The “SportsCenter Effect” on American life is seductive and, in the view of many observers, insidious. “SportsCenter,” which showcases highlights of the day’s action in professional and amateur sports, is the signature program of the cable television sports network ESPN. Many of the plays that are spotlighted are stunningly violent. Helmet-to-helmet collisions, savage bodychecks into unyielding boards, and full-bore launches of muscular athletes into the heads and backs, kidneys and knees of vulnerable opponents have proven to be surefire audience-getters.
Those crunching “hits” — today’s term, replacing “tackles” and “checks” — make an impression, not just on viewers for whom American-style football, in particular, is a vicarious thrill, but also on young athletes, who cannot help but conclude that all-out assaults on other players will get them noticed, recruited, and, one day, extremely well-paid. Techniques that emphasize “wrapping up” your opponent and bringing him to the ground in workmanlike fashion are as quaint as leather helmets.
Every day on sports broadcasts and sports-talk shows, I hear commentators — ex-athletes in the main — laud the most ferocious players as “predators,” “assassins,” “cavemen,” “heat-seeking missiles,” “beasts,” and “attack dogs.” Producers of sports highlight packages — including the National Football League itself — happily promote clips of vicious collisions in which one player “blows up” another, in today’s vernacular — to the beat of a kind of macho music once reserved for war movies.
You’d have to be terribly naïve to miss the message from these presentations: Merely vigorous competition without brutality is for losers and sissies.
Some social scientists believe the SportsCenter Effect that glorifies mayhem has even contributed to a rash of violent confrontations on the sidelines and in the stands at amateur sporting events. Incidents of fans attacking coaches, game officials, and each other occur almost routinely, even at tiny-tots’ games.
So it is with keen interest that those who work to instill safe practices and honorable conduct in young athletes are awaiting the fallout from a new ruling by the National Football League, the most powerful of America’s professional sports associations. In the wake of a series of concussions and other devastating injuries suffered by players who absorbed vicious hits, the NFL announced that it would immediately begin fining and suspending players found to have launched seek-and-destroy-style assaults on opponents’ heads and necks.
This move was greeted derisively by some sports analysts, who mocked the crackdown as the first step in turning contact sports into “flag football” played by prissy esthetes. In an inherently violent sport even the quarterback — football’s field general who is in the crosshairs of angry, onrushing — bloodthirsty? — defensive players — are fair game just like any other ball carrier or receiver, they argue.
But the people who have to deal with the consequences of severe injuries don’t agree. At the college level, for instance, the coordinator of football officials for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, told USA Today newspaper that he was pleased to see three college football programs suspend athletes for violent hits. Dave Parry said he hoped young people weren’t mimicking the violence that they see in the pro game. “You’d hate to think kids are watching that and then saying, ‘I’m going to do that,'” Parry added.
Some years ago, I interviewed Fred Engh, a former Delaware high-school coach, who, 29 years ago, founded an association to certify and train volunteer coaches in several sports. With violence escalating off the field as well as on it, Engh renamed the organization “The National Alliance for Youth Sports” (NAYS). He expanded its membership to include administrators and parents, and broadened the mission to include setting standards for organized sports and advocating safe practices at all levels.
Safe practices such as tackling the old-fashioned way, even if it doesn’t make a highlight reel.
Engh wrote a book with a surprising title: Why Johnny Hates Sports. “By age 13,” he wrote, “of the 20 million children who go out for organized sports programs, 70 percent drop out. Why? The number-one reason that the children — boys and girls alike — said was that it ceased to be fun.”
Ceased to be fun? What’s not fun about taunting a foe you have just outmaneuvered or defeated; or scoring an absurd number of points or goals or runs against overmatched opponents in order to improve your team’s rankings; or pile-driving a defenseless player into the ground? And what’s not fun about taking such blows?
In too many places, Engh told me that first time we talked, “sportsmanship and ethics and fair play are going out the window. We’re telling children it’s OK to cheat in order to win. It’s OK to taunt the other players. It’s OK to criticize the officials. And it’s OK to pressure our kids to win at all costs. If you don’t win, if you’re not No. 1, then you’re a loser.”
So I was anxious to track down Fred Engh to get his reaction to the NFL’s recent warning to its players to tone down overt violence or else. Could it inspire a refreshing kind of “trickle-down effect” in which respect for fair play and the safety of one’s opponent returned to favor?
“We used to call head-hunter hits ‘spearing,’ and they were strictly outlawed,” Engh told me when I reached him anew at NAYS headquarters in Florida. “Then, gradually, premeditated violence on the field became condoned, even encouraged, with terrible consequences for coaches and parents of young athletes who want to see sports taught the right way. Finally, a wave of concussions suffered by star players made the NFL do something.
“Will it make a difference? Only if it’s enforced, and if it lasts.”
And, I might add, if SportsCenter and its media clones throw less raw meat to ravenous viewers salivating to watch the latest bone-crushing blow.
NAYS has gone way beyond even Engh’s expectations in recent years, expanding its organizing and teaching efforts to countries around the world. “In one area of Guatemala [from which he had just returned],” Engh told me, “there are 119,000 kids in elementary school but only 13,000 in middle school. If organized sports teaching the right values can be an integral part of leisure time, it would have a tremendously beneficial effect on society.”
And perhaps here, on America’s football fields, as well.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Insidious. Enchanting but dangerous or harmful. Ideas as well as actions can be insidious.
Laud. To praise, even glorify.
Prissy. Fussy and excessively proper; fastidious to the extreme.