Football, Dogfighting and How the NFL Helps Us Get Off on Violence and Feel Really Good about Ourselves

Earlier this month NFL commissioner Roger Goodell punished Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay with a $500,000 fine and a six month suspension for driving under the influence, possessing unprescribed narcotics, and having $29,000 in cash in his car. The punishment came some seven years after U.S. District judge Henry Hudson sentenced Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick to 23 months in a federal penitentiary for his role running a brutal, violent and for profit dogfighting ring. No consideration was given to punishing Irsay for his role in running a brutal, violent and highly profitable business that does to human beings what Vick and his co-defendants did to dogs.

Obviously Irsay was not on Goodell’s docket for running a person-fighting ring. But this cultural moment does allow us an opportunity to examine our response to Michael Vick through a lens now informed by our growing awareness of football’s human cost. And this examination, in turn, exposes some stunning self-deceits in regards to our deeply complex relationship with human violence.

Is it a stretch to equate the dogfighting ring run by Vick and his co-conspirators to the business run by Irsay and his 31 co-owners?

We are increasingly aware of the toll football takes on its players. While head injuries have gotten the bulk of the press (former NFL players are at least three times more likely to die from brain related diseases than the general population), the carnage is not confined to the brain; the life expectancy for retired NFL players is about 15 years less than that of the average American male and the decline in quality of life due to disability is well documented and epidemic. In 2014 the National Football League grossed $25 billion, with a profit of nearly one billion dollars. This profitability results from the business acumen of the owners, and, like NASCAR, MMA, boxing and many other sports, from the paying public’s compulsive fascination with violence.

So how different are dogfighting and football? Sure, in football the participants are human, they are in theory voluntary (“in theory” because it’s not clear that often poor, not yet adult males with partially developed frontal lobes are “choosing” when they opt for potential short term glory and wealth over distant threats to their health and longevity), and they are rarely outright killed in the course of the game. But aren’t both dogfighting and professional football profitable businesses that cash in, at great expense to the participants, on our fascination with violence? Isn’t it curious that we condemn a sport that is brutal to dogs while we (at worst grudgingly) accept one that is brutal to humans?

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman argues that when faced with complex decisions (including moral dilemmas) we generally get things wrong because we opt for knee-jerk, emotion-based solutions rather than complex and well considered ones. Kahneman, whom Michael Lewis appreciatively called “the king of human error” because of his unsurpassed understanding of the everyday mistakes we make in our thinking, might consider the Vick dogfighting story a case in point. As usually happens in lightning rod cultural moments such as these, moralistic certainty of the kind associated with publicly stoning adulterers (in Vick’s case, widespread, knee-jerk vilification of Vick and dogfighting) obscured harder and more disturbing questions and truths. Considering the Vick narrative in the context of our relationship with the now well-recognized brutality of football, however, exposes these underlying truths. It reveals the degree to which we cloak ourselves in a fabric of hidden, facilitative dishonesties, facilitative because we use them to reassure ourselves of our “goodness” even as we vicariously express our inherently violent, and at best precariously good, human natures.

One of the most frequent, and most powerful, of these dishonesties is racism. Racism allows us to promote our own goodness and superiority by projecting unacceptable and often darker aspects of our own selves onto a different other. Racism is to malignant self-deception as a dead canary is to the noxious gasses in a coal mine; its presence indicates that we are being self-deluding jerks. Surprisingly, the Vick dogfighting narrative was rarely seen as racist, perhaps because there was, as there so often is, a caricatured, oversimplified, parsing of good and evil, and such parsing makes it impossible to consider the real human being behind the denigrated caricature. But the story we constructed holds a motherlode of racism. In a piece for ESPN magazine (“What if Michael Vick Were White?”), talk show host and cultural critic Touré Neblett argued that much of the vilification of Vick stemmed from the public’s feelings about a wealthy black man playing a white man’s position in a “badass” black way. In arguing that race and class were inseparable from the story, he noted that there would never have been a Vick dogfighting story if Vick had been born to white, middle-class parents.

Touré, as he calls himself, is referencing a subtle mode of racism, the kind recently called out by Attorney General Eric Holder in a speech given in response to the Donald Sterling situation. Holder pointed out that for every overt expression of racism, as was the case with Sterling, there is another equally insidious covert expression. In the Vick case, the public was generally savvy enough to call for his “execution” rather than his lynching (the latter being a more obviously racist form of punishment), but covert examples of racism abounded. Perhaps the clearest example can be seen in the way that the public and the press jumped all over Vick and his co-defendants for suggesting that dogfighting had been an accepted part of their culture. These protestations were considered proof that Vick didn’t “get it,” that he was an arrogant (not coincidentally African American) athlete who was unable to learn the proper lessons of repentance and humility.

