, the group's goal was to "raise the standard of professional football in every way possible, to eliminate bidding for players between rival clubs and to secure cooperation in the formation of schedules." Among the League's 11 founding clubs were quaintly named groups like the Dayton Triangles and the Decatur Staleys. The League quickly expanded, soon after including an all-Native-American team called the Oorang Indians, which sold dogs during halftime as a "big publicity stunt."

Long before the NFL's formation, professional football had gained traction in states across America, including California, Oregon, and Washington, according to the book NFL Football: A History of America's New National Pastime by Richard C. Crepeau. Success of the teams, even then, relied on publicity. Managers were required to coordinate with the local press, make travel arrangements, create advertising, and drum up civic support.

You can be primal, tribal in a way that's simply not socially acceptable in any other context.

While the game was first played by the sons of the American elite in the 1860s—Princeton and Rutgers held the first intercollegiate football contest in New Brunswick, New Jersey—the professional variation of the football was "scorned and ridiculed by the college crowd," according to Keith McCellan, author of The Sunday Game: At the Dawn of Professional Football.

At the heart of the upper class's derision was the notion that players were selling their skills for money, which was considered distasteful because of antiquated distinctions between professional and amateur sportsmanship imported from Britain, Crepeau wrote. To keep the illusion of amateurism alive, owners would pay players under the table and allow them to play under pseudonyms. Blue-collar workers, however, didn't care about these distinctions; the aggressive game became increasingly popular in America's Midwestern factory towns.

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Regardless, fans were rabid from the get-go: when an iconic "golden boy" named Red Grange first signed with the Chicago Bears in 1925, police had to restrain the crowd from mobbing him. While many say that TV was what gave professional football its power over American culture, this was the true beginning of the sport's reign. A standing room–only crowd of 36,000 showed up to see Grange begin his professional career on Thanksgiving Day at Cubs Park, and the receipts from the game were so enormous that, according to Crepeau, they caused team manager George Halas to openly weep.

The NFL and Television

Football's rise in popularity is even more notable when you consider the stronghold baseball previously had on the national consciousness. "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better know baseball," wrote Jacques Barzun in his 1954 book God's Country and Mine. But that quickly became untrue: Between 1961 and 1972, according to the book America's Game by Michael MacCambridge, the number of Americans who said pro-football was their favorite sport rose by 15 percent, while baseball fandom slid from 34 to 21 percent.

Today, journalists overanalyze every 30-second ad that appears in between plays of the Super Bowl because the game isn't just a violent competition but a shared cultural experience. One hundred eleven million Americans—more than a third of the population of the country—tuned into last year's Super Bowl, more than a third of the population of the United States.

The synergistic relationship between the NFL and TV networks has been evolving ever since sets started popping up in homes in the 1950s. Before football, Sunday afternoon was a programming "ghetto," according to James L. Baughman's book Same Time, Same Station: Creating American Television, 1948–1961, featuring dry public affairs shows. The NFL provided a novel solution: Football was engaging, yet offered frequent breaks, so it televised well. As its popularity grew, so did ratings.

By the mid-1950s, both networks and big advertisers were joyfully sucking on the teet of the NFL. According to Crepeau, in 1956 CBS was paying $1 million—over $8.7 million adjusted for inflation today—for TV rights, and the advent of the timeout made it easy to integrate commercial breaks into the game.

As football's popularity grew, so did ratings.

(Today, of course, $8 million would be an insane bargain. Collectively, the NFL made $7.2 billion in TV revenue sharing last year, and that number will likely climb.)

While initially the NFL needed television to survive, the relationship inverted over time. Now, according to Crepeau, the NFL gets to dictate what it wants, in terms of "money, time access, imagery, primetime availability, control over announcers, and advertising."

Television programs once glorified the brutality of the game—specials like The Violent World of Sam Huff in the 1960s featured players crashing into each other set to classical music, "giving it a balletic sort of look," Crepeau said in an interview with Broadly—but as awareness of concussions grew, the packaging of the sport evolved to downplay the violence. Announcers changed the way they described plays. "The vocabularies of announcers changed: Instead of talking about violent hits, they talk about, 'Oh that was a hard hit.'"

Leather football helmet from the 1930s. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

No Pain, No Traumatic Brain Injury

Helmets are supposed to help with this, but in the beginning, they were optional. Those who wore them favored the leather-bound variety, which—as one might imagine—provided minimal protection. It wasn't until the early 1940s that the plastic helmet appeared, and even then there was a problem with the plastic mix that caused many of them to shatter.

Fearing exploding hard hats, the NFL banned the helmet for a year, and then reintroduced a padded version, which was still open-faced—i.e., unhelpful for preventing black eyes and fractured noses. It would take more than ten years before a single face bar was added to the padded plastic helmet, thanks to inventor Paul Brown. The bars were arranged in a number of artful formations, some of which looked like an Iron Man mask, and others like a wedgie (today dozens of face mask designs are available, offering a range of protection and visibility).

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By 1952, a study had appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine urging players who had suffered three concussions to leave football forever for their own safety; that would be just the beginning of a concerted campaign by scientific and medical community to require the NFL to take better care of the safety of their employees.

The NFL first acknowledged the threat that concussions posed to players in 1994, forming the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee to study brain trauma. The group was headed by Elliot Pellman, a rheumatologist who claimed to have studied at Stony Brook, but who actually attended medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico. He told Sports Illustrated, "Concussions are part of the profession, an occupational risk, like a steelworker who goes up 100 stories, or a soldier."

