Space & Innovation

Why Do We Love Football, at Any Cost?

The league is plagued with problems, from domestic abuse among its players to drug use, fear of brain injuries and more. So why do fans keep coming back?

Despite violence and drug use by star players, fears of long-term brain injuries, and corruption and cheating in the college ranks, football is thriving in America. More than 111 million people tuned into watch the 2014 Super Bowl -- the most viewed television show in history -- while the National Football League reports record profits from sponsorship, tickets, merchandise and television revenue.

But in the last week, the popularity of football has collided with a growing scandal about how NFL officials failed to punish a star player -- the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Rice -- shown on video savagely beating his wife in an Atlantic City casino elevator earlier this year.

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As each day brings new revelations of the league's failures, it's almost as if many fans are caught in a moral dilemma. But why do Americans love football so much in the first place?

Part of the attraction can be explained by neuroscience.

"Your hormones are doing what the players hormones are doing," said Eric Simons, author of "The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession." "You can look at the testosterone of male fans, and it's not just adrenaline, but your testosterone goes up when your team wins and down when they lose."

Simons says that your brain is actually mirroring the actions of the on-screen athletes, giving us a self-esteem boost. But it's not just a matter of self esteem. A mixed-up sense of identity occurs between fans and their favorite football team.

"In personal relationships, your brain becomes confused about what's true of you and your partner," Simons said. "There is some good reason to believe that you have something like this with your favorite team," Simons said.

Football also provides a sense of bonding for men -- those who might not share social bonds once found in their community, workplace, church or bowling league, for example.

Steven Almond looked closely at the culture of football and his own 40-year love affair with the game in his new book "Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto." He says that football allows men to talk to each other.

"We are looking at a culture in which people feel dislocated from family, religion or coming from a particular town," he said. "Football is a very powerful aggregator of passion and devotion. It's tribal.

"It's a way that men can relate to each other that is sanctioned and doesn't require too much emotional vulnerability."

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Football also has an intellectual attraction that keeps fans interested, according to Almond.

The game requires understanding a vast, complex series of rules (that are amended each year), and players can move in many different and unexpected directions (unlike baseball, for example). There are big swings in momentum, and it's satisfying to watch.

"What's happening in football for a fan is that you are combining this primal aggressive buzz (with) this unbelievably strategically dense game. Baseball players are static. Football is carefully controlled chaos."

Despite the pull football exerted on Almond, a lifelong Oakland Raiders fan, he decided that he couldn't watch it anymore because of its seamier side: its violence, misogyny and the corrupting influence of big money.

"It's complicated," Almond said. "But for me, the darkness was enough to realize that I didn't want to be a sponsor anymore."

And You Thought Football Was Rough...

Last week, the 2011 NFL regular season officially kicked off. While the athletes, the atmosphere and the sense of team pride draw fans to the sport, the physicality of the game is undoubtedly one of football's big draws. Although football is the hard-hitting sport popular in America today, it is by no means the most physical game ever played. From long-dead spectator sports like gladiator combat to the ancient incarnations of the sports now known as lacrosse and polo, explore some of the most violent sports in history in this slideshow.

Gladiator Combat

In what might be the most well known spectator sport of the Roman era, gladiator combat pitted armed men, typically slaves and criminals, against each other as well as wild beasts, including lions, bears, and more. Although injuries and fatalities are common with this kind of blood sport, gladiators could earn substantial sums through victory. Games featuring gladiators were hosted not only for ritual purposes, such as religious celebrations or funerals, but also as a means for the rich to show off their power. Around the 4th century, the increased need to protect the empire from outside invaders as well as the rising influence of Christianity led to a decline and the eventual disappearance of the sport entirely.

Venatio

Similar to gladiator combat, venatio were a sport that pitted armed men against wild and often exotic animals. The matches were hardly even. In a single day, thousands of animals could be slaughtered by only a handful of hunters. In fact, although lions, tigers, bears, and elephants were included in the event, non-aggressive creatures, such as rabbits and deer, were also included in the games. On the other side of the coin, animals were often also used to inflict punishment. A common execution of criminals and most famously Christians often involved mauling by a large beast like a lion or bear.

Polo

Today, polo is known as a gentleman's activity. The team sport is so synonymous with high society that a polo player on horseback has even become the symbol of a popular fashion brand. But when polo was first played by Persians starting in the 5th century, it was anything but a civilized game. Originally, toughened cavalries played the sport to hone their horseback battle skills. Eventually, Iranian nobility picked up on the activity and the game has been identified with upper-class leisure ever since.

Mayan "Raquetball"

These days, racquetball is a fairly genteel sport. Like polo, it's also associated with a refined, rather than purely physical athlete. But early forms of the sport were much more violent. Consider the sport played by indigenous tribes, including the Maya and the Inca, throughout ancient Central and South America. Although the exact rules of the game are a mystery, courts and rubber balls left behind by these tribes reveal what the sport entailed. Like the ancient sport of polo, this ball game simulated battle, but ancient Mesoamerican tribes took it one step further: With games involving religious rituals, losers wouldn't simply shake hands and go home; they would be sacrificed to the gods. Some historians have even suggested that dismembered heads were used as balls in some ritualistic games.

Lacrosse

Before lacrosse was a popular sport among prep schools in the mid-Atlantic and northeast United States, Native Americans throughout North America played an ancient version of the game that traces back as far as 2,500 years ago. Back then, lacrosse wasn't played for fun, but rather was part of a religious ritual simulating war. The goal wasn't to have fun, but rather honor their gods and toughen up the young warriors. Games could go on for days and might include hundreds of players on each side. Their version of the game didn't include pads and helmets. In fact, the earliest players didn't have any protection at all. Rather than carrying metal or graphite sticks with nets, their ornately decorated sticks were made out of wood and possibly deer skin.

Chariot Racing

Any film buff has seen the famous chariot race in 1959 classic epic film Ben-Hur. Although the sport still remains alive today, the height of its popularity occurred between the ancient Greek and later the Roman era in which the film is set. For both the drivers and the horses, chariot racing could be particularly hazardous, frequently causing injury and death. However, it was also one of the more popular spectator sports of its time. Victory often meant large winnings for those skilled and lucky enough to win races. In fact, according to an estimate published in the historical magazine Lapham's Quarterly, the highest paid athlete in history was an ancient Roman charioteer.

Wrestling

For what might be the oldest combat sport ever played, dating back as early as the 13th century B.C., wrestling may seem like a fairly tame entry compared to the other sports in this list. However, consider this: For much of its history, wrestling was an event in which participants were entirely nude. Those locks, falls, and pins hurt a lot more without any clothes. On a more serious note, early forms of wrestling did not always include what is traditionally understood as "Greco-Roman wrestling." One variant, a martial art known as Pankration, involves a combination of boxing and wrestling techniques. This form of combat did not have any of the same rules as traditional wrestling and could result in serious injury for participants.

Jousting

Like many early sports appearing on this list, jousting is an activity derived from warfare. The medieval incarnation of this game involves two heavily armored knights riding at each other at full speed while aiming a wooden lance at an opponent in order to knock him off his horse. Although jousting was a sport steeped in rules and pageantry, it was nonetheless dangerous for even the most well protected participants. Injuries and even deaths were common.

Fisherman's Jousting

Fisherman's jousting is a sport that originated in ancient Egypt and is still played to this day. Here's how it works: Two fishermen on small boats approach each other head on and try to knock each other from their vessels. Although preventing injury in this sport is easily achieved these days, during the time of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, most participants of this sport didn't actually know how to swim. This made drowning a common danger for any losers.

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