Why, exactly, was it so outrageous to raise the matter of cultural relativism in this case? Shouldn’t consideration of class and race inject at least a modicum of moral ambiguity here? We’re not talking about ambiguity in terms of criminal guilt; according to our judicial system when you kill someone it doesn’t matter where you came from, and that is probably as it needs to be. Doesn’t there, however, need to be a place among thoughtful people for an appreciation of moral complexity, which requires, among other things, considering states of mind and circumstance?

I believe that dogfighting is cruel and that it should be banned. But I also recognize that this is not a universal belief among some presumably decent people. Dogfighting is still legal in numerous other countries, including Japan and parts of Russia. While bullfighting is beginning to come under fire from animal rights activists, it is a critical part of the cultural heritage in many Latin American countries. Noted anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote about the importance of cockfighting as a Balinese ritual in his book The Interpretation of Cultures. “As much of America surfaces in a ballpark, on a golf link or around a poker table,” he wrote, “much of Bali surfaces around a cock ring.” What’s more, he continues, “every people loves its own form of violence.”

The point here is not to justify dogfighting, but rather to argue that the matter of animals fighting for sport is not an open and shut case of evil. Vick’s plea for a mitigating appreciation of cultural relativism should not have been used as further proof of his moral deviance; it should have led to a more thoughtful consideration of the complexity of his actions. But because all deviations from the norms of white, Western culture were judged to be ignorant, perverse and immoral, this didn’t occur, and instead the story was characterized by the kind of provincial assumptions of cultural superiority that are at the core of both overt and covert racism.

Cultural relativism is not a legitimate defense for cruelty, but the absence of this consideration in Vick’s case should have told us that racism was present, and, as a result, that we were using him as a receptacle for something that we couldn’t stand in ourselves. This realization never happened, however, because we needed him to serve as a kind of anti-avatar, a disavowed symbol of the ubiquitous potential for violence, sadism and brutality that we are loathe to own in our selves.

Our relationship with football is a veritable Petri dish for the kinds of hidden, facilitative dishonesties that allow us to feel good about ourselves even as we indulge our compulsive attraction for violence and brutality while blaming the victim rather than the real perpetrator. NFL players are responsible for a great deal of off-the-field brutality. It’s not only the high profile cases such as Ray Rice, Ray Lewis, Aaron Hernandez, Rae Carruth and now Adrian Peterson; since the 2000 season an average of one in 45 NFL players has been arrested every year. The widespread explanation for this high rate of violence is that football players commit more violent acts because they are inherently more violent people. Maybe this is accurate; professional athletes certainly have more than their share of constitutionally endowed aggression. But couldn’t there be another explanation?

Forty years ago Patty Hearst teamed with her Symbionese Liberation Army kidnappers to rob the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. Photos shocked readers, who learned about Stockholm syndrome; the proclivity of people in violent hostage situations to identify with their captors and become violent themselves. It’s a simple survival mechanism, one that is programmed into our DNA; we survive being the targets of violence by being violent in return. Perhaps like Patty Hearst and others in hostage situations, Michael Vick was doing to dogs the very thing that the NFL was doing to him. The high level of violent behavior among NFL players may be correlated with their relatively aggressive natures, but it is also, surely, a consequence of their work lives. When you spend your day brutalizing and being brutalized, when your testosterone levels are situationally elevated on a chronic basis, when your autonomic nervous system spends half its life in a state of red alert, won’t you be more violent? Heck, it’s the same principal that dogfighting handlers use with their dogs – treat an animal violently and you will create a more violent animal.

Calling criminally-violent football players victims doesn’t mean that they aren’t also perpetrators; the point is not to justify their behavior. The point is that when NFL players commit criminal acts it suits us to demonize them for behaviors similar to those that we idealize in them on Sunday afternoons. If we were to see the players not solely as perpetrators, but also as pawns of a larger host of perpetrators that includes not only the owners but also ourselves the viewers, we would have to acknowledge how much we are like rubberneckers slowing down as we pass a gruesome accident. Oh, right, we just slowed down because the car in front of us…

One final facilitative dishonesty that I’ll mention involves the mental shell game we play in regards to what we deem acceptable violence, and what we deem condemnable. Sean Payton was banned from coaching for one year for Bountygate. But in what way is professional football not a legitimized bounty program? As J.J. Watt and other stars proclaim in a recent ad for fantasy football, “Unnecessary roughness is a necessity.” Not only does the general public make arbitrary distinctions when it comes to what is acceptable, the league itself makes the same kinds of arbitrary distinctions about what is inside and what is outside the “law.” Like racism and victim blaming, this shell game of arbitrary and capricious distinctions regarding acceptable and condemnable violence allows us to vicariously express our darker selves while denying the inconvenient truth of our not so bloodless human potential.

