Life with the reptilian brain

I am a football fan. I can’t deny it. Even as I write I am anticipating my favorite team playing tonight on Monday Night Football. And I do want them to win. I care.

In many ways football is a rather unappealing human activity. Two rows of men or boys line up across from each other, and then due to some mysterious signal, rush at each other, smashing heads and other body parts in a way that often causes injuries, all in the pursuit of an oddly shaped ball that seems strangely important to them. Who knows exactly why?

Then they all line up and do it again. And so on for about three hours. I freely admit that this is a weird thing to do for amusement, and I will also concede immediately that this is a war game, a kind of highly ritualized combat where overgrown boys can play war without actually getting killed, although there are injuries and very rarely, someone might die.

One might ask why don’t we just get rid of this game and be done with all its problems? Good luck with that idea. Football and other rough sports seem to grab us at some deep level of the human psyche, and not just male psyches either; there are many intelligent and mentally healthy women who love football too.

It seems that football must exercise a part of our brains that remembers the countless millennia of hunting dangerous animals for food and fighting neighboring tribes for territory. These tendencies run deep, back even into our pre-human ancestry. These are ancient survival tactics, evolutionary triggers that are still in us and can be awakened easily.

In general I am in favor of acknowledging these parts of ourselves and giving them relatively harmless ways to be expressed. Football fills the bill pretty well, but we need to be constantly vigilante to take the actual danger out of the game. Rules, pads, penalties, sportsmanship and values make the game more civilized.

Right now the NFL is in trouble and deserves to be. We are finding out things about some players that are deeply disturbing. A rough game is being played by young men who are violating healthy boundaries off the field. This is not the first time we have found this out. It is dangerous to teach young men to hit hard and push people out of their way on the field and then be perfect gentlemen before and after the game. Nevertheless that is exactly what is required if football is to survive as a civilized pastime.

Firing Roger Goodell won’t solve the problem although it might help a little. What is needed is a general consensus that violence against women and children will not be tolerated in the world of football or any other sport for that matter. The league can establish clear and unmistakable boundaries that will make it clear to any player, coach or fan that domestic violence can not coexist with the privileged life of a successful athlete.

These guidelines can be established and enforced. But it will take the football world getting on board and the public making it clear that we will not tolerate this kind of behavior. Then we need to teach our kids, right from the start, that violence is not acceptable. This needs to happen in schools, churches, temples, mosques, social agencies and playing fields.

Perhaps football will lose its popularity at some point and fade away. But waiting for this to happen is not a plan for reducing domestic violence. The guys who play the game are talented and gifted people. They are also our brothers, sons and friends. They can make the distinction between football and domestic violence and many of them lead exemplary lives. Now is the time to make the boundaries unmistakably clear and then play the game for fun, team spirit and physical exuberance.

Michael Brown



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