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Is Violence a Necessity in Sports?

MONTREAL, QC - NOVEMBER 15: Brandon Prust #8 of the Montreal Canadiens fights against Zac Rinaldo #36 of the Philadelphia Flyers in the NHL game at the Bell Centre on November 15, 2014 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

Sports are physical.  They will result in injuries simply due to the nature of the games.  However, has our society evolved to a point where sports are too violent in their current state?

Fordham University professor of Christian ethics, Charlie Camosy, described football as, “a great combination of raw caveman strength and gladiatorial combat and the most complicated chess match you can ever imagine.”  The use of terms such as “caveman” and “gladiatorial combat” suggest football (and hockey, and rugby, and certainly boxing and MMA) is a game for Neanderthals, which has no place in our highly cerebral society.

Right?

Well, as Camosy goes on to say, “Even though I’m excited for the start of the year, we need to be honest about the fact that football is a violent sport, and many things that people like about it, including me, is the violence.”

This is coming from an ethics professor of a well-respected university.  Camosy is undoubtedly a highly educated man, and yet, he may be as big a football fan as anyone.  In fact, football is so popular that the three most watched television events in U.S. history are Super Bowls 49, 48 and 50 (in that order).  The violence of the game is not its only attractor, but it is certainly one of the most influential.

However, just because fans enjoy the violence, does that make it right?  After all, with the ever growing knowledge of the physical damage sports cause, particularly concussions and CTE, shouldn’t we as society look to protect one another by disallowing such violence?

CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, is defined as, “a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic sub-concussive hits to the head.”

It is a disease that is a result of the violence of sport, and it is not rare.  Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered CTE, said of football players, “Over 90% of players who play to the professional level have some degree of this disease. I have not examined any brain of a retired football player that came back negative.”

Of course, football is not the only sport where CTE is prevalent.  In fact, it is best associated with sports such as boxing and MMA, where knocking an opponent out is the primary objective.  Also in hockey, while fighting is not the purpose of the game, it is a fundamental piece that has been subject to tremendous controversy.

Former NHL star Bobby Orr, who is not known for dropping gloves, spoke out on the controversy surrounding the sport saying, “I would be very hesitant to take fighting out of the pro levels of the game, and here’s why. As a young player in the NHL, I was called out on certain occasions and responded to those challenges to fight because I felt it was my duty to do so.”

Many players have made a living playing hockey as a defender of teammates; as an enforcer.  Their duty is to stand up for teammates who are unable to protect themselves from larger, tougher adversaries.  Their presence allows the rest of the team to feel safe in a hostile environment.  The enforcer is the big brother of the team; always there to protect the group.

And so, even while enforcers are a dying breed in today’s NHL, fighting still has its place.  Though teams have begun to focus more on skill than strength, players are still willing to fight when called out.  It is a matter of pride, to never back down from a challenge, and to stand up for your teammates and brothers.

But again we must ask the question:  Just because fighting is accepted in hockey, does that mean it should be?  After all, if a fight like the ones we see at a hockey rink, in a boxing ring, or an MMA octagon happened anywhere else, criminal charges would be filed.

Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy has been under investigation for weeks in connection with a fight occurring at a Philadelphia bar.  It is reported that no charges will be pressed by the District Attorney, though they may still be filed by the Fraternal Order of Police, and charges may be filed against other individuals involved.  Rest assured, if this fight involved several ordinary individuals, charges would have been pressed almost immediately and someone would have faced potential jail time.

So while the rest of society is held to a higher standard, how can we cheer on such barbaric acts when they occur on a specific field or ring?

The answer is simple: because it is our nature.

Regardless of how intellectual we become as a society, and how many technological advancements we make, our instincts will never fade.  Just as animals compete for food, land and mates, we too thrive on competition.  From being the smartest to being the strongest, it is our human nature to strive to be the best.  And just as bucks lock antlers and rams butt heads, we participate in violent competitions in order to prove our superiority.

It has been the same from the times of cavemen to America as we know it today.  Sports are an outlet where we can measure ourselves against others, in order to see who is the best.  And in such a situation, where individuals are giving every ounce of energy and determination they have to win, frustrations are going to happen.  Nobody ever wants to lose.  No one ever wants to feel like they are not good enough.  So emotions are going to boil over, tempers will flare, and fights and hits are will ensue in the name of winning.

There are instances where athletes go too far, but to challenge violence in sports is to challenge human nature itself.

And that is a fight which will never be won.

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