In a tweet about as subtle as Rob Gronkowksi’s late hit Sunday, longtime football broadcaster Brent Musburger at least got us directly to the heart of the NFL’s violence problem.
Yo,Snowflakes. Quit preaching. The Violent World of Sam Huff sold NFL football to the masses. The Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders gave us a little sex with our violence. Deal with it!
— Brent Musburger (@brentmusburger) December 6, 2017
Let’s break this down bit by bit:
*Musburger dives right in with the word “snowflake,” a term that divides groups into an us vs. them mentality. It is used derisively to identify someone who disagrees with something uncomfortable — someone who thinks that, you know, something bad should maybe stop happening.
Musburger is presumably reacting to the latest reactions to NFL brutality over the weekend. Gronkowski’s post-whistle hit was troubling enough (it drew a one-game suspension that Gronk is reportedly appealing. Maybe with time to reconsider, the league will add more games to it?) before the Steelers and Bengals battered each other around, with each team getting a player suspended for violence as well. Musburger doesn’t like all the “preaching” about how bad this violence is, apparently, and is aligning himself with those like Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger who said, in the immediate postgame aftermath Sunday, that the violence was explained simply by “AFC North football.”
As I wrote in late September, after Packers receiver Davante Adams was drilled by a cheap shot from the Bears’ Danny Trevathan, this NFL divide is real. Musburger might be sensationalizing it and artificially inflating the gap, but I believe this much to be true:
If you want the most lasting reason the league’s popularity could see a meaningful decline, it’s this: Some fans think it’s too violent, and some think it’s too soft. To sustain its massive popularity, the league needs both groups, but keeping both happy might be impossible.
*Once we work past the crude early labels in Musburger’s tweet, we find that he’s not wrong. The NFL did sell the masses on violence, and hard hits were part of what helped the league soar to massive popularity. Where there was violence there was sex and the objectification of women.
Even just a decade ago, ESPN did a segment called “Jacked up” that showed the five most bone-crushing hits of the week. Some of them were blows to the head (um, here’s No. 1 from one week).
But then we started to learn more about brain injuries — not just concussions, but the countless tens of thousands of sub-concussive hits that make NFL players more likely to develop brain trauma in later life. Notable players were killing themselves and donating their brains to science to prove what the sport was doing.
Thinking evolved on violence and sexual objectification — not across the board, of course, but enough to create a split. The NFL at least tried to legislate some violence out of the game, but it’s an inherently violent sport.
*In the end, Musburger wants us to “deal with it,” and by that he just wants everyone to shut up and embrace the violent game he grew up with. What most of us have learned lately, though, is that the discussion is far more nuanced than that.
The NFL’s fundamental quest right now is adjusting the violence knob to just the right setting — tackle hard, but not too hard … tackle here, but not there. You would think those plays over the weekend were pretty easy to distinguish as over the line, but Musburger’s tweet makes it clear that there are still people who don’t like where the new line has been drawn.
Hey, maybe the NFL even agrees. Just Wednesday afternoon, the Bengals’ George Iloka had his suspension replaced by a fine. Roethlisberger, by the way, said he didn’t think his teammate (JuJu Smith-Schuster) deserved a suspension, either.