The point is not that dog fighting is ok, or that football is bad, it’s way more complicated than that; there are, as there so often are, simultaneous contradictory truths present. On the one hand dogfighting and football are both for-profit forums for brutality and carnage. That’s pretty bad. At the same time football and dogfighting, along with many other forms of institutionalized violence, serve the necessary civilizing function of channeling our fundamentally aggressive human natures. Good? Not exactly, utility does not justify brutality – after all, the same could be said about public stonings for adultery. But it appears that, at least at this point in our cultural evolution, vicarious, institutionalized expressions of violence and aggression are a necessary thing.

In her analysis of Nazi leaders at the Nuremburg trials, Hannah Arendt showed that all of us, even the most boring and pedestrian among us, have the potential to do evil. Moreover, she argued, immorality and crimes against humanity are not solely the responsibility of evil people; they are in large part the responsibility of everyday people who turn a blind eye to evil, and worse, who unthinkingly participate in it. Because we human beings have in us the ubiquitous potential to break bad, we can’t rely on a naïve trust in our own basic, inherent goodness, or in the assumption that we believe in the right god, to insure our morality. Morality, instead, requires willful, active, ongoing awareness of the myriad unacknowledged, self-serving dishonesties – the moral blind spots – that we use to reassure ourselves of our civility. And evil and immorality grow, much more than we want to admit, not because of the inherently bad eggs among us, but from the unthinking acceptance of the facilitative self-deceits and hypocrisies that we are all prone to engage in.

Ultimately it misses the point to condemn either dogfighting or football; more important are the questions we ask ourselves when we make our judgments. When it comes to the matter of whether or not to watch football, for example, how willing are we to consider the game in the context of our own personal codes of belief? Are we willing to make a choice about whether to watch knowing that an honestly-arrived at decision may mean giving up those Sunday afternoons of pleasure and release? I don’t believe that there is a universally moral answer to the question of whether or not to watch, because I believe that all answers, if they are to be to be meaningful, must be personal. But I do know that it is inarguably and universally immoral not to ask the question.

Mark O’Connell is a psychologist and a psychoanalyst who has a private practice in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. He is on the faculties of the Massachusetts Institute for Psychoanalysis and the Psychoanalytic Family and Couples Institute of New England. He is the author of two books: The Good Father; On Men, Masculinity and Life in the Family (Scribner’s 2005), and The Marriage Benefit (Hachette, 2008). He writes on love, sexuality, authority, parenting and more, and he has appeared on numerous television and radio shows including Today and NPR’s On Point. His blog can be found at nakeddope.com. His personal site can be found at markoconnellphd.com.

You refer with confidence to our “inherently violent, and at best precariously good, human natures.” Soon after, you invoke Arendt’s theories of the banality of evil. You would do well to read Hannah Arendt’s long essay/book entitled “On Violence.” It is possible that I’m mistaken, but I’m pretty sure that her view of such moral matters, and particularly her notion of human identity, does not complement yours. That is, I think it wholly undermines your argument here.

Lawrence Revard    Sep 25, 04:55 PM    #

Sometimes i think people might be executed on american sports fields &, for the most part, i have turned against football. Over the span of ’76—‘80, broke both ankles, neck, & back playing organized football. i’m also against capitol punishment in any form. i might, unwillingly be reinvolved in organized football, however…

Jerome Goering    Nov 7, 04:43 PM    #

This is another example why I will never go to a NFL football game again. Last one I was at in Cleveland, a guy and his 8 year old son had Bengals jerseys on sitting in the “Dawg Pound.” As usual drunken fans were cursing at the guy calling him names. He took the high road at first and didn’t respond but when a drunken fool dumped his beer on him and his son they fought. Pretty sad to see five guys fighting one while his eight year old cried and watched. Just because another fan wears their colors doesn’t mean if you fight him you’re a better fan, you’re just a complete pr**ck. I don’t mean to bash us Browns fans and I know it happens all around but if you can’t hold your liquor please don’t ruin everyones time,

T20 World Cup 2016    Jan 19, 02:25 AM    #

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