In case you were wondering whether there wasn’t something faintly familiar about the current controversy over the exposure of the practice by professional football teams of paying bounties to any of their players who are able to injure the opposing team’s key players (or at least knock them temporarily or permanently out of a game), the answer is, yes, you have indeed seen this movie before: it was called “Rollerball,” and it was made in 1975. In the original Rollerball (as distinct from a 2004 remake, which was a pathetic imitation that missed the point), Rollerball is the only remaining professional sport being played in an imagined year 2018 that is eerily reminiscent of Orwell’s fictional 1984 – not to mention that it is also eerily similar to the world toward which our federal government now appears to have us in a trance-like forced march.
In the game of Rollerball, various other games (football, roller derby, motocross racing, etc.) that once represented tests of skill and strategy rather than contests of mere physical violence, are combined into a hybrid format that not only permits, but eventually devolves into requiring, unmitigated and un-penalized maiming and killing. The degradation of the sport into a barely-disguised version of the death battles between Roman gladiators and wild animals, is, as it was in ancient Rome, intended not only to pacify (“entertain”) the public masses, but also to pound home the brain-washing message that the government – which appears in this movie in the form of 6 major multinational corporations and the Rollerball teams that they respectively “sponsor” and control – is in control of all human activity and that individualism is subversive and thus forbidden and subjected to capital punishment. The protagonist, a kind of Peyton Manning-like figure, is ordered by his employer-corporation to retire from the sport in order to further certain corporate interests, and, when he refuses and persists in playing on through the championship playoffs, he is targeted for destruction – to be enforced via rules changes and bounties.
Several overarching points developed or suggested by the movie are pertinent to the current controversy over bounties set up by the former defensive coach of the New Orleans Saints, including these: (1) True sport is entertaining because the public craves and appreciates excellence and inspiration – for all but the most warped individuals, it is much more enjoyable for, say, a Green Bay Packers fan to watch Brett Favre make spectacular, successful plays against the Chicago Bears than it is for a Chicago Bears fan to watch Brett Favre get knocked out of the game by a bounty-hunting defensive lineman applying a vicious, illegal hit; and (2) it is demoralizing and de-humanizing, not only for the fans, but for the bounty-hunting players who are incentivized into playing dirty football, for a professional sports league to be reduced to the level of producing the sporting equivalent of “snuff films” for the supposed entertainment of the public. (In Rollerball, the fans eventually are bored and sickened by watching their teams being literally killed in the course of a game.)
The larger point here, is not a question of whether there is hypocrisy involved in commercializing the playing of an inherently vicious and violent sport and then professing shock at the viciousness and violence of the game and placing limits upon the amount of viciousness that will be tolerated. Clearly, this is not a time to hear from defensive players complaining that they were taught to play in a vicious manner and now they do not know how to restrain some – but not all – of their native (or developed) viciousness.
The point here is not to engage in piling-on with another lecture about the degradation of American culture. The point is that the future commercial success of pro football will be threatened, if the bounty practice is not strictly outlawed and harshly penalized. We already know what happens when sporting thugs are encouraged rather than restrained: the relatively un-scripted version is called hockey, and the version that involves scripting rather than spontaneity is called professional wrestling. Neither of those sports has a following that even remotely approximates that of professional football, and the reason is pretty clear: football, though violent, continues to feature extreme levels of skill and extreme levels of strategy, and the violence is sufficiently controlled that the skill and strategy remain key.
Eventually, all but the sickies and wackos grow tired of watching extreme, unlimited violence, and football is running a huge risk if it does not act in a swift and sure manner to maintain its broad commercial appeal by protecting the essential integrity of the game. Intentionally injuring an opponent is not just wrong, it is socially and commercially stupid, and when people with power in our society condone or encourage it, that makes all of us less free. Among those who are induced to give up a part of their freedom are the football players themselves, most of whom apparently would prefer to have the privilege of playing the game with integrity and a decent respect for their fellow competitors.