This is a sensitive subject.
The builders of the ancient Tower of Babel always appear to us to be knaves and primitives. The very notion of constructing a “tower with its top to the heavens” strikes us – sophisticated modern types – as bizarre and downright silly. Even more so is the commentary of the rabbis of old that every Jewish child is taught: the tower eventually reached such a great height that it took a year to climb to the top. Therefore, “a brick was more precious in the eyes of the builders than a human being. If a man fell and died, they paid no attention to him. But if a brick fell, they wept.”
What a terrible indictment of a society in which human life is unappreciated and man’s well- being is an afterthought in pursuit of a superior goal! It would be comical if it were not tragic – but who could believe that any society – even ancient ones – could be so cavalier about life and health and individual worth? Surely such a disgraceful phenomenon could not exist in our day.
Welcome to professional football, an outlet for man’s aggressive instincts for both participants and viewers – and worse: the Tower of Babel redux. Think about it: there rarely a game in which a human being is not carted off the field because of some serious injury, only to be replaced by another equally at risk. It is a game that in the first instance is intentionally violent, in which physical confrontation on the battlefield (the line of scrimmage, and note the military terminology rampant in football – blitz, bomb) is at the heart of each play, and where tackling the opposition – quarterback, running back, receiver – hard is the mark of a dedicated player.
Surely there is concern when a player is injured, but not outrage or disgust. Injuries are “part of the game.” Real outrage and disgust is reserved for those occasions when the brick – i.e., the football – is lost, through fumble, interception or just poor play. That is the tragedy; that draws the spectator’s ire and dismay. Injuries – concussions, broken bones, torn ligaments and cartilage, the occasional paralysis – are “just part of the game.” Players can be replaced, but the loss of the football is a lost opportunity that can never be regained.
What does that say about us as a society? At least the builders of the Tower of Babel, also nonchalant about human suffering, had a political and spiritual objective in mind. Here, human beings are watching fellow human beings attempt to maim each other, and for what? Entertainment. Amusement.
Contrast football with the other major sports, all of which involve some risk but not the persistent mayhem of football. Baseball, by comparison, is a bucolic sport, in which the threat of injury – aside from the rare beaning – comes from players overreaching in their physical efforts, exceeding the limits of what the body can tolerate. Basketball is, by definition a “non-contact sport,” at least in the sense that physical contact is penalized. And although American hockey has body checks (unlike European hockey), those are sidelights to the game – the team wins through goals not hits, and excessive aggression is also punished.
Football stands alone in its brutality, and although I don’t have time to watch much football in any event, I am losing the inclination as well. (Basketball is also increasingly hard to watch. For years, the New York area had two professional basketball teams. Today, we have none.) It is a celebration of violence marked by the occasional demonstration of a variety of skills that should be inappropriate in a civilized society. Undoubtedly, it serves as a release for the pent-up frustrations of millions of people, but that is scant justification. In its pandering to peoples’ basest instincts, it parallels boxing and bull-fighting – both recreations of singular viciousness and inhumanity.
Football’s popularity is a reflection on our values, and also a telling reminder to all of us that perhaps the builders of the Tower of Babel was not as primitive or ridiculous as they seem at first glance. We are merely, sad to say, modern echoes of a very ancient distortion of the human personality. Perhaps owning up to that is the first step to regaining our humanity, and building a society of faith, goodness and holiness.