Gimme the ball, gimme the ball, gimme the ball—yeah!

25 10 2009

How should you regulate an activity in which damage is inherent to that activity?

Less abstractly, if certain positions in football necessarily lead to brain damage, what should be done?

Over at TNC’s blog a number of us were chewing over the implications of Malcolm Gladwell’s recent article on dementia in football players. Gladwell compared footballing to dog-fighting—a comparison which I’m not exactly sure holds—but the info regarding the high probability of long-term brain damage even for non-NFL players is worthy of further consideration.

Some argue that risk is inherent in all kinds of activities; that doesn’t necessarily mean such activities should be regulated. It’s a reasonable enough point, but it’s not clear that such a laissez-faire attitude is the correct one for this situation.

One, the football and practices fields are workplaces, and as such, are not the same as recreational places.  How is it okay to state that football players—most of whom have careers of less than 4 years—have to suck it up while we as citizens would never tell coal-miners or uranium workers to suck up cave-ins, black lung disease, and long-term radiation damage?

They’re adults, they’re getting paid—and better than any miner is is not an excuse to overlook the dangerous conditions of the workplace itself. Yeah, the minimum wage for rookies is $193,000 (and oh, what I wouldn