Football is a violent sport. The physical damage caused by this violence makes football an unethical sport. The violent acts that football players commit off the field are an extension of the violence they engage in on the field. These are common statements, especially in recent years. But if we look at the ways that football’s hitting is practiced and policed, it turns out that the game – and its players – are not inherently violent.
In her 1970 book, On Violence, political theorist Hannah Arendt made the radical claim that “power and violence are opposites.” At first glance, this statement might appear mostly commonsensical. We often think of acts of violence, like a riot or a fist fight, as contrary to political order – they are violations of the social contract. Violence often seems to appear when, in Arendt’s words, “power is in jeopardy.” For example, when governments lose the authority to govern and incur the wrath of the people, armed revolutions tend to break out: violence appears when power disappears.
But Arendt’s suggestion that power and violence are opposites is more provocative than it initially seems, because it also applies to the state-sponsored use of violence. That is, when the riot police are deployed or when the guns are drawn, what we are seeing is not the manifestation of power but rather the absence of power. According to Arendt: “Politically speaking, the point is that loss of power becomes a temptation to substitute violence for power.” In other words, throwing a punch or mobilizing an armoured vehicle is not a demonstration of power but rather a compensation for the loss of power. Therefore, if Arendt is right, wherever we see violence or threats of violence, power is also under threat, unstable or “in jeopardy.”
I want to perform a kind of thought experiment by applying Arendt’s theory of violence to American football.
We reflexively – almost automatically – speak about football as a violent game. It is made up of hitting and tackling, players throwing each other to the ground with great force. These activities routinely cause hurt and bodily damage. Players bleed and break bones and sprain ligaments; they suffer brain injuries when one player’s armored body crashes into another player’s helmeted head.
However, an immediate problem emerges when we try to think about sport violence using Hannah Arendt terms. In numerous ways, football appears to support power rather than threaten it.
Consider, for example, that in the United States football is the centerpiece of many high school and college athletic programs. Even if the sport’s benefits are understood to be more economic than educational, the football team is still sewn into the fabric of these cultural institutions. Similarly, the occurrence of football games doesn’t seem to threaten the stability of municipal or state governments. On the contrary, these governments contribute hundreds of millions of dollars towards the construction of professional football stadiums on the grounds that the Minnesota Vikings and the Indianapolis Colts somehow serve the public good. When Monday Night Football comes to Minneapolis, power does not appear to be in any jeopardy.
When we recall that every football game begins with the singing of the national anthem and that Super Bowl Sunday has become the biggest television event in the country and a kind of quasi-national holiday, it becomes obvious that the sport of football doesn’t jeopardize political power or the social contract in the same way that an armed robbery or a drunken brawl does.
In fact, one curious thing about the nature of football – and all sport, really – is how it seems to mimic structurally the political. That is, there are rules that govern conduct on the field, much as there are rules that govern conduct in the community. While the game of football itself is made up of shoving and tackling as well as avoiding contact, the activities that make up a football game are hemmed in by a series of rules and regulations not unlike the laws that govern human behaviour in other arenas. There are rules against hitting after play has stopped, for example. It is likewise illegal for a defensive player to make contact with the opposing quarterback’s head or to tackle him below the knee, because the quarterback is thought to be particularly vulnerable when in the act of throwing a pass. And while forceful tackles are common, a defensive player is not allowed to hit a “defenseless” receiver, one who is unready or unable to brace himself for the impact of the hit.
Importantly, violence appears to interrupt and disrupt the order of football games in much the same way it interrupts the political order. For instance, in September 2014, Philadelphia Eagles left tackle Jason Peters was ejected from a game for striking an opposing player in retaliation for what he thought was a dirty hit. A month later Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly was ejected from a game for inadvertently laying hands on a referee.
So, football seems not to disrupt the political order like other acts of violence do, and within the game of football, inappropriate violence can break out just like it does in a crowded bar or in a schoolyard. Following Arendt’s understanding of violence then, it seems reasonable (though somewhat counterintuitive) to suggest that football is not actually violent, or, more precisely, that football is not actually a form of violence. As Arendt’s definition suggests, the appearance of violence is not marked by bodily damage but by the disruption of order and the social contract.
The idea that forceful and often injurious contact in football is not actually a form of violence may be hard to accept. Some illustrative examples might be useful here:
First, there is, in the minds of fans, players, and officials, a categorical difference between a “clean hit” and a “dirty hit.” If a player is injured on a clean hit, we speak of the injury as unfortunate, if not accidental. If a player is injured as a result of a cheap shot, we demand justice or retribution. Violence, then, seems not to be tied precisely to the damage done to the body.
Second, consider context. If an adult man forcefully grabs the wrist of his young daughter to prevent her from running into traffic, we would not, I think, define that as violence. If the same man applies the same force to the wrist of an adult woman on the street, a woman who does not want to be touched or restrained, we would, I think, consider this violence. Thus, context and the relationship between participants seem to be crucial to our definitions.
Arendt’s theory of violence disrupts (or at least challenges) the way we talk about “violent” sports and their risks to athlete safety. In this framework, it is correct to say that football is dangerous but not violent. Perhaps we should think about football in the same way we think of rock-climbing or snowboarding. We worry about the safety of snowboarders, but we typically don’t wring our hands about the “ethics” of watching snowboarding. We are anxious about young snowboarders injuring themselves, but no one seriously suggests that snowboarding is exploitative, immoral, or irresponsible.
Arendt’s theory might also inform some topical and urgent conversations about off-field violence committed by pro athletes. For instance, it may be that the perceived lines of continuity between on-field aggression and off-field violence, such as domestic violence, do not actually exist. The activity of carrying a ball and extending one’s arm into an opponent’s helmeted face, shoving him to the ground while rushing towards the end zone, is fundamentally different from striking another person in anger in an elevator.
Football is a sport, a dangerous sport but not a violent one. A football player may commit acts of violence, but he is not violent by virtue of being a football player.
Andrew Moore teaches literature and political philosophy at St Thomas University in New Brunswick.