The essence of the medical community's recommendations was the not-so-radical idea that players who had been knocked unconscious should be removed from a game. The NFL rejected the idea; one consultant told the press, "We see people all the time that get knocked out briefly and have no symptoms."

Concussions are part of the profession, an occupational risk, like a steelworker who goes up 100 stories, or a soldier.

A study in 2000 found otherwise. Of the 61 percent of players who had sustained concussions, "49% had numbness or tingling; 28% had neck or cervical spine arthritis; 31% had difficulty with memory; 16% were unable to dress themselves; and 11% were unable to feed themselves."

Not only did the NFL continue to deny that repeated head trauma caused irreversible brain damage, they didn't even require players to wear a specific type of helmet that could help reduce the risk of injury. Up until 2014, players could wear whatever helmet they wanted, so long as it contained a chinstrap and a face mask. It wasn't until last year that the NFL announced a new committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment that, they said, would address concussions.

Ray Rice in 2009. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The NFL and Domestic Violence

When Ray Rice was videotaped dragging his wife's beaten, unconscious body out of an elevator, he was suspended for two games. Later, the League amended their discipline policy, subjecting offending players to a suspension of six games for a first offense, "with consideration given to mitigating factors, as well as a longer suspension when circumstances warrant." A second offense is now grounds for being banned from the League.

It may seem like common sense—most workplaces don't employ active criminals—but the rule is unprecedented in the history of the NFL. The new suspension for first offenders is four times what the average suspension has been in the past, and the clause that ultimately banishes players from the League is the harshest punishment the NFL has ever put into place. In the past, the NFL has treated domestic abuse lightly; in some cases, players charged with beating their wives have been punished less severely than those caught in possession of marijuana.

The NFL has lost its way. It doesn't have a Ray Rice problem; it has a violence against women problem.

Compared to other personal conduct violations, punishing players who abuse their wives or girlfriends has been much less of a priority, at least until recently. According to FiveThirtyEight, the average number of games a player was suspended for violating any personal conduction violations was three under the old policy; for the 15 cases of domestic violence that were punished under it, the average number of games suspended was half that, at just 1.5.

And there have been many, many instances of players abusing their wives throughout the history of the NFL. Most famously and recently, Greg Hardy tossed his girlfriend against a wall, threw her on a futon strewn with guns, and choked her until she begged him to "kill me."

In all, according to a USA Today NFL arrests database, 77 players across 27 of the League's 32 teams have been arrested since 2000 on charges of domestic violence. There are currently 44 active NFL players accused of sexual or physical assault.

The NFL and Women

If you look past the abuse, assault, and pandering, the NFL is just like any other massive, capitalist enterprise: equally as beholden to women as it is to men for its economic survival.

Women are pro football's fastest-growing and most important demographic, comprising an estimated 45 percent of the NFL's 150 million American fans, according to the Washington Post, and there have been efforts to involve them in the sport for decades. A pamphlet for women from the 1960s by Pat Kiley purports to answer the hard-hitting questions women might have about the game, including why it's played and what ladies should do during breaks (it involves preparing food):

Between the halves, there is a 15-minute intermission during which the players leave the field. They go to their dressing rooms and rest. And you go into action: make a beeline for the refreshment stand, hunt for the ladies' room, chat with friends, check who's with whom, and who's wearing what, or simply enjoy the half-time show. This, of course, refers to your activity at the stadium. If you are at home watching a televised game, your half-time is usually spent on KP! Many a stew has been stirred, casserole checked, or dinner table set during these 15 minutes (see menus, page 10).

Today, the NFL sponsors features like the "Savvy Girl's Guide to Football" in Marie Claire magazine and partners with brands like CoverGirl to encourage lady fans to catch the "fandemonium" by getting "fanicures."

But as long as players are beating their wives and girlfriends, it'll likely take more than makeup to ensure women don't give up on the sport. In early September of last year, Terry O'Neill, the president of the National Organization for Women, called for the NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, to resign in the hopes that his ousting could bring about systemic change in the way domestic abusers are punished within the league. "The NFL has lost its way," she wrote. "It doesn't have a Ray Rice problem; it has a violence against women problem."

Make a beeline for the refreshment stand, hunt for the ladies' room, chat with friends, check who's with whom, and who's wearing what, or simply enjoy the half-time show.

Six days later, Goodell announced the hiring of Lisa Friel (a NY-based lawyer who spent 28 years prosecuting sex crimes), Jane Randel (co-founder of the domestic violence prevention initiative "No More" in 2009), and Rita Smith (a longtime advocate with the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence) to "help lead and shape the NFL's policies and programs relating to domestic violence and sexual assault." The League also promoted Anna Isaacson, formerly the NFL's VP of community relations and philanthropy, to the role of vice president of social responsibility. During the last Super Bowl, the NFL also ran a much-lauded anti-domestic violence advertisement.

Nevertheless, it'll probably take a lot more than a few consultants and PR-friendly donations to "change the culture" at the NFL; when women speak out against abusers in the League, they fear pushback from hostile fans unwilling to admit that their on-field heroes could be off-field assholes (and from the League itself)—if they're willing to speak out at all. For now, considering the harm the League has done to both women and cerebrums, it continues to be amazing to many that anyone watches it at all—let alone one-third of all Americans.

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