For many reasons, I did not watch the Super Bowl this weekend. Some were practical, such as the amount of work I had to do, the number of meetings I had to attend and the absence of Beyoncé from the halftime show. Others were ideological; the Super Bowl commercials would inevitably contain at least a dozen displays of sexism, from women turning into cars to women writhing as they eat hamburgers. My biggest concern with the Super Bowl is more about football as an institution and the way in which it harbors violence. To be clear: There are no studies that have proven any direct causation between football and violence. It would be far too simplistic to say that football as a sport drives people to commit harmful acts. Rather it is the culture of football that creates situations in which violence often occurs.
This past year has given us many striking examples of violence done by the players themselves. Aaron Hernandez is now locked away on murder charges, one of 27 active NFL players to be arrested since the last Super Bowl. At the college level, programs such as Florida State and Vanderbilt have tried to stamp out all accusations of rape allegedly committed by their players. And we can’t forget about the so-called “promising” high school football players of Stubenville, OH who were found guilty of the rape of a minor last summer.
Unfortunately 2013 was far from an exceptional year. Many players of varying levels of play have been charged with violent crimes in recent decades. Several reasons might explain the high incidence of violence on the part of football players; it could be an inflated ego preventing them from thinking that they might get caught. Perhaps men who are predisposed to violence choose to play football. Maybe a person who spends his days tackling men to the ground has lost his sense of reality.
This is where I believe football is distinct from other sports, such as hockey and baseball, which I very much enjoy watching. In football violence is both the end and the means. Every play, even for the extra points, involves rough physical violence, unlike hockey which features occasonal violence that only stops play in the most extreme cases. There are often multiple injuries throughout each football game, and even more as the sport transitions into the post-season.
Despite continuing changes to make certain types of hits illegal, it is nearly impossible to prevent gruesome injuries in such an excessively aggressive sport. Thus the players themselves are also suffering. Men such as Ronney Jenkins have talked openly about their mental health struggles, which they believe to the result of their years in the NFL. He and several other have complained about memory loss, unexplained rage and depression. All of these symptoms are generally attributed to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a certain type of early-onset dementia that is usually brought on by multiple concussions. Indeed, former linebacker Junior Seau, who took his own life two years ago at the age of 43, apparently suffered from the disorder. For its part the NFL has set aside over $100 million for research about the disease. Unfortunately, CTE can now only be diagnosed post-mortem, which leaves living players without much hope for a cure or treatment plan.
Prevention is usually the best medicine, but this is not a feasible treatment option as long as football continues to operate the way that it does. When the goal is to collide with another player, trying to avoid a concussion seems laughable. There is something to be said, however, for on-the-field treatment. NFL rules state that any player who requires medical assistance must sit out for at least one play, presumably to give the staff enough time to identify a concussion. But how many times can a person’s brain be smashed before long-term effects become unavoidable?
The violence of football spurred on by its hypermasculine nature spans beyond those displayed on the field. With over 111 million Americans watching Super Bowl XLVI each year, the event has great power. The ads that are shown in the Super Bowl are a condensed version of those we see every day in nearly every facet of media. Commercials have a great psychological impact that we are just starting to understand, especially for children. It would be unwise to underestimate the importance of the commercials that are shown each year. While viewers are usually spared from ads featuring explicit violence done to women, the presentation of women as objects is the first step to justifying their oppression. And no, the sexist David Beckham ad from last year does not somehow even out the score.
The mascots and logos of each team can also be violent. These images, found in high schools, college and the NFL, frequently display blatant and inexcusable racism. At the national level, the Washington football team is the most flagrant. The use of racist stereotypes of Native American peoples as mascots is steeped in a complete disregard for Native sovereignty. The images exist out of an understanding of Native peoples as extinct, or as a part of history. Those who try to justify the mascots begin to sputter out words like “honoring” and “harmless” as though racial slurs that mock a lengthy history of violent conquest are not worth changing. The harm comes from their being plastered over everything from jerseys and t-shirts to fan-made signs at games that liberally use the term “scalp” where people fail to find a problem with offensive appropriation. This issue is not unique to football but it is certainly a part of the culture of the sport.
For all of the violence that football harbors and perpetuates, I don’t know whether there is a solution. When it comes to football, many forgo logic for the sake of the tradition. There are, however, common sense steps that could help to eliminate the most harmful aspects. Educating high school and college-aged students on what exactly constitutes rape would be a start, as would providing retired NFL players with mental health resources. The Super Bowl will continue to draw viewers for a long time, and that is unlikely to change. What these viewers see before, during, and after the event is what matters.
—Meaghan Hughes ’15 is a psychology major.