Football fans for decades have demanded bigger, stronger, faster players and harder hits. Jack Tatum gave you what you wanted. Were you not entertained?
When Jack Tatum died yesterday, everyone dredged up all the old chestnuts about how mean he was, how he was the hardest hitter in the game, how he paralyzed Darryl Stingley and never apologized. It's the same media cycle as when Stingley passed away three years ago. It's most telling that these are the only two times people want to discuss what happened, because the truth is, most of the time we'd rather not think about it.
Hits. We want hits. The more brutal, the better the highlight reel. For four years, ESPN had a halftime segment on Monday Night Football called "Jacked Up!," featuring the hardest hits of the week. In 2005, ESPN news director Vince Doria explained:
We make it a point to show clean hits, involving no serious injuries. We're spotlighting hard hitting — which is a prominent part of the game. It is video entertainment, and we're in the entertainment business. I don't see it glorifying violence.
And yet, what else can you call it when you replay vicious tackles from multiple angles, setting them to the latest P.O.D. or Godsmack songs? It's glorification of the hit, but, as Doria said, only the ones where no one gets injured.
What then? When a player is hurt, or god forbid, paralyzed, do we take a hard look at the game itself? Of course not. We find a way to blame the tackler, whether it was a dirty hit or not. Here's Tatum in 2007:
They said on ESPN the other day that I hit him in the back and that's just a lie. It's amazing to me that they lie like that when they can just look at the hit. They have it on tape.
And then there's this odious blog post titled "Jack Tatum Finally Goes To Hell."
That's ludicrous. Tatum wasn't a bad person, but rather a good football player. However he was perceived, it's because of what we made him. His former coach John Madden had this to say yesterday:
Even though the safety co-wrote a book called "They Call Me Assassin" after his career ended, Tatum was never called "The Assassin" during his playing career, Madden said.
"After the book, people started to call him 'The Assassin' and say that that was his nickname, which was never true, and that he called himself an assassin, which he didn't," Madden said. "The story is that he's a high school All-American and he's recruited to Ohio State as a hitter. And he's praised to be a hitter. And he plays at Ohio State and he's an All-American, because he's a hitter. And he goes to the pros and is a first-round draft choice because he's a hitter.
"And then he hits a guy, the guy doesn't get up, and they call him an assassin."
The timing of Tatum's death dovetails poignantly with the NFL's attempt to foist the responsibility for player safety onto the players themselves. Good luck with that. The day players decide to take it easy on each other is the day the NFL loses its spot as most popular sport in America.
You can't say "prevent concussions" and then go out and draft a linebacker for his 40-yard time. You can't say "no big hits to the head" and then add a Hit Stick to your only officially licensed video game. You can't say "don't paralyze Darryl Stingley" when nothing gets the crowd to its feet like a wide receiver getting laid out over the middle.
No, it's out of the hands of the players, the league and somewhere along the line, it got out of the hands of the fans too. We created a Frankenstein's monster, a large, fast, demolition derby machine called the American football player, and we wonder why it won't stop doing what we raised it to do.
Don't blame Jack Tatum for doing what we wanted him to do. Blame him for doing it too well. We need players like Tatum so that when it all goes wrong on some fluke tackle, we can point to them instead of acknowledging that horrific injury is the only logical outcome of the game as we know it.