Combat as spectator sport?

“There’s more to football than the violence, but the violent nature contributes to its appeal.”

Steve James is an award-winning filmmaker whose pics include “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters.” His latest doc, “Head Games,” investigates the debilitating health issues behind head injuries not only in football but also in other sports. James talked to Variety’s Carole Horst about sports violence as entertainment. 

I don’t think it’s an accident that football is the religion of America — not just the sports religion, but the religion. That’s due in part to its violence. It’s taken over from boxing, and you don’t have to go back too far to when boxing was the preeminent sport in the world — Muhammad Ali, Joe Lewis, the heavyweight champion of the world was the most recognized face in the world.

There is a link between the violence and popularity of the NFL, although I think football is less blatantly violent than boxing.

There’s more to football than the violence, but its violent nature contributes to its appeal.

I’m not an expert but the birth of competitive sports was to give warriors a way to compete without killing each other in combat. The very nature of sports is war by any other means.

In “Head Games,” the brother of Penn football player Owen Thomas, who committed suicide, says football is the closest thing to war without going to war.

There’s something in that statement in that it’s both greatly appealing to those that play it and those that watch it. It’s greatly appealing to the players who play through the pain, the blood.

It’s America being America — just look at its history. The way this country came in to being was through violence and subjugation. That doesn’t go away with the frontier — it gets translated to other arenas. Mixed martial arts is one of the fastest-growing sports in America and when its governing body introduced more rules, they pushed it into another direction to make it a sport and not some bloodlust activity. That’s how “legitimate” sports manage to attain the essential violence that makes it appealing.

The nonviolent Canadians are the reason that fighting has not left hockey. It is such an important part of Canadian hockey history. The NHL feels they’re going to lose or alienate fans if they get rid of it.

We are becoming a less violent society — statistics show that violent crime has been dropping for years — and the less violence in a society the greater the fulfillment of that desire, and sports becomes more important because it provides a socially acceptable outlet for violence.

As I was editing “Head Games,” as I was going though it frame by frame, the expressions of the people in stands during hockey fights really leapt out at me. Some have fire in their eyes, thinking, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world because this fight is happening right in front of me,” and the person next to him is horrified.

It’s a great metaphor: When these real-life violent incidents happen like Sandy Hook, it allows us to step back and reflect on it. But we’ll go back to the movies and play the videogames and watch the sports that give us a safer version of that violence and we’ll enjoy it.