It’s snowing here in Cincinnati this morning. It’s this Winter’s first measurable snow in Southern Ohio.
Only fitting. The weather provides me and perhaps thousands of other people to reflect upon what happened at Paul Brown Stadium last night. The headlines will report that the Cincinnati Bengals lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The score was 18-16 and one writer declared that the loss was the Bengals their worst ever. Paul Daugherty wrote that the game “descended into brutal, chaotic farce.”
Daugherty’s assessment is on the mark from what I witnessed. It was a violent, emotionally volatile, frenetic game between two teams who truly disrespect and dislike one another. The ruckus began early in the week when NFL warned both teams to avoid scuffling. That’s seems like a sham given an unspoken truth that the NFL’s popularity is inherently connected to the competitive, violent nature of football. The NFL’s public image suffers because of its apparent subjective and occasional disregard for players conduct and reservations to prevent concussions and other traumatic physical injuries. The bottom line is what counts and what counts is the fact that the NFL’s revenues from corporate sponsors rose about $1.0o billion in 2015. Attendance at games rose too.
Strong, athletic men running around with helmets, pads, and unbelievable physical skills who compete against one another to win a “Super Bowl” provokes fanaticism. It sells even more with sponsors and fans when these football players willingly hit one another hard enough to cause concussions, ligament tears, and any number of other injuries. Fines, on-field penalties, and game suspensions hardly seem to reduce professional football’s popularity, or on-field violence.
Let me be clear, I am a fan. I stopped driving for Uber last night so that I could come home and watch the game. I yelled at the teams and the referees as if I was in the stands. I bemoaned the Bengals’ ineptitude for the first three quarters while mocking Ben Roethlisberger when he left the field of play with an injured shoulder following a vicious tackle. He would return to lead a game-winning drive in less than two minutes. Well, that’s sort of true. The Steelers actually won because two Bengals players lost their poise and were penalized respectively for a personal foul and unsportsmanlike conduct.
What happened? Well – often penalized linebacker Vontaze Burfict knocked out Steelers Wide Receiver Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger threw an incomplete pass toward Brown and Burfict went out of his way to hit Brown in the head with his own shoulder and helmet. Brown crumpled to the ground almost immediately. Players and coaches from both benches came onto the field and scuffled at least verbally. This altercation led to Bengals’ defensive back Adam Jones arguing with and perhaps bumping a referee. (He later tried to justify his behavior with this diatribe).
These outbursts resulted in 30 yards worth of penalties and an opportunity for the Steelers’ placekicker, Chris Boswell, to win the game with a fairly short field goal. Steelers’ linebacker Ryan Shazier summed it up well in many ways with a very simple statement. Shazier called last night’s event “the funnest, scariest game I’ve been in.” (I should note that Shazier was not penalized for a dangerous play when he led with his helmet to tackle Bengals’ running back Giovani Bernard, causing a fumble – and an injury to Bernard. Bernard left the game with a concussion following the play).
Professional playoff football is fun, scary,violent, and profitable. Those are successful metrics in a egoistic, consumptive, economically charged, and raucous society such as the one present in the United States in 2016. Former football player and current Sports commentator Tom Jackson just said something on ESPN about the fans’, coaches’, and players’ conduct that’s really relevant. Jackson said; “we have to figure out who we are.” Are (am) we (I) people (a person) who become(s) so emotionally charged that we (I) want(s) opponent players to be severely injured or die? Are we (I) people (a person) who love(s) a game so much that we (I) scream at inanimate television sets at people who are not tuned in to what we (I) say? Will we continue to support a recreational business that creates such anger, between people. I think the answer is yes. I believe there is a sort of gladitorial effect in the United States just as there was in ancient Rome. The NFL’s football players may not fight one another or wild animals to the death as ancient gladiators did and they surely do willingly “play” against one another to the point of causing life-changing injuries, including traumatic brain injuries.
My last blog post covered some aspects of what was going on in Cincinnati leading up to last night’s game. This is a diverse and growing Midwest city. Last night’s game doesn’t do much for promoting Cincinnati. Some fans really acted like undisciplined children, if not worse. Throwing objects toward the field in an effort to injure or mock a player will most likely wind up injuring another fan or a staff worker. I think I’ve written enough about the conduct of the players on both teams.
I intend for this blog to be a blog about spirituality, not sports. Yet, there is a connection I think. One of the first things I contemplated this morning is the impact of our collective unconscious during events such as NFL playoff games. How much of the hooliganism that we witness at football (soccer) games in Europe or NFL games in the United States is due to some sort of archetypal connections the participants, fans, coaches, NFL executives, commentators share with one another. Regardless of that fact…participating in or watching a violent sport such as football requires a well defined level of consciousness.
Ultimately, remaining in the moment (the now) is so key because the emotional and neurological consequences of being an NFL fan or player are truly addictive, compulsive, and potentially unbridled. It is really easy to become suddenly “unconscious” in heated scenarios such as the NFL playoffs. What does that mean to a common sports fan who values remaining spiritually healthy?
It may mean that such a fan will discontinue endorsing and allocating one’s fiscal, emotional, and spiritual wellness to the game. One of the people I admire most in the world, The Rev’d Dr. Gil Stafford, has made such a choice. Fans and players alike, if they choose not to quit participating in the game, must otherwise consciously continue to ask themselves: Who are we? Who am I? Do I understand cognitively and mindfully my current emotional state? Am I balanced and calm enough outside of emotionally charged events to bring such presence and fortitude into the “now” of life’s numerously violent playing fields?
Some years ago, popular columnist George Will pronounced that “Football can’t be fixed.” Will wrote: “accumulating evidence about new understandings of the human body — the brain, especially, but not exclusively — compel the conclusion that football is a mistake because the body is not built to absorb, and cannot be adequately modified by training or protected by equipment to absorb, the game’s kinetic energies.” (Will, August 2012, para. 15). I’d submit that Bengals’ fans in Cincinnati are unwilling to accept such a verdict about their football team, regardless of whether or not the Bengals have lost their last seven playoff games. The NFL is too big to fail. However, each of us who (un)consciously participate in this event whether we be Marvin Lewis, Vontaze Burfict, the fan in Section 50, or me the Uber Driver all have to be completely present to what is going on when the lid gets blown off of a playoff game as it did last night. Is this something that is just an issue in Cincinnati or is it indicative or something more. Are all of the billions of dollars and minutes spent in this recreational business worth the cost of human injury and spiritual dissonance. What criteria would we use to discern our responses on a moment to moment, day – to – day basis?
It has stopped snowing. I imagine the roads will be clear soon and I’ll probably drive some more later today. I’ll be attending to what people say and how “awake” they are to what unfolded in Cincinnati over the past few hours. What will the nature of our discourse be? Time and purpose will tell. Here’s a concluding thought for my drive. I get riled up when I watch NFL games. I, at least implicitly, offer my consent to football players, coaches, and the NFL business to continue making money with a gladiatorial industry. Am I willing to let go of football for the rest of the day….?