Benner/Sports and Opinion and Sports Business

BENNER: Violence in sports is supply meeting our demand to win

May 19, 2012

The most celebrated line from the long-standing Pogo comic strip by the late cartoonist Walt Kelly is, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Kelly, in the day a noted conservationist, was taking aim at pollution/polluters.

Today, his line has other applications.

For example, the National Football League.

The recent suicide of former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau is the latest exclamation point to growing concern about the violence that is part of football, especially in the NFL.

The theory—not proven—is that Seau killed himself with a gunshot wound specifically to the chest so that his brain would be left undamaged and therefore available for scientific examination to determine whether he was suffering from the long-term effects of helmet-banging endemic to the game of football.

Yet violence was Seau’s calling card during his storied career. Someone wrote that he inflicted more pain on opponents than any player in the history of the NFL. Football fans in general and, certainly, those in San Diego—where Seau spent most of his career—relished Seau’s ability to deliver jarring hits.

They would be the stuff of thunderous ovations from the adoring masses, replayed time and again on ESPN and highlight shows. The toll those spectacular blows might have been taking on Seau himself was not even a thought.

We were paying to witness violence with the hope that it would lead to winning. Seau, though well compensated for doing so, was giving us what we—the media, fans and popular culture—want.

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

In New Orleans, the populace is wrestling with “Bountygate,” and the systematic delivery of bonus payments if Saints defenders could take out opposing stars for at least a game, if not their careers.

America seems aghast that the bounties were evidently part of a Saints culture that passed from the general manager to the head coach to his assistants to the players themselves. Yet, when I was in New Orleans for the Final Four, the prevailing anger among Saints fanatics wasn’t directed at the franchise, but at the NFL.

How dare Commissioner Roger Goodell single out their beloved Saints for such harsh punishment when on every Sunday on every play, someone on your team is trying to deliver harm to the guys on the other team.

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

At the college level, we wring our hands over football and basketball coaches who rake in high-seven-figure salaries, collecting more in wages and compensation than the university presidents for whom they work. We debate the concept of a system—one that is foisted upon the colleges by the National Basketball Association—that results not in student-athletes, but in athletes who spend only a few months as “students” just passing through college on their way to the NBA.

Yet we—media, fans—task those coaches with basically just one thing: win games and championships. We consider anything less a failure of some magnitude. We pay lip service to academics, principles and values. We view athletes who can deliver championships in just a few months on campus as having far greater value to the institution than students who can earn a degree over the course of several years.

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

For the most part, the culture of sports we hold in contempt in so many ways is also the culture of sports that delivers precisely the entertainment product we desire to witness and subsidize. Major media criticize the excesses at the same time they go to excess to deliver sports to us, the Bud Light-buying, ticket-purchasing public.

And, hey, I admit it; I’m one of ’em.

Fact is, we’re not going to pay to watch touch football in the NFL and we’re perfectly OK with big hits as long as it’s our guy who is delivering them. And if the long-term result is a guy pointing a gun at his chest and pulling the trigger, well, that’s merely the collateral damage, part of the price we’ll pay for our entertainment and beer.

What’s mixed martial arts other than two guys inside a cage trying to beat each other into a bloody pulp for our enjoyment?

Similarly, to many alumni, fat-cat boosters and even (or especially) trustees, winning percentages matter far more on major college campuses than do graduation rates. If not, we’d all be tuning in to the Ivy League or Division III.

Take a look in the mirror, folks. It’s the enemy staring back at us. What we have is what we want.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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