Football is just a game, but it deserves our attention. Indulge this assertion: Just as it's impossible to understand Mexican or Spanish culture without somehow bringing the ancient spectacle of bullfighting into the calculus, an appreciation of the place of football in our culture is essential to understanding who we are.
At one time we might have said this about baseball, but now football is the iconic American game. Our attraction to football can be measured in several ways, but consider this one: In December, the National Football League agreed to nine-year contract extensions with CBS, NBC and Fox that will bring in about $3 billion annually to the league, a significant increase over its current $1.9 billion in television revenues.
Television's confidence that Americans are nowhere close to their saturation point for watching football is well-founded. After all, there's a lot to like about football, and the football audience has grown steadily in consequence. It's an exciting game that uses complex strategies to accomplish a simple goal, to move a ball from one end of a field to the other more effectively than your opponent.
Football puts on display abilities that we admire -- speed and strength, for example -- and it exalts qualities that we esteem, like courage, endurance and self-sacrifice.
But all of this is merely context for the essential heart of America's Game: violence. Without the violence, football would be merely futbol, the wildly popular world sport that we call soccer.
For most fans, the violence itself is a pleasure to watch, which no doubt accounts for much of football's popularity. We enjoy a solid, bone-rattling hit. In fact, at the risk of stating the obvious, violence is thoroughly consistent with the original goal of the game, to move a ball around a field by force, with minimum constraint. Subtleties are for baseball and chess; the goals of football are accomplished by running hard at your opponent -- the harder, the better -- and knocking him down. People get hurt.
Efforts to protect the players have often produced only mixed results. For example, the invention of the forward pass in 1906 was meant to make the game safer -- at least 10 players had been killed during the previous season -- but these days some of the hardest and most dangerous hits are delivered by a free safety on a defenseless receiver.
The modern player is equipped with pads and a high-tech helmet that players from previous eras couldn't have imagined, but the extra protection encourages a sense of invulnerability in today's bigger, faster and stronger players that produces the modern game's intensely violent collisions. So people still get hurt.
In fact, football has always assumed a certain amount of inevitable collateral damage to its players. The NFL's current concern over concussions -- brought on by publicity and many lawsuits by decrepit retired ballplayers -- may have positive effects on player safety, but it's unlikely to modify one of the basic, widely accepted principles of the game: The tackler's goal isn't merely to stop the ball carrier's forward progress. If a capable opponent can be neutralized, the chances of victory are enhanced. Efforts to knock opponents out of the game -- at least temporarily -- have always been consistent with football's aggressive, masculine and warlike ethic, and they have often been rewarded.
Given this context, nothing should surprise us about the current "bounty" scandal that has hit the New Orleans Saints. The league is doing its best to be outraged, and commissioner Roger Goodell hit the Saints hard, suspending coach Sean Payton for a year without pay. In addition, the Saints have been fined and lost draft picks.
But this "bounty" system represents only a few trees in a large forest that we refuse to see. Maybe the new movie "The Hunger Games" -- in which fit and favored representatives of a postapocalyptic civilization battle for survival while everyone else watches on TV -- isn't so far-fetched, after all.
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.