Growing Up On NFL Violence In A Violent Neighborhood

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We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.

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From: Ta-Nehisi Coates
To: Tommy Craggs, Josh Levin

Of course Tommy's point about "flagrant" hits, and about shifting blame from the game to the players, is worth considering especially in light of Goodell's attempt to extend the season to 18 games. In addition to the astute observation that penalties take the burden off the stewards of the game and place it upon the shoulders of the players, there's the fact that so much about the league's alleged moves toward player safety reveal a sport almost at war with itself. There was a hit very early in the Patriots-Bills game where Ryan Fitzpatrick basically was grazed by a rusher's helmet. Grazed is perhaps too weak of a word, but it was anything but "flagrant"—the sort of penalty wherein you feel like the player is being taxed for his inability to exercise total control over the fiber of his being. This is an old problem—football teaches players to be aggressive, but not so aggressive as to be "dirty." Now it's not so aggressive as to involuntarily butt heads with another player.


I'm obviously not making light of the problem—it's very real. In fact, like a lot of fans who've been turning over this issue, I wonder if it's actually an existential problem—something that can't really be fixed by "proper tackling" and high-tech helmets. Football is violent. That's a large part of why we watch. It feels wrong saying that—but, as a kid, the violence was always part of what attracted me. I remember when Steve Atwater reversed The Nigerian Nightmare. This was not merely a hit, but a moment that rose to myth among my friends. Kenny Easley, Joey Browner, and, of course, Ronnie Lott—these were our gods. We loved seeing Atwater lay out Okoye, in the same way we loved Tyson destroying fools before we could really get comfortable on mom's couch. The violence spoke to something about our lives, about how we wanted to go through the world, about how we saw ourselves in our most absurd fantasy. It also reflected something very real. Our world was violent, and learning to negotiate it was just something we did. Atwater seemed to not just negotiate it, but to conquer it, to wield it with a total lack of fear. There's a danger of making this a race/class thing. I don't want to do that, because I strongly suspect that plenty of white males, across the class spectrum, know exactly what I mean.

Even now, I think of Ray Lewis and Eddie George going at it in 2001 in the AFC divisional playoff, and I know that Lewis may not be able to walk when he turns 50, and I have no idea what all those years of punishment did to George, but still I get charged.


As for that Bills game, the night before, a buddy of mine who's a Buffalo fan said to me, "You give my Bills any shot?" My response was predictable: "Nope." That game was bizarre. Even with all the interceptions, I thought Brady would find a way out. Look, there's a lot to like about Buffalo. Most of it is named Fred Jackson. But I'm so used to seeing Brady do these magic acts and win the games that he doesn't really deserve. I guess the Bills were used to it, too. Watching them run down the clock, I thought of the Saints in the Super Bowl against the Colts. If you can't beat the other team's dominant player, by God, keep him off the field.

I tried to watch the Panthers vs. Jaguars. Didn't make it past the first half. Just ugly—though I'm in love with Cam Newton's arm.


Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor at The Atlantic and the author of The Beautiful Struggle. Recently he's been seen sheepishly admitting to his progressive friends that, yes, he did watch the Mayweather fight.