Friday, September 4, 2009

Force, Violence & Football

On the first day of college football season at the end of a humiliating loss to Boise State, Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount, still in helmet and pads, punched a bare headed Bryon Hout. You can see it on U-Tube. Prior to that Blount had attacked his own players and later had to be restrained by police from attacking heckling fans.

All athletics requires controlled force. Football moves force into controlled violence. The sport demands athletes unleash physical force that can do significant harm to individuals. Players wear body armor and must follow exacting rules to minimize that harm. Football players must walk a fine line of disciplined violence. The force that all athletes require moves into violence when the force can cause damage to opponents, not just overcome them. Football players are warranted to hit, tackle, forearm, block, butt and physically engage other humans in ways that off the field would get them arrested for assault.

The violence of the game represents controlled force to move other players in directions or stop them from performing their assigned tasks. It requires immense strength of mind and character to develop and channel the coiled violence that lives in all good football players. If you have ever been on the sidelines of a football game you become aware of the speed, size and sophistication that accelerates the force and unleashes the violence of player to player collisions.

LaGarrette Blount's attack on Byron Hout exposed the violence that underlies the game. It felt naked. Blount still had his helmet on, but Hout was bareheaded.It felt unfair since the violence is controlled and designed to be force and the helmets are vital to protect players from the violence on each other. It's an incessant press upon everyone that can easily incite people to sheer violent actions out of the rules that prescribe limitations and intent to their actions. Two years ago a coach of the New York Giants literally stepped onto the field to trip a player while sideline incidents of coaches attacking players are not unheard of.

In his apology Blount got it right, "I lost my head." All athletics depends upon the head forging character and decision to control the physical forces and emotions required of the sport. Blount lost his head and discipline and attacked an unprepared opponent outside of the rules and without the protection of his helmet.

Blount losing it against his own teammates, Hout and the fans played into another reality and stereotype. A violent black man assaulted not only fellow black players but a white unprotected opponent. We know that the majority of high profile football players are recruited from harsh backgrounds where young minority males use football as their way out. Their discipline and commitment provide the means to claw out of environments most of the middle class white spectators cannot imagine. The young men are raised in an environment saturated in violence and must transcend it to get a college scholarship. The paradox is they get out by learning to master and deploy their own internal rage in a sport that depends upon that swirling vortex of energy.

Good coaches and team cultures figure out how to integrate this violence into a self discipline controlled deployment of force for an end. The control must be both modeled by the coaches, pervade the culture of the team and be internalized by the players to make it work. It is also critical for the players to understand how to accept and internally master their own anger and motives that can fuel the force but spill over into violence. A first year drafted player at his first camp was taken aback by the fights that broke out on the field during the intensity of practice. He commented upon how the intensity of the practice trained him to figure out how to master and deploy the force. "The game of football is violent. Some teams embrace it, and some teams don't. We're one of the teams that embrace it...we're always trying to be on that edge, pushing it as far as we can without being overboard...It's usually the intensity not the violence that leads to the fights during practice." 

Blount's breakdown strips naked not only the violent structure of the sport but also reminds us that the colleges and professional teams harness and exploit that internal explosive force inside the young men. They exploit it.

Blount has been justly suspended from playing for the rest of the season. But Oregon is letting him keep his scholarship and practice with the team. The team benefitted from the coiled violence within him, now they should help him deal with it.

(Photo courtesy ESPN)

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