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NFL's need to tackle player violence

The Ray Rice video of domestic abuse should stir both fans and the NFL to rethink football violence, not just off the field but on.

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    Miami Dolphins running back Knowshon Moreno holds his arm during the first half of an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills Sept. 14.
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One trend in history is how humans have sought new safety measures against violent actions. Laws against murder? Check. Rules of war? Check? Airbags in cars? Check. Security screening at airports? Check.

Now in light of a video showing Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée, sports fans may demand more safety steps from the National Football League to contain the sport’s violent aspects and the subtle message that victory always requires physical brutality.

Mr. Rice broke a code by not containing such behavior to the field. Even though he has been suspended, the NFL will probably need to do more to screen its recruits and to guide its players on when and where they should act as hitting machines.

Yet fans must also ask if their own desire for rough play and bigger players in the NFL has led to a blurring of boundaries between violence on and off the field. The league responds to a market. As a contact sport, football acts as a mirror on society’s tolerance for savage acts. If fans want players with 24-hour pugnacity – commonly seen in the arrests of NFL players – they will get them.

In response to public demands for safer football, the NFL has certainly improved the game with better equipment, stricter rules, and tougher penalties for “unnecessary roughness.” And pro football’s popularity has grown as two other contact sports, boxing and hockey, have declined, in part because of their barbarity.

Such trends challenge the assumption that humans are innately violent and in need of vicarious outlets like sports to channel “natural” aggression. The growth of safer and less violent sports also coincides with the historical analysis by Harvard University’s Steven Pinker that shows human violence has declined over the centuries.

Unlike ancient Rome’s gladiator games, today’s sports reflect more skill than brute force, more qualities like teamwork and planning. Watching a sport should not be voyeurism on behavior forbidden in society but sanctioned on a field. If that were the case, then more football players would beat their domestic partners. The fact that most players do not speaks to the progress in pro sports, especially among those fans less interested in bone-rattling smack-downs than elegant touchdowns.

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