Workers often choose professions known for a certain dark side -- in particular, violence and aggression -- precisely because they already exhibit those darker qualities. That's why broken cultures, from Wall St. to the gridiron, cannot be fixed from within.
NFL players are taught to hurt people. They want to play the game at any cost. This adds up to a lot of damage: to their brains, sure, but to the rest of their bodies, as well.
This is the glory of football. It takes young men who want to play and it lets them. They beat themselves into the turf and end their careers and those of others, but the league goes on. We love watching the games. We celebrate great -- terribly great -- hits. And we try to shut out of our minds the collateral damage -- the pain, the drugs, the surgeries, the brain damage, the shattered lives. Yet all of that pain and damage is a natural outgrowth of the decades-long hiring process for professional football that selects players on the basis of speed, size, agility, and an ability and willingness to withstand pain.
Sure, the fastest and hardest-hitting might also be motivated by the promise of multimillion dollar contracts. But if the big paydays disappeared, most would be out on the field anyway. "The things we do," former defense lineman Jason Taylor told Dan Le Batard. "Players play. It is who we are."
It's the Holy Grail for any employer - finding employees who will do their job well for the sheer joy of it. "Employee engagement" is a watchword of HR departments everywhere. The problem, though, is that getting the right person for the job often comes with undesirable yet unavoidable side-effects. If you're in the customer service business like Commerce Bank you hire eager-to-please extroverts. The downside is the irritated customers who would prefer that the ever-smiling bank teller stop wishing them a nice day and just hurry up with their money. And if you're hiring airline security personnel at the TSA, you want sticklers for rules even they don't provide the service-with-a-smile (or, seemingly, have any God-given common sense) that passengers want. But in neither of these cases is the right person for the job going to land you in the hospital with a concussion or broken collarbone - the cost is merely a bit of delay and frustration.
THE DARK SIDE OF THE LAW
Police departments, though, do bear some similarities to the NFL, and the comparison is instructive. A good cop is one who wants to catch bad guys, and when given the choice between taking a nap or keeping the peace, will go out and risk his life and pension to aggressively enforce the law. As economist Canice Prendergast has pointed out, the type of recruit who will take pleasure in these duties will also tend, predictably, toward ugly and heavy-handed behavior involving an excess of zeal. (Here' s a link to a PDF of his classic paper on the topic.) That's not to say that all cops are bad or brutal, but it's certainly worth noting that hiring the right men and women can have such a side effect.
When taken to extremes, hiring the "right" person for the job of keeping the streets safe can lead to cases like the Rampart scandal, in which members of the Los Angeles Police Department's anti-gang unit were convicted of offenses ranging from unprovoked shootings and beatings to planting false evidence, framing suspects, dealing drugs, bank robbery, and of course the inevitable cover up.
It can be hard to figure out the difference between good policing and police brutality. To the untrained observer, one can look much like the other. So police departments, like the military, are subject to civilian oversight, and civilians typically sit on review boards. As a result, when the police go too far, when they abuse their authority and start cracking heads, there's almost always an outcry.
But sometimes -- as with the residents of Rampart -- the public doesn't care. A New York Times Magazine article about cleaning up the LA police department 10 years after the Rodney King beating reported that the response among Angelinos had been muted, especially among those living in Ramparts. Residents were more concerned with growing gang violence than police abuse, and viewed police brutality as a necessary part of keeping the gangs in check. They were willing to put up with dirty cops for a slightly cleaner neighborhood.
Like those residents of Rampart, while there are a few vocal critics of the NFL, most people seem to like things just the way they are. They want their team to win, and they're willing to deal with the consequences that Le Batard and Junod bring to life. And, despite the recent outcry over, most recently, Junior Seau's suicide, viewership for this Sunday's Super Bowl isn't going to tail off because we abhor the effects of the violence.
So what to do if we really want to take seriously the notion of protecting NFL players from one another and themselves? One further consequence of selecting cops or athletes or anyone else on the basis of intrinsic motivation is that there's no reason to expect them to regulate themselves. They signed up because they're committed to the organization's objectives. NFL players may not be thrilled about their broken minds and bodies, but they've been chosen precisely because they care a lot more about the glory of the sport and winning.
This underscores why self-regulation generally hasn't worked as a way of dealing with social problems. The gun lobby is run by people who believe in guns and a particular reading of the Second Amendment. Those who work for Big Oil genuinely don't believe in global warming. Why would they change, especially when the money keeps rolling in? What the gun industry, the oil business, and the NFL have in common is that they'll never reform without outside regulation. And to muster the will to regulate, the public -- that's you and me -- will have to stand up and intervene. At least when it comes to the NFL, the recent evidence suggests we won't.
So, are you ready for some football? Really?