By John David Dyche
It is almost time for voting to begin in the presidential campaign so candidates are finally talking about issues people care about. Like football.
Donald Trump recently said football "has become soft, and our country has become soft." He accused NFL referees of throwing penalty flags to impress their wives watching the games on television.
The Republican poll leader continued: "What used to be considered a great tackle; violent head-on. You used to see these tackles, and it was incredible to watch,” Trump said. “Now they tackle -- 'Oh, head-on-head collision, 15 yard [penalty]’ -- the whole game is all screwed up. You say, 'Wow, what a tackle.' Bing. Flag."
Trump asked, "It’s a Sunday, who the hell wants to watch these crummy games?" Well, Donald, lots of people do.
There are plenty of problems with football. Insufficient violence is not one of them, however.
As the incredible number of injuries this season makes clear, and as a cursory view of NFL games would confirm, the game is plenty brutal. Steps to address the epidemic of concussions and limit hits on defenseless players are being taken at all levels, although referees are sometimes inconsistent in applying these new rules.
Trying to be smarter about player health and safety does not mean that football has gone soft. Such reforms may not only save the sport, but are also in the Republican Party’s best traditions.
As has been well-chronicled, that great Republican Theodore Roosevelt played an important role in saving football early last century. According to the Washington Post, "at least 45 football players died from 1900 to October 1905, many from internal injuries, broken necks, concussions or broken backs."
Trump would have really enjoyed the game back then, but Roosevelt urged radical reforms to make football safer. If he had not done so the sport that is now America’s most popular might not have survived.
While there is more to do on the safety front, football faces another serious problem on the player conduct front. The modern game is becoming repulsive in many respects.
The NFL has endured an epidemic of thuggishness this season. For example, star receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. of the New York Giants, the coverboy for the popular Madden video game, and star defensive back Josh Norman of the Carolina Panthers recently staged a disgusting display of late and dirty hits and trash-talking that produced a one-game suspension for Beckham.
The Cincinnati Bengals lost a long-sought playoff win last weekend when linebacker Vontaze Burfict (whom other teams refused to draft due to behavior issues) and defensive back Adam Jones (who has had multiple arrests and was suspended for an entire season) committed dumb and ugly late game personal fouls. Former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esaison spoke for many when he tweeted: "What a disgrace; an embarrassment."
It did not help the sport's image that a few Bengal fans pelted Pittsburgh Steeler star Ben Roethlesberger with trash as he was being carted off the field with an injury. Adding to the sad spectacle were arrests of fans, including more than one incident of men hitting women and another of a man urinating on someone seated in the row in front of him. (The Steelers and their fans are not angels.)
Nowadays, after relatively routine receptions, runs, or tackles, players launch into attention-seeking celebrations that resemble a one-man Broadway play more than an adult doing his job. Touchdowns are followed by highly choreographed "look at me" moments intended to taunt vanquished foes.
All this is playing out against the backdrop of the NFL’s mishandling of serial situations of domestic abuse and the New England Patriots so-called "Deflategate" cheating scandal. While none of it seems to have adversely affected the game’s popularity or, more importantly, its profitability, it does have an impact beyond the playing field.
You see, the kids are watching. The increasingly obnoxious aspects of professional football are not the example that should be set for young players and fans.
There are many positive role models among NFL players, and plenty of them conduct themselves with class, discipline, restraint, and respect both on and off the field. Still, the NFL could benefit from increased emphasis on sportsmanship and respect for opponents.
Some will object to anything that they think will take the “fun” out of the game. Others will ridiculously resist changes that rein-in "self-expression."
Trump is right in suggesting that America and Americans benefit from tough football. General Douglas Macarthur, a former football player himself, famously said, "Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory."
A kind of football that is tough, but also clean, safe, and sportsmanlike, can still be good for our country. A kind of football that is excessively violent, thuggish, and selfish bodes ill for our country.
Fans, and citizens, should demand that football put its house in order before the great game we love descends further into a deplorable “bread and circuses” spectacle fit for a decaying culture. Meanwhile, Trump is wrong about football as he is so much else.
(John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.)
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