THE important distinction that has frequently been made between prize-fighting and football is that severe injury is the main purpose of boxing while it is incidental in football. Boxing promoters know that they draw larger crowds with the hard-hitters. They know people don't come out to watch fighters ward off blows or to pirouette their way around the ring. People come to see knockouts. They rise to their feet cheering when a fighter's fist explodes in his opponent's face. Men have been killed in the ring; but still the so-called sport continues, a slightly disguised carry over from the Colosseum games of the early Romans, when men battered each other with chains or spiked iron balls. A hard blow to the head of the kind delivered during a prize fight can cause hemorrhaging. Little wonder that ex-prize fighters may have slurred speech and slow mental reactions, to say nothing of shortened life expectancy.
The fact that prize-fighting exists at all is a sad commentary on the violent streak in the human condition. Football involves violence, but that is not the main characteristic of the game. Football embodies most of the elements of all sports - speed, strength, timing, skill in throwing, catching, running, dodging. It also involves force. Injury not infrequently results, but they are not the main aim.
Something that has happened recently, however, brings this interpretation into serious question. Two players on the Minnesota Vikings, a professional football team, disclosed that they were offered a ``bounty'' if they could put the star quarterback on the opposing team out of commission. If these statements can be substantiated, the coach or persons responsible ought to be barred from the sport for life. If Pete Rose can be suspended because of betting, then those who are making an abattoir out of a football field ought to be plucked out of the sport, root and branch.
Another player on the Vikings, reflecting on trends in modern football, said he was being paid to be a barbarian. His words were: ``Let's face it. When I put on my uniform and go out on the field, I know I'm expected to drop all pretense of being civilized.'' We can take the man at his word. If the owners and coaches of professional teams are rewarding their players for inflicting injury on opponents, then football has ceased to be a sport as Americans have come to know it. It becomes, like prize-fighting, a sadistic spectacle deserving of contempt.
Even without the confessionals of the Viking players, the evolution of football has been in a harmful direction. There can be no doubt that synthetic turf instead of grass saves money on upkeep and protects the field against heavy rains; but it also exposes players to broken bones, heavy bruises, and skin burns.
Another downside development is the so-called protective equipment. At one time, football shoulder pads had the primary function of cushioning the shock of impact. Today they more often serve the purpose of battering rams. Football helmets used to be made of soft leather with woolen linings. Today, they are hard as iron and are like steel balls when driven into the pit of an opponent's stomach. It is no surprise that broken ribs are more common than they used to be.
It would be a mistake, of course, to assume that deliberate violence is confined to sports. Brutality is glamourized in our ``entertainment.'' Television and motion-picture producers vie with one another in their eagerness to show how human beings can be battered into a pulp.
Some years ago people were shocked by a scene of human dismemberment in a film called Clockwork Orange. Since that time, such violence has become standard operating procedure. In response to the clamor over pornography in film, motion picture producers created a rating system that would have the effect of placing warning labels on individual films. Human nudity, however, is not the ultimate debasement. Far more serious is the idea that life is cheap and that brutality is fun.
What is perhaps worst of all is that these abominations are carried out casually. Are we to assume that sustained exposure to mindless violence is without effect, especially on young people who sit transfixed before television sets four or five hours a day?
The most important lesson a child can learn is that life is infinitely precious. Instead, we are teaching our children that they get their way in the world only by slamming people or pushing them over cliffs. Is there no price to be paid for the systematic de-sensitization of the human soul?
What is there in the American temper that tolerates such evil or responds to it? Unless we face up to these questions we may not be in position to deal with the collective violence being fashioned so remorselessly in the arsenals of the nations.