These were some of the adjectives hurled in the press when news broke that the former world champions of football, the New Orleans Saints, for years had instituted a bounty system that rewarded their players for knocking opponents out of the game. Players contributed to an in-house pool and collected $1,000-$1,500 when they scored a knockout. Hitting someone so hard that they required a stretcher or motorized cart to be removed from the field earned a special commendation.
The National Football League, presenters of America’s favorite gladiatorial spectacle, handed down sentences to the malefactors. The General Manager and an assistant coach were suspended without pay for about half the upcoming season. The head coach, Sean Payton, was banned for the entire year. And in a maneuver eerily reminiscent of the Soviet Gulag, the former defensive coordinator and alleged mastermind of the bounty program, Greg Williams, now leading the St. Louis Rams, was suspended from the NFL “indefinitely,” which might or might not mean forever.
We’re betting on a sentence slightly shorter than forever.
We’re also betting that aside from dull-witted sportswriters and commentators who are paid to apotheosize the NFL and all the fine American values it represents most of the Saints’ fans are actually quite proud of their boys, just as the average hockey fan tacitly approves of (and cheers for) their team’s “enforcer,” the largely unskilled brute who comes off the bench for the express purpose of fighting the other team’s brute. Indeed, folks who understand how football is played can see the merit and virtue of adding incentives to beat the Other Guys unconscious. Knock the star quarterback out of the game and you’ve just increased your side’s chance of winning. We wouldn’t be surprised if other teams had (or have) similar bounty pools. We’ve assumed that was pro football’s standard operating practice, an unwritten code, just like the “high-and-inside” brush-back ethos of baseball and the retaliatory hard foul in basketball.
“It’s a violent game, it’s a tough game. Just playing it normally, you’re going to have injuries,” John Madden, co-chair of the NFL’s committee on player safety opined. “The game has plenty of natural violence, you don’t need to manufacture any more.” If this is true, what do we make of the inspirational pre-game speeches – “Let’s go out there and make those guys sorry they came into our house!” — and the tribal chants and warrior face paint, all of which are meant to get the boys “fired up,” to go out there and flatten someone in a different color uniform? More violence is precisely what the game and its fans require. That and winning.
The NFL, of course, can’t admit any of this. They’re in the business of providing a grand and glorious spectacle around which corporate America can market their automobiles, erection pills, and beer. Creating a televised “contact sport” is much less morally objectionable than “choreographed violence.” That kind of thing is for mixed martial arts. And the movies.
This weekend, many millions of us watched “The Hunger Games,” a film about pretty teenagers hunting and killing each other for the amusement of a depraved viewing audience in a fictional, futuristic society that – tsk-tsk – actually enjoys the mortal mayhem. The movie, based on a popular book, includes frequent glimpses of the deadly action being broadcast on gigantic TV screens to salacious fans. This is one of the oldest and most successful tricks in the pornographer’s playbook: give large audiences the violence they crave but pretend to be making a film that portrays as evil a society that would subject its pretty teenagers to a violent game.
Outrageous. Horrifying. Disgusting.
It’s not that the average ticket buyer to “The Hunger Games” isn’t smart enough to understand the ruse, it’s that she prefers the pretentiousness because it conveniently excuses her compulsion to watch people kill each other – just as the fictional residents of Panem enjoy watching the Hunger Games in their society. Just as fans of the NFL enjoy their bone-shattering collisions to be all in good fun, not as a money-for-violence transaction. Just so long as it’s all make-believe.
One of the story’s key conceits is that the teen killers are unwilling participants. They’re reluctant murderers, forced to slay or be slayed. Unlike the New Orleans Saints, they didn’t choose to hurt their opponents for monetary rewards. They’re victims. It’s the sicko voyeurs of Panem who are bad. The judgment, strangely, doesn’t register with us, the ticket-buying, NFL-loving audience. Unlike Katniss and friends, we have no such reluctance when it comes to viewing violence. We like it.
This compulsion for brutal voyeurism could be filed away under “different strokes for different folks” and “everyone enjoys his own brand of pornography” if not for the stunning connection between our violent fantasies and our utter obliviousness to real-world violence. While millions of us are filling the multiplex to watch a movie about degenerates watching a TV screen broadcasting kids hunting each other with bows and arrows, millions of other young people are enduring the real thing. Outrageous? Horrifying? Disgusting? Nah. Boring.
For nearly a decade, the United States military, backed by the treasury of its violence-loving citizens, has been conducting an elaborate show in Afghanistan. Unlike “The Hunger Games,” this one isn’t very sexy, and its ratings would be an embarrassment to the NFL. Its participants won’t be memorialized on the cover of People magazine, nor will the countless victims, including the innocent Afghani civilians, some of them murder victims, many of them “unfortunate collateral damage.” How can we deny with a straight face that the overseas violence isn’t directly and inextricably tied to a bounty system of our own? Would any of our trained killers in uniform gladly fly to Kabul and destroy the Other Team if they weren’t paid? If their impulse for mayhem weren’t encouraged and celebrated in the popular culture?
When it comes to our appetite for violence, real and simulated, the future has already arrived. It’s not our Games that are hungry, it’s us.