Gregg Williams paid his players to injure opponents. Direct hits to the head, neck, and knees, by players carrying an amount of force similar to an automobile. This tears ligaments, breaks bones, and above all, causes concussions. This, above everything else, is the one thing that would make football intolerable. Fixed games, steroids, players with criminal records, instant replay, more commercial breaks, the two-point conversion, expansion—none of these things would even approach the impact of the NFL allowing this to continue.
I'm never loath to quote superhero comics when making a serious point. They deal with issues of such exaggerated importance they'll occasionally give us a moment of really profound wisdom. Here's a chance to use Uncle Ben's best line, from Spiderman: "With great power comes great responsibility." Usually that's the kind of thing that comes up in political situations, but it's almost never applied so literally. These guys carry enormous power on the field. Literal force: they clobber each other. We understand that that creates a risky game, where injuries are a part of life. Legitimate moral questions are raised even in the day-to-day experience of football, and the answer to those questions is deeply tied to the NFL's ability to assume the responsibility created by the violence of the game.
Sometimes the responsibility emerges cleanly: after Kevin Everett was paralyzed after a collision during a kick return in Buffalo, he regained the ability to walk thanks to advanced techniques researched under grants from the league. The NFL also has funded extensive research into concussions, and consistently updates its rules to limit the hits that cause them.
But this is a new ballgame. We're not talking about the incidental risks of a dangerous activity, we're talking about deliberate violence, intended not to win the game but to break the opponent, in ways that destroy seasons, careers, and lives. A sadism induced by thousands of dollars. That's why the NFL needs to bring the maximum penalties in its jurisdiction against Gregg Williams. A lifetime ban is a minimum beginning. Public release of all documents pursuant to the investigation, and availability of league resources to any pending criminal cases or liability suits. And then, they need to find out where else this is happening, and bring down a similar wrath.
Thankfully, most fans are outraged by this, but there are plenty who are saying that this is just part of the game. And they're matched by players who refer to it all as no big deal; just an incidental burst of violence among the rest. This is obviously more evidence of the coarse sadism that I've written about before, but there's a secondary point to be made here: this is evidence of objectification of people.
Objectification is most commonly thought of in terms of sexual objectification, of which plenty has been written. I'm not trying to compare them—but the point is that this is a result of the same phenomenon. Fans stop thinking of the players as people, but something less. Not even animals: Michael Vick's dogfighting ring gained far more universal condemnation than Gregg Williams humanfighting ring. We're looking at men as machines, or perhaps, simulations. We forget that there is a human cost to Sunday's results, and we treat injuries as something more than damage to parts.
We overcome the objectification of football players when we afford them essential human dignity—their safety is public concern, we respect the emotional and physical cost of the game and respond appropriately. To some extent, even fans' resentment of players' ability to negotiate pay for their services smacks of this objectification. The players' personal agency is dismissed. Shut up and play the game. That's what we need to stop.
The players' own indifference to injury or the bounties is no counterproof. They are surely under significant pressure to act as tough as possible, to prove to teammates and coaches and fans that their performance is unimpeded by any personal concerns. Beyond that, they have spent their entire lives in this environment—and in a culture that reinforces it—and are willing to objectify themselves, and take on a false consciousness about their role as humans. This is not to completely dismiss their statements on the matter—resisting objectification demands that their subjective views of the matter be fully relevant—but under no circumstances can this continue.
Roger Goodell, you've been a commissioner with a strong hand in punishment and a crucial concern for player safety. End this now.
Crossposted from the Parthenon Blog.