Recently, the NFL has cracked down on helmet-to-helmet hits and other manifestations of "unnecessary roughness." This is all to the good. Football is violent enough without players risking concussion after concussion and career-ending injuries.
But what about violence-laden commercials during the games? Who's the referee for these?
Watching a recent game on Sunday afternoon, I spied advertisements for network crime dramas featuring deadly weapons and bloodied corpses along with bone-crunching elbows to the face; Hollywood movie trailers featuring cataclysmic explosions and mass death; and (my favorite) "Call of Duty: Black Ops," a combat video game in which ordinary Americans are immersed in urban warfare, firing assault rifles and RPGs at unseen enemies while dressed in pant suits or coat-and-tie. In its rousing finale, an entire city block gets napalmed. I guess my video warfighting neighbors had to destroy the virtual village to save it.
Complaining about violence on TV is like shooting fish in a barrel, but there's more going on here than you might think. Commercials, of course, offer intense snippets of violence; they're also largely context-free. Since there's little context to the violence, they hit harder than the same scenes in a full-length feature. Watching violent commercial after violent commercial is a little like trying to understand NFL games by viewing only the most violent hits of the week.
At the exact time the NFL is trying to outlaw violent hits, TV commercials - with their smash-mouth action - are institutionalizing them, only in different and more disturbing forms. Indeed, TV ads are enticing us to tune in to shows, go see movies, buy video games precisely by showing us ever more extreme examples of violence.
Yet there's another irony here. Even as advertisers in the mainstream media seek to expand the brutality of various representations of reality, the mainstream media itself continues to sanitize our all-too-violent real wars.
It's painfully ironic that as we sanitize war and fight to bound the violence of NFL games, TV commercials push those boundaries to their limits, and beyond. Besides lite beer and big trucks, these commercials are selling us a violent world in which we're alternately hapless victims and plucky resisters. We're alternately suspended in fear and ready to rumble. Even those ubiquitous Viagra ads play a role: We're alternately impotent and omnipotent. Small wonder that action-driven and flag-waving military recruitment ads are usually shoehorned into the mix.
Violence in the NFL is controllable; it's a game, after all, with rules and referees. But life is not a game, and the violence in our commercial media is not so easily controlled, especially when so many of the referees seem determined alternately to scare us and recruit us.