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We hear the clichés every Sunday: Football is a war, a battle in the trenches, a test of wills. In the NFL lexicon, games are violent clashes of manhood against manhood; coaches are field generals and players are soldiers. Not so long ago, the game's players were living, steam-breathing personifications of that militaristic image. Stories of the 'glory days' of professional football abound. Incidents of biting opposing players in post play pileups and eye-gouging opponents at the line of scrimmage were commonplace.
When Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus was asked if he ever intentionally hurt an opposing player, he answered: "I never set out to hurt anyone deliberately . . . unless, it was, you know, important, like a league game, or something."
How, then, would a player like Butkus react when, after three hours of knocking heads in the conference championship games this Sunday, players from both squads embrace, exchange pleasantries, and even hold hands and pray together after the final whistle sounds? In 1997, Denver's Bill Romanowski caused a national incident when he spit at San Francisco's J.J. Stokes. Today's players help one another up after tackles, pat each other on the back after good plays, and hug each other after the game is over.
"When I played, you very seldom went out of your way to run over to meet an opponent after a game," notes Roman Gabriel, who played QB for the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles from 1962 to '77, and now serves as radio commentator for the Carolina Panthers. "I don't remember too many players making the point to run across the field and say, 'Oh, I love you, you played such a great game.' When we played, the game was more of a battle. After a game now, you have groups of players mingling on the field, hugging and shaking hands more than I think what we did."
And that's not all. During a wildcard playoff game two years ago, Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre hugged and high-fived Tampa Bay defensive lineman Warren Sapp after the latter sacked him for a loss. Yet this incident is merely one example of a rapidly evolving paradox in the contemporary NFLfriendly violence. Between whistles, players engage in one of the world's most physically punishing sports, yet, when a play is over, they share an uncommon, and unlikely, bond.
"Athletes at all levels have an opportunity to practice that sportsmanship and that control a little better than others, simply because of the environment they're in," says Steve Brennan, a sports psychology consultant in Omaha, Nebraska. "If somebody has an argument with their spouse or somebody like that, sometimes it lingers for quite a while, whereas in athletics, there's just too much stuff going on and you can't procrastinate if somebody took a cheap shot at you."
Sapp says his interaction with Favre was not about being friendly, but rather a direct result of his "being in the quarterback's face all day. There's going to be talk out there with me no matter what, believe me."
"I'm not on the field trying to make friends, but we're still human beings," adds Giants safety Sam Garnes, one of the hardest-hitting players in the league today. "I'm going to hit people, but I'm not out there to end somebody's career. I know a lot of the guys on other teams. I don't think there's anything wrong with talking to them after the game and saying, 'What's up?' It doesn't affect the way I play."
Not everyone is so sure. Former Giant linebacker Harry Carson, for instance, says he doesn't watch NFL games as much as he used to because of what he sees as a reduction in player intensity. "I'll watch a game now and see players congratulating guys who made plays against them and I'll say, 'What's this?' " notes Carson, who played in New York from 1976 to '88. "But that's the nature of what's going on now. Today, I think some of the aggressiveness has been taken out of the game. Because opposing players do know one another, they're not as hostile taking the field."
In fact, it might be difficult today to find a player who isn't familiar with many of his opponents. With an increasing number of cable sports networks has come an increasing amount of televised sports, allowing each player to gain a recognition not possible years ago. "With technology the way it is, where distances don't mean as much today, [players] get to see each other," says Dr. Len Zaichkowsky, a sports psychologist at Boston University. "It's the rare person who doesn't know anybody else as people get to the elite level. So it's more common they're going to interact."
Another reason for the familiarity might be the advent of true free agency in the NFL. Before 1987, relatively few established players changed teams during their careers, unless they were tradedwhich didn't happen often. In 1987, however, the players' union fought for, and received, a less restrictive form of free agency, meaning that players had more flexibility in what teams they negotiated and signed with when their contracts expired.