Click on the audio player to the right to listen to the full interview with author Ross Bernstein.
Earlier this season, the National Football League suspended Dante Wesley of the Carolina Panthers for a particularly vicious hit he laid on a defenseless punt returner for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Coupled with the blitz of media attention about the toll injuries have taken on players years after retirement — including evidence of the early onset of dementia — the league’s image has taken a hit itself since opening day.
While Judaism is full of written laws and commentaries, football is steeped in a culture of violence, intimidation, and brutality, according to author Ross Bernstein. For all the official rules, there are many unwritten laws of sportsmanship — known simply as “the code” — that are upheld among the game’s participants, who mete out their own brand of justice against those who dare to violate those tenets.
Bernstein interviewed more than 100 current and former players about such issues for his new book, The Code: Football’s Unwritten Rules and Its Ignore-at-Your-Own-Risk Code of Honor (Triumph).
“In football, the [official] penalty doesn’t always fit the crime, so the players have to be a little more clever, but [eventually] you are going to get it; players will retaliate,” he told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview from his home near Minneapolis, Minn.
The code evolves over time. Younger players coming into the sport may not be invested in the team’s traditions or doing things “old school.” It’s a generational thing.
“Back in the day, you wouldn’t get caught talking to the ‘enemy,’ so to speak, before a game,” Bernstein said. “Now you see the players fist-bumping and chest-bumping and talking about where they’re going to have dinner. Back in the day, you used to get $100 fine. Now they share the same financial planner, the same agents. It’s just different. There’s not the same level of hatred for your opponent.”
Such athletes might decline to act on perceived offenses because the opponent they fight today might be a teammate tomorrow. In fact, with players moving around more frequently in recent years — teams can go through as much as a 40 percent turnover from one season to the next, said Bernstein — the traditions of comporting oneself “the Yankee way” or “the Cowboy way” are often lost. “You’re constantly trying to build chemistry and establish team-building. It creates a lot of problems,” he said.
Bernstein, 40, has written similar books about hockey and baseball. Some themes are universal, regardless of the sport. “If you play dirty … you’re going to have to be accountable for your actions. In hockey, if you hit someone from behind or say something you’re not supposed to say, you’re going to lose some teeth. In baseball, if you steal signs or pimp a home run or run up the score late in the game … you’re going to get [a pitch] in the ribs, or worse.
Bernstein, who was the Goldie the Gopher football mascot while attending the University of Minnesota, touched on the part of The Code that demands a player “man up” and play hurt.
With even Congress discussing the horrific aftereffects of head injuries in football, Bernstein said such scrutiny might have an impact in how players behave on the field.
“It’s crazy. Post-concussion syndrome is a huge problem. It’s never really diagnosed that well unless players are out cold.” The mentality in football is to take such injuries — which he been compared to those suffered in car collisions — in stride. “Rub a little dirt on it. Get back out there. That’s the culture, he said. ‘You don’t get stitches after a game, you get it between shifts. That’s what makes you tough. Nothing endears a player to his teammates more than sucking it up and playing hurt. That’s when a player becomes a warrior.”
Ultimately, Bernstein said, each athlete has to rely on his own sense of right and wrong.
“It’s about respect and accountability and your ethical values, your morals. I think that everyone has a personal code for how they conduct their lives and certainly spirituality is a big part of it,” he said. “You look at Sandy Koufax in the 1965 World Series here in Minnesota where I live. He was supposed to take the mound in Game One but it was Yom Kippur and he said, no, my religion takes precedence and I’m not going to do that.”