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Head Shots: Are fans making football culture less violent?

Head Shots: Are fans making football culture less violent?

Picture of William Heisel
Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images
Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images

I went to a Seahawks football game recently. Surrounded by more than 20,000 crazy Seahawks fans all yelling at top volume, I suddenly felt a little alone.

Why?

Because I was the only one shouting things that sounded violent.

For years, whenever the Seahawks were on defense and the ball was snapped, I had a tendency to shout one of two things: “Make him pay!” Or “Crush him!” The first thing isn’t so bad, really. The quarterback might “pay” if he throws a seemingly perfect pass into the end zone and Richard Sherman intercepts it. Or a running back might “pay” if Bobby Wagner tackles him behind the line of scrimmage.

But encouraging players to “crush” other players sounded weird to me for the first time because nobody else was shouting anything like it. There was lots of “Go Defense!” And “SEA! HAWKS!” But I was the lone meathead calling for someone to really get hurt.

There’s a cultural shift that needs to be encouraged from within football fandom. Watching on television, you can’t really hear what people are saying. But if you attend the games, you hear people shouting all kinds of things — not all of it PG. I have noticed over the past 10 years of going to games — backed up by conversations with fellow fans — a change in the nature of these often-emotional outbursts.

“Football is absolutely primal, and when I watch football, I feel an adrenaline rush,” said my friend Trevor, who played football in high school.

That’s why you used to hear people shouting, “Crush him!” or “Knock his block off!” or worse during critical points in a game. The feeling used to be that these guys are being paid millions of dollars to bang each other around for our viewing enjoyment. But year after year, that feeling has become far less common. The tacit condoning or encouraging of injuries is just bad form, no matter how many beers you have in you.

Remember that people have taken off their social filters at the games. In everyday life, you don’t stand up next to somebody and shout. I’m at the airport writing this. There’s football on television. Imagine what would happen if I stood up and started screaming at the television the way I do when I’m at a game. Fans leave much of their normalcy behind when they go to a game. They are loud and passionate and don’t care if the person next to them is a fan of the opposing team.

My friend Jim and I went to see the Seahawks play the Cowboys during the preseason. Afterward he told me, “We used to think of these guys as basically modern day gladiators. Their pain and suffering was mostly kept from us. I think even they didn't care as much about their health as they do nowadays."

He also brought up a great comparison: car racing. 

If you grew up watching car races, as I did, you wanted to see a car hit another car, fly up into the sky, catch fire even. It was part of the fun of watching and was even played up in the advertisements. 

But when you see ads for NASCAR these days, which is now a huge professional sport, you don't see them advertising explosions.

Football fans used to actually want another player to get injured, and players often had a very real desire to injure opponents. For years, players used to brag about their ability to take other players out of the game. As the NFL has pushed more safety measures into the game, now players try to rewrite history to suggest they never wanted to do to anybody any harm.

The old history is being overwritten by the new scientifically backed history of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and other disorders linked to repeated blows to the head.

“Maybe we feel a little guilty about the fact that we’re cheering for them to kill each other because now it’s been confirmed that they actually are killing each other,” Trevor said. “We’re less apt to yell those things even though the game still unleashes the same amount of aggression inside us.”

And it’s the stifling of that aggression that may have many fans feeling conflicted. My brother Andy, the real football expert in the house, put it this way:

When a guy gets hurt, announcers might say, 'Nobody wants to see a player get hurt,' but when he's an opponent, one is not always terribly pained about it. If you're a Bears fan and suddenly Aaron Rodgers [of the Green Bay Packers] goes down, you get a new life; there's something to root for: ‘Okay, maybe we have a chance.’

We think it, but we don’t shout it anymore. We still are loud and passionate and still don’t care about the opposing fan next to us. But we do legitimately care more about the players.

The recent concern about whether Cam Newton should have been pulled from a game after taking a big hit was real. On Sunday, Newton took another big hit in the fourth quarter and was found to have sustained a concussion after being pulled from the game. Panthers fans have real reason to worry. And for everyone outside of the Carolinas, even when we’re rooting against Cam, we don’t want what looks like a flop to be a hit that really hurt.

The day that really changed my view on what comes out of my mouth at a football game had real consequences for one of the most famous quarterbacks in the game: Tony Romo. Romo had to sit out for most of the 2015 season after breaking his collarbone. Now, by all accounts fully recovered, he was back in the game to lead the Cowboys against the Seahawks. I was up in the stands shouting “Crush him!” just as he was tackled. He went down hard and, as we learned later, suffered a spinal fracture. He’s been out of the game ever since.

Did my shouting have anything to do with Romo getting hurt? No.

But millions of football fans collectively deciding that calling for another player’s head is no longer acceptable actually does make a difference. It creates a culture that celebrates skilled play over intentional harm.

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