The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals participated in one of the most brutally violent games in recent memory. In a postgame interview, Ben Roethlisberger chalked it up to “AFC North football.” That is an intentionally obtuse and largely irresponsible characterization. ESPN’s Monday night crew of Sean McDonough and Jon Gruden offered a more nuanced view of the ugliness. They each derided the events and tried to neatly place actions in the “unacceptable” and “acceptable” bin.
Such parsing is mentally soothing, but not honest. The rights and wrongs all end up in the same bucket, leading to a complicated product.
Those who call the NFL must enter into a unique Faustian bargain. At a base level is the knowledge that years of life are being erased as the clock ticks. And yet it remains the most popular sport. America loves a train wreck, even if the locomotive has a family and human emotions.
This is not to say the NFL is not without beauty. Adroit athletes complete stunning plays with ease. World-class speed and power are on full display. Fan passion runs hot.
But no sport’s ugly and sad sides float so close to the surface. Ryan Shazier’s scare last night is a stark reminder that disaster can strike on every play — and then again on the next. Maintaining a clean conscience requires suspension of reality. Or, at the very least, burying reality behind a couch cushion.
The NFL is not a celebration. It’s a compromise. The viewer is burdened by an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. It’s a constant struggle. Or at least it should be.
Other sports, of course, have their warts. College football grapples with the same problems but cloaks them in a heavy coat of nostalgia and fun. College basketball is scandal-ridden in a white-collar type of way. The NHL has its share of devastating and debilitating hits. Major League Baseball has a history of exploitative labor practices.
But when one tunes into any of those broadcasts, they aren’t bombarded with the violent realities. They are lighter and more upbeat. One gets the sense the announcers are not filling time until the injury outro takes the audience to commercial as an injured player stays down.
The joyous enthusiasm of Bill Raftery, the poetry of Doc Emerick, and the long-winded tales of Vin Scully would be too out of place in an NFL broadcast. Things are choppy and truncated. An air of dreadful tension looms in the subconscious.
And yet, as a society we remain addicted to this morbid uncertainty.