Fear and Violence in the NFL

by David Meggyesy*


Image: Ray Rice, by MarkosTheGreat, at deviantart.com.

The only reason parents hit their children is because they can get away with it — A. S. Neill, Summerhill

As a physically abused child, as many of us are, I read the above quote as a young adult, then the parent of a three-year-old son, and a professional football player with the St. Louis Cardinals. It was an epiphany, and I never forgot it. Certainly there were times when I was angry, feeling unsure of myself and demanding some kind of control in my life. Hey, I could have taken it out on my “out-of-control“ son and say to myself, “he deserved it.” However, that Neill observation made so much sense to me that I decided to break the chain and I never physically assaulted my children.

The issue is again news, with the former Baltimore Raven NFL player Ray Rice punching and knocking out his girlfriend and dragging her unconscious body out of an elevator; and with Adrian Peterson, star running back with the Minnesota Vikings, drawing blood while beating his four year-old-son with a switch. This gender and child abuse is not endemic to athletes who play professional football. It is a social epidemic. Given the media power of the NFL, it’s a good thing that this kind of abuse is again thrown up in our collective face.

Male on female physical abuse and child abuse by both men and women are really about the big three: Power, dominance, and control, in particular the use of physical violence to enforce dominance in personal relationships. “She brought it on herself” or “my kid needs discipline” is total B.S. Being able to get away with enforcing differential power and dominance is only possible because the perpetrator is physically bigger and stronger. If a perpetrator took his or her physically abusive behavior out “on the street” and assaulted another adult, he or she would either suffer physical retaliation or be jailed.

As a corollary to gender and child abuse, we have workplace bullying or “abusive workplace actions” which also enforce differential power relationships. More than 65 million American workers suffer from it. Bluntly put, any rationale for physical assault and punishment, particularly the “need” to discipline a child, masks relations of unequal power. A parent or adult does it because they can get away with it, period.

When I think about the personal physical abuse I suffered as a kid, I remember seeing how fearful my father was and realize his beating me was a way to deal with the frustration, fear, and powerlessness he felt much of his life. I also realize how fearful and scared my teammates and I were as NFL players. We were at the bottom of the power hierarchy; we could be fired from our job for any reason or no reason; our every action on the practice and game field was filmed, now videoed, and analyzed publicly in team meetings by the coaches. Our working life was literally under the microscope. And we knew the coaching staff and general managers, our bosses, were trying to replace us. We were never secure in our job. To say as players, that we were not anxious and fearful was the unacknowledged “elephant in the room.”

Football, particularly NFL football, is our number one mass spectator sport. It is a physically violent war game based on the conquest and defense of territory. Its credo is domination, the playing out of a power differential, and winning signifies dominance. “Run at dominance is defensive goal” is a headline in the September 11, 2014 (an ironic date) San Francisco Chronicle describing the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive team.

In large part we are a society driven by fear, not having enough and always wanting more, and we revel in hierarchy and forms of dominance, including physical violence to establish and enforce power and its attendant rewards. We revere Number One. Our annual military expenditure is greater than the next twenty countries in the world, consuming almost one-half of our federal budget. Yes, we are Number One in the mechanisms of death and destruction.  It is called Defense.

“I beat my girlfriend/wife because she deserved it.” “I beat my kid because he lied to me and he needs to learn not to lie, and besides he needs discipline.” What should we call it other than what it is, the physically strong doing violence to the less physically strong.  Physical violence is the lowest common denominator. Using it, because we can, shows our ineptitude, our fear, our lack of understanding and compassion, and our inability to act differently.  Mostly it shows how deeply fearful we really are.

David Meggyesy, former seven-year linebacker with the St. Louis football Cardinals, is author of a best-selling football autobiography, Out of Their League. Meggyesy is board President of Athletes United for Peace and is the former Western Regional Director of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA).

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David Meggyesy, “Fear and Violence in the NFL.” Social Justice blog, 9/17/2014.

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