Death comes for Jack Tatum
On violence in the game, "the Assassin," and the institutionalized cruelty of the NFL
At some point, football isn't just about football.
Whether you like it or not.
So five minutes this week about life and death and longing, about the late Jack Tatum and the NFL, about good guys and bad guys and the uses of cruelty, about mercy and honesty and the geometry of violence, about clean hits and dirty laundry and about what it means to be human.
When I was a kid, football was just football. Block, tackle, run, throw. Playing or watching, each act stood alone, and the game was an expression of only itself. As I grew older, I came to understand football as symbolic, metaphorical. It was a representation of war, of organized aggression and land acquisition and of martial strategies and tactics and of teamwork and desire and sacrifice -- and on and on and on through all the well-meant jock nonsense and locker room homilies and simple-minded uplift of its hundred-year history. It was no longer just itself; it was the star-spangled representation of a million other things.
And for a while -- or for a lifetime -- that thought can remain true. It can be true for as long as you choose to believe that it's true.
The death last week of Tatum, the former Oakland Raiders defensive back, led me to reconsider that truth. Tatum, the famous headhunter and thrill-a-minute hitter, the man who laid out an entire decade with a forearm shiver and will be twinned forever with the man he paralyzed, receiver Darryl Stingley, embodied in his day the foundational violence of the NFL. Forty years later, he still does.
"I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault," he once said.
FOOTBALL AND VIOLENCE
ESPN.com's Jeff MacGregor chats about Jack Tatum, violence and football on Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET. Join the conversation here.
That "border" is more porous perhaps than even Tatum understood. Because if Tatum had done to Stingley on the street what he did to him on the field, he'd have spent the rest of his life in prison.
And yet we all agree that the violence of football, the sanctioned violence of the Big Game, is different in its very nature than the violence of the streets.
We do this mostly by regulating that violence, or at least regimenting and stylizing it. Or pretending to. But it is also in part a lie of language. By calling football a "collision" sport, we tell ourselves a lie. "Collision" is dishonest. The word takes agency and intention away from the game. Like traffic "accident," it makes things sound as if something causeless or unintended or unconsidered has happened. "Collision" sport is a euphemism, a fig leaf. Like "collateral damage."
Football is a "violence" sport.
It is the sustained application of physical violence that determines winners and losers in professional football.
In almost every other human pursuit, and in almost all other species in almost all other cases, violence is a means to an end. A weapon against starvation. A means of self-defense. The application in football is obvious: Violence is a means to an end zone. But beyond even what's necessary for victory -- for some number of fans and players and coaches -- football violence is an end in itself. And violence as an end in itself, violence detached from any greater intention, violence divorced from morality, violence as highlight reel, violence as theater, violence for the sake of violence, is cruelty.
But understand that peace is our most unnatural state. Peace is the aberration. Peace is the exception to the planetary rule of human violence. (And one of these days, I promise a column on the rise of U.S. professional football, not as a function of the rise of television but of the U.S. military-industrial complex.)
This is the same sad lesson we continue relearning. Tatum's death brought a sudden and completely predictable outpouring of naiveté and mea culpa last week. Love letters to the dead, decades too late, asking why men such as Tatum did exactly as we begged them to do. This, this thickness of thought, is why human progress remains heartbreakingly slow, every succeeding generation struggling to remaster identical lessons. The entirety of history being retaught just to ratchet us all one step forward.
Among the columns and crocodile tears, many sought Tatum's overdue apology. Where was it? When was it given? But to whom should Tatum have apologized? To Stingley? To us? Too late. And on whose behalf? His own? Or ours?
Stingley had long since forgiven him.
And among the obituaries and thumbnail histories of Tatum's play, many noted -- without a trace of irony -- that he had honed his hitter's craft at Ohio State under coach Woody Hayes. Woody Hayes, believer in football as total war, whose own legendary career ended in shame when he could no longer control his own impulse to violence.
Want to save some players' futures? Leave the game as it is. Don't change a single rule. Just take away the pads and the helmets. The violence will regulate itself.
Or maybe this is where video games and virtual reality come in. Twenty years from now it's all a hologram, it's only virtual, and no one needs to be lamed or ruined or crippled to play it. And we'll look back on the NFL as the primitive rite of sacrifice it truly is.
Because it's not only the cruelty of the NFL that worries me. It's the tedium of that cruelty, the unremarkable routine of it, and the spectacle we all endorse to dress it up and sell it.
The danger in the NFL -- and in Afghanistan and in Iraq and in Oakland and the Bronx and East St. Louis, anywhere anyone raises a hand against anyone else -- is in believing we control our impulse to violence.
We do not.
The impulse to violence controls us. Still. Even now, a million years down out of the trees and into modernity, we bend ourselves around our own worst needs.
By comparison, the work of peace, of renewal is dull and grinding and slow. Peace is excruciating.
Especially for the one species on Earth that sees violence not just as a means to an end but as an end in itself. As an entertainment. It will take a very great effort to change that, because it will take a very great effort even to see it.
As for Jack Tatum and Darryl Stingley, entangled forever like Cain and Abel, I wish for them all only rest.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What are sports for?" You can e-mail him at email@example.com.
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