You need not look long and hard to find outrage over the recent network-television debut of Mixed Martial Arts. Indeed, Kimbo Slice’s ballyhooed fight against James Thompson was a stomach-churning affair–both for those who don’t relish the sight of blood and viscera and for those who prefer their MMA matches to have some semblance of science and artistry.
The outrage that followed was of course tied to the violence on display–violence that was in prime time hours and not safely behind the cable-television firewall. Many in the sports media were aghast at what they saw. Coming from almost anyone else, that would be a defensible stance. However, coming from the enablers of the NFL, it was somewhat rich.
The NFL, of course, isn’t as visibly gladiatorial as MMA, but it is every bit as violent and imperils the athletes to a greater degree. So why is the NFL spared the outrage?
First, there’s the NFL’s popularity. For reasons that completely elude me, the NFL is king among American sports leagues (although, what gives me renewed confidence in humanity–or at least the discretionary spending of humanity–is that MLB is catching up to the NFL in gross revenues). The NFL is, by several orders of magnitude, more culturally ingrained than MMA, and it keeps many more media types employed than MMA does. In other words, it’s much easier to harrumph about and swear off something in which you’re not emotionally or professionally invested.
Second, there’s the obvious fact that football players aren’t actually fighting. Granted, crack-back blocks, receivers’ taking hits on crossing routes, and blindside sacks are a violence all their own, but because football doesn’t legally entail punching and kicking, there’s more of a social sanction about it.
Third–and I think most important–is that there’s a strong visual buffer between us, the viewers, and those suffering the violence, the players. That buffer is the uniform. In MMA, for instance, the violence is bone-naked: the bleeding, the contusions, the mangled body parts aren’t veneered by head-to-toe clothing and protective gear as they are in football. On another level, the types of injuries common to football–concussions and bone breaks, for instance–don’t unsettle us in the way that flattened noses and busted lips do.
In other words, it’s not that we as a people object to violence in athletics; it’s that we object to conspicuous violence in athletics. It’s a mindless and dangerous distinction, but those who wring hands over MMA while celebrating the NFL are apparently comfortable making it.