Saturday, February 1, 2014

Why Football is More Like Chess than Boxing

Last week the New York Times published an article titled "Is it Immoral to Watch the Super Bowl?"

Commentary on the subject peppers the internet and talk radio. For some religious fans, a consciousness has colored their perspective on the celebrated game, an uncomfortable itch on the front of their minds.

Ben Shapiro made a fascinating comparison last week as he himself, both a Hawks fan and an orthodox Jew with libertarian leanings, wrestled with the issue.

In the early 20th century, Christians had made a push to outlaw the sport of boxing, and it was at one point illegal in many states. To Christians, boxing, a form of brutal combat for entertainment, bared a disconcerting resemblance to ancient pagan practices. Surely beating each other's noses bloody for no greater purpose than sport could not be right in the eyes of God.

Shapiro drew a comparison that would be easy for anyone to recognize. Football is a violent game, a dangerous one--and one that has never been more popular in America. The tackles are aggressive, the hits are hard. Players perform under the constant threat of brain damage and severe injuries.

The claim that football players, like boxers, are paid to do violence to others, and that we, the viewers, sponsor it, is not entirely unreasonable. I do understand the argument.

But I see as much contrast as I do similarity between the early 20th century boxing Shapiro referenced, and football. It's difficult to identify, because the difference does not lie in conduct, but in purpose, not in the behavior, but the goal.

The  ultimate goal of boxing was, and remains to be, the "knockout". Bringing your opponent to the
floor by force is the point of boxing. Blows equate to points; knockouts mean wins.

If football's violence is the same as that of boxing, then I suppose sacking the quarterback is the goal of football. That, of course, is not the case.

The ultimate goal of football is to score more points than the other team. To score points, you try to get as far down the field as you can. To get as far down the field as you can, you have to either coordinate a reception, or coordinate a rush for positive yardage--neither of these are violent in themselves.

But the violence is undeniably present in both the protection (the offensive line, for instance), and thwarting (the defensive line and backs), of these efforts. It is an important part of executing a win in football, but it is not the game in itself.

On the other hand, one can make a very convincing case that boxing is won on violence alone--to win, you must score points or execute a knockout. But what are the points? They are blows; fist meets body in brutal contact. To win at boxing is to be better at violence than your opponent.

Football is something entirely different.

For most of my life, I didn't have a clue about football. All I saw was a herd of huge men running around on a field after a ball. I didn't understand any of it, except that each team wanted to score "touchdowns".

I only started following the game this year. Once someone explained the rules to me and the basics of game play, I was fascinated. It was only a couple months after following the Seahawks that I was giving my undivided attention, whole quarters at a time, to other football games.

How did football manage to captivate my mind? Violence certainly does not appeal me--anyone who's seen me squirm uncomfortably through fight scenes on TV can testify to that.

Football engages my brain with strategy. If any of you haven't bothered to learn about the game, you shouldn't bother reading any further; it will make no sense to you.

The violence of tackles and blocks is indeed part of executing a win, but what happens in the huddles and in sideline discussions is far more important. The careful deliberation and intelligence that goes into play-calling and delivering a game-winning strategy is not only world-class, but not in the least bit surprising.

Football, like chess, is a strategy game. In chess, the ultimate goal is not to take out as many of the
opponent's "players" as possible. It is to put the opponent in checkmate. Football, too, shares a goal beyond damaging the opposing forces, and that is to score points.

Yet with 22 living, intelligent pieces, it's arguably even more intricate. There are thousands of possible play calls and millions potential outcomes. Making the right read of the situation, and the right call, is what makes great football, more so than the skill and violence of the plays themselves.

Football is more like chess than boxing.

Boxing is one-on-one combat; it's ultimate goal is debilitating violence. Football is a game of collective strategy; its ultimate goal is to score more points than the other team.

Is the difference not clear?

As far as the question of football's morality is concerned--if you believe that the ultimate goal does not matter, that the fact that violence is a part of the game at all is immoral, then follow your convictions. Don't watch the Super Bowl.

If you believe that football is not on the same moral plane as boxing, a sport of violence for its own sake, that the morality of the goal should determine whether or not you should participate rather than strictly the conduct involved*, then you will enjoy the game.

I will be a proud 12th man tomorrow. I will watch every tackle and every block, and I will not be thinking of them as singular acts of violence, but as calculated efforts that will put more points on our side of the scoreboard than the other. That's the essence of football.

*I know someone is bound to bring up the controversial moral statement of "the end justifies the means" and accuse me of subscribing to this belief. I do not. What is implied in this statement is that any means are justified through their end--that acts otherwise considered immoral or unethical are pardoned for the greater good. If winning a football game meant killing another player, we all agree that that would be unacceptable. On the flipside,  if winning a war meant killing enemy soldiers, then most people would not consider it immoral. I'm sure you get my point.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting point of view. I totally see your point! (Also, I really enjoy football too.)

    But, for the sake of argument, I have another point of view.

    Sure, football is like chess, but isn't chess supposed to be like a war? One kings army against another, trying to gain ground and defeat its enemy.

    Yes football and chess involve strategy, reading your opponent, and choosing the best moves, but so does a battle.

    I don't know... That's just always what I think of when I watch a football game. That's it's like a "socially acceptable" form of war. Like some kind of Colosseum show. It's just so adrenaline/testosterone fueled!