By Paul Gardner
Bear with me, I'll be getting round to soccer shortly -- after some comments on football and boxing and hockey.
The sports moralizers are, once again, trembling with righteous indignation. The immediate cause of their wrath is the revelation that certain NFL clubs have been handing out financial rewards to their players for deliberately injuring opponents.
A squalid affair, for sure. There is even a menu of these bounties -- the money paid to players for crocking opponents. Thus, $1,500 for a “knockout” (an opponent injured badly enough to be taken out of the game) and $1,000 for a “cart-off” (an opponent carried off the field on a stretcher).
I have seen this referred to as a “blatant violation of football ethics.” But it’s difficult to work out just what those ethics might be. Are we supposed to believe that football players are sworn not to hurt their opponents?
The sport is based on body contact and constant collisions. So vicious is the contact that the players are forced to armor themselves like tanks. That is for their own safety, but of course it also ensures more vicious and more spectacular hits.
In the midst of that muscular maelstrom how is anyone going to sort out which contact is legal and which is dangerous? Which collision has just the right amount of force, and which is so violent as to likely cause serious injury? And if serious injury occurs, was it the result of malicious intent, or simply the product of “good, hard football” -- a phrase used by an NFLer in defense of the bounty scheme.
There is a strong whiff of hypocrisy involved in the condemnation of the bounty scheme in football. It can be detected more clearly by looking at the so-called sport of boxing. Here the “ethics” are clear. The aim is unarguably to do severe damage to the opponent, ideally to knock him senseless. Calculating just how much force that takes and making sure one does not overstep the mark, well we are supposed to believe that boxing has all of that under control.
Alas, severe crippling concussions, and deaths, occur regularly. And are regularly followed by tears and regrets (there is no reason to doubt that they are genuine) and calls for “reforms” to the “sport.” Forget it. The only reform that will prevent boxing from being a barbarous, murderous activity will be its banishment.
Football, one would like to think, is in a different category. But football has its deaths and its tragic paralyzed victims too -- more than boxing, given the greater involvement in the sport.
Pro boxers are paid to harm opponents -- their bounties come with each victory they rack up. That is clear enough, and most people find that acceptable. But the same attitude cannot be applied to real sports. Indeed, the whole uproar over the bounty payments is about that very point -- that football players should not be rewarded for inflicting injuries.
The shallowness of this argument is best illustrated by hockey. Hockey -- at least the NHL version of it -- is a sport that has chosen to allow fighting when it could quite easily ban it. But hockey fighting is a strange business, it occurs as short alien interludes while the sport itself pauses -- rather like an actor momentarily abandoning his role in a play to address an aside to the audience.
A recent article in the New York Times detailed the career of Derek Boogaard, a minimally talented player whose only obvious talents were that he was big and he could fight. So he was trained by his various clubs to be an enforcer. Forget the hockey. Boogaard was being paid -- eventually over $500,000 -- to do damage to opponents during those crude little bouts of bare-knuckle fisticuffs.
So what are football’s defensive players being paid for? For violence, certainly. Nothing as obvious as boxing, nor as cynical as hockey. But violence nonetheless. We’re back to the matter of “football ethics” -- which, presumably, forbid deliberately harming an opponent.
Belatedly, let me consider the victim’s point of view. Does it make much difference to him whether his career-ending injury came as the result of deliberate viciousness, or plain recklessness, or over-zealousness, or was totally accidental?
Doubtful, I’d say. From a legal angle, that first category opens up possibilities of a lawsuit. But the others raise questions about the nature of the sport itself, and whether it is possible to have a contact sport like football without the ever-present danger of serious physical injury.
Hockey makes no bones about including the fighting episodes as an acceptable part of the sport. But football cannot separate violence from regular play. Football players are paid to be violent ... but, the NFL would like to believe, only up to a point. Wherever that point may lie, it is evident that the bounty system tramples on it. In fact, makes it clear that there is no such point, that violence, once unleashed, is mighty difficult to rein in.
Boxers, clearly, hockey players to some extent, and football players as part of their sport, are paid to harm opponents. And the fans pay their money to see exactly that. So why should anyone be offended if the players are offered more money as an incentive to doing their job better?
And so to soccer. I have pointed out before that if football is classified as a contact sport, then we have to find another term for soccer. Football features contact as a basic part of the sport. Soccer is quite different. The original rule-makers went out of their way to drastically limit contact in the game -- and that approach still dominates the rules. A quick look at Rule 12 will underline just how many forms of contact the rules outlaw.
There is plenty of contact in soccer, incidental -- i.e. unintentional -- contact. But so important is it to the sport to keep the contact level low, that much of this unintentional contact is now illegal.
Bounties in soccer, therefore, should be greeted with genuine disgust -- not only are they morally offensive, they are clearly against the rules and the spirit of the sport. They cannot be viewed, or excused, as they can in football, as merely an incentive to play a contact sport a bit harder -- a view that considerably weakens any moral condemnation.
Anyway, the moral judgment I can safely leave to the moralizers. But as far as soccer is concerned, there is another lesson in all this, a sporting lesson if you like. It is directed, sharply, at the so-called enthusiasts of the sport who “like a physical game.”
These are people who pose a huge problem for the sport. One may question -- and I strongly do -- whether they appreciate the true nature of soccer at all. What they are advocating is what the original rule-makers -- those quaint Victorian gentlemen of the 1860s, with their elaborate facial whiskers and their pompous language -- did their best to take out of the game. They wanted a game in which the unique skills of soccer dominated. Those who wanted a physical game promptly broke away and gave birth to the sport of rugby.
The advocates of the physical game - of “good, hard football” should ponder the point at which football has arrived. Once physical play is accepted into a sport -- not as an incidental aspect, but as a fundamental -- there is no way of controlling it.
Football soon found that out. As early as 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt had to intervene with an appeal to reduce the mayhem. Rule changes followed and, of course, the steady accretion of protective clothing. Whether any of that has reduced the appetite for violence one may doubt: “Playing the game with an attitude opposing players absolutely feared. If that meant playing through the whistle, or going low in a tackle, I did it ...” That is not from 1905, but from just a few weeks back, by a player justifying the bounty system.
Soccer has already gone too far down that road. One can now hear, every weekend, television commentators excusing violence, even praising it. Most of these guys are ex-players. Every time they chuckle at a dangerously reckless tackle, every time they praise a player for being “hard-nosed” or any other of the various euphemisms used to avoid calling a thug a thug, every time they speak admiringly of a player who does “the dirty work” without explaining what it is they are talking about, they are betraying their ignorance of soccer’s soul, they are chipping away at the integrity of the sport.
Ultimately, “physical play” is just another euphemism for dirty play. Its proponents will of course deny that. But their argument is weak ... because they simply do not understand either the essence of the game, or its beauty.