Football's deeply violent nature is under attack. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell ushered in a New World Order with the unprecedented penalties he levied against Saints coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for their bounty program.
I'm not sure you can fix tackle football. Barbaric violence is its oxygen. It's one thing to say that. It's something else to understand it.
The sad case of Jamaal Bass might help you fully grasp my point. Bass is the Northern Illinois linebacker who was recently charged with one felony and one misdemeanor count of assault for trampling two University of Toledo band members as the Huskies took the field during the pregame ritual of exiting the locker room and storming the field.
Bass leaped in the air, dipped his shoulder and took out one band member. Based on the video I've seen, Bass never looked back. He kept right on trucking to the Husky sideline, satisfied with his bullying of two physically weaker human beings.
At least one of the band members suffered a slight concussion. Both were checked out at a hospital.
The next day, when Northern Illinois head coach Dave Doeren was made aware of the incident, he suspended Bass for one game. After school officials from NIU and Toledo consulted with each other and with the Mid-American Conference commissioner, Doeren elevated the suspension to three games. Apologies were extended. NIU offered to pay any and all medical expenses.
The Huskies won the MAC. Bass returned to play in the bowl game. Everyone assumed the sad affair was deep in the rearview mirror. It wasn't. It isn't. One of the band members and his parent convinced an Ohio prosecutor to pursue assault charges. Last week a grand injury indicted Bass on a felony and a misdemeanor. The charges carry a maximum eight-year sentence.
It's an indication of the times we live in. We have a love-hate relationship with athletes. We love the entertainment they provide. We hate the arrogance and sense of entitlement we perceive in them. We're also in an era where victims of bullying are justifiably fighting back. We have been awakened to the psychological damage inflicted by child bullies.
The bully is getting bullied.
The weird thing is, Bass might not be a bully. As best I could learn this week, Bass is a good kid, a passionate Christian.
He did something remarkably stupid in a momentary burst of energy and rage in the buildup to the three hours he was supposed unleash his energy and rage.
This column is not intended to excuse Bass. His act of cowardice and stupidity deserved harsh punishment, and I believe he received it. However, he does not deserve a felony -- or even a misdemeanor -- conviction on his resume or to be placed on criminal probation.
What happened before the NIU-Toledo game was a tragic accident. A band was exiting the field moving in the direction of a crazed football team taking the field. Because the game was televised, the team was instructed when it was supposed to charge onto the field. I'm shocked more band members weren't trampled.
Football takes your mind to a very dark place. In the hours leading up to the game, a good football player will focus his mind on the darkest, most painful things his mind can remember or imagine. If your father beat you, you think of that. If your brother was shot, you imagine your opponent pulling the trigger. If your girlfriend cheated on you, you convince yourself the opposing linebacker was the guy she hooked up with.
You remember the movie "Training Day"? Denzel Washington's character shouted: "King Kong ain't got (expletive) on me!"
That's the mentality you want when you exit the locker room just before kickoff. If you don't have it, you won't play as well. It's one of the main reasons poor kids from tough backgrounds excel in football. They have an abundance of emotional pain to tap into. You spend your childhood missing meals, getting teased for not having the cool clothes and wondering why your daddy left, it gives you a deep well of bitterness to unleash on football Saturdays and Sundays.
You've seen Ray Lewis' pregame dance? Ray-Ray was once on trial for murder. That will get you through a 16-year NFL career.
Some guys are filled with enough pain that they tap into their well all week during practice. They're called "high motor" players. They can't turn it off.
I had a low motor. Worst thing about my childhood was I never made out with Janice Toth and I rarely had enough cash to buy an extra slice of pizza at lunch.
As long as football allows tackling and blocking, you're never going to stop the best football players from tapping into their darkest real or imagined memories. You can stop the bounties, you can unfairly criminalize a good kid for unveiling his rage two minutes early, but you can't stop the barbaric violence. The game dies without it.