But the critics make two fundamental errors. The first is their belief that the physical punishment embedded in the game is analogous to, or even causes, violence off it. “The issue is violence, which is what the league has packaged and sold as entertainment for decades,” argues New York Times sports reporter John Branch. “What has the N.F.L. reeling now are the violent acts committed by its players against women and children. The disease of violence is spreading.”
In fact, as Steven Pinker has shown, the disease of violence has been shrinking for decades. It may feel as though violence is spreading, but this is only because our tolerance for it is shrinking. And those who attribute violent and misogynistic qualities in modern American life to the culture of football ought to explain how the sport’s establishment and growth coincided with America becoming an overwhelmingly gentler, safer place. That football has helped this along, by creating a regulated outlet for boys to use their anger and hate against one another, is unprovable. Surely, though, the historical long view rebuts the assumption that football is the cause of male violence.
The related notion that the physicality of football cannot be distinguished from assault, or even spousal abuse, has grown so popular as to be almost banal. It is true that NFL players are likelier to be arrested for domestic violence than for other crimes, but as a study of 25-to-29-year-olds conducted by FiveThirtyEight.com has recently shown, overall the league’s arrest rates, including those for assault, fall below the national average. Now remember, this is a sport that disproportionately attracts aggressive males, many or most of whom use steroids, human growth hormone, and other drugs that elevate testosterone levels, and therefore possibly aggravate their violent tendencies. Is it not more likely that football restrains or redirects those violent tendencies rather than foster them.