It’s funny how we look at history.

We sneer at the barbarians and stick our noses up in the air as if the present moment in time is far superior. How brutal those ancients were! Naked wrestling matches? Gladiators dueling in the Coliseum? Fights to-the-death against lions and bears? It is amazing how people actually found these gruesome competitions entertaining.

Or is it?

We think so highly of ourselves, proudly applauding the “progress” of the human race. We call our society “civilized” and “cultured” without even knowing what these terms really mean or to whom exactly we are comparing ourselves. We think we have tamed our society, overcoming the barbarism of the past. Such foolish pride.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” my high school English teacher used to say. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

This simple phrase reveals the grim reality of human sport. Two thousand years after naked wrestling and gladiator duels, we remain captivated by the fierce, barbaric passions of athletic competition. Admittedly, we no longer strangle each other with bare hands or stab opponents with swords. With rulebooks, penalties, jerseys, and instituted leagues, our passionate desire for combat is more concealed than in the past. We show occasional expressions of sportsmanship for the sake of civility.

But these regulations remain nothing but a mask. A brutal viciousness remains at the heart of sports. We scream for hard hits and filthy I-just-destroyed-you facials. Even baseball, one of the most passive sports ever invented, is dominated by a superbly violent act: a ball whizzing through the air like a missile, flying at you at speeds up to one hundred miles per hour. Talk about scary.

But of all sports, nothing better demonstrates the dynamic of violence than football. The players are today’s equivalent of gladiators. They perform in giant coliseums in front of thousands of wild fans. Jacked 250-pound giants run at each other at full speed, armed with metal helmets that transform the players themselves into weapons. Their goal is a fiercely carnal one: to force the opponent onto the ground against his will, by any means necessary. They tear at arms, trip legs, and smash into each other like battering rams for three straight hours.

It is a brutal war of attrition. There are no intermediaries; it is man against man, and his only instrument is himself.

Physical trauma naturally follows. They may not be fighting to the death, but they get awfully close. Concussions, broken bones, torn ligaments, and even paralysis are the price that our gladiators pay. All of this, for the sake of advancing a leather ball a few yards at a time.

Doesn’t sound very civilized, does it? Players are getting faster and stronger every year, and despite new rules that seek to prevent helmet-to-helmet contact and other dangerous plays, it is impossible to completely eliminate risk on the gridiron. The sport is just too fast and unpredictable. Some players get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The inherent danger of football is jeopardizing the future of the sport. While we love watching players get “jacked up,” we also cringe at the rawness of the violence. It becomes less entertaining and more revolting.

Parents are more hesitant about letting their children play football, encouraging relatively safer sports like baseball and basketball. In addition, more than 2,000 former players filed a massive lawsuit against the league this summer, arguing that the NFL “exacerbated the health risk by promoting the game’s violence” and misled players about the long-term effects of concussions. Bad public relations threaten the reputability of the league.

Fearing a generational decrease in interest, the NFL recently launched an effort to rebuild interest in the sport from the bottom up.

Commissioner Roger Goodell visited a youth league practice this October to preach about changing the culture of the game. He spoke to players and coaches about proper tackling techniques and safety concerns. The NFL also released a thirty-second commercial featuring Tom Brady and Ray Lewis, in which they stress new on-the-field rules that encourage safety, as well as the off-the-field initiatives like new medical research and better equipment.

However, there are questions about how effective the new initiatives will be. The league can tweak how the game is played, but it can never change the nature of the sport itself. It will always be physical and violent game, and the NFL can only do so much before football no longer resembles football. It may suffer a decrease in popularity at the grass-roots level, but there will always be people crazy enough to pick up the brutal sport.

Our gladiators march on, and we remain transfixed by our secret love of barbarity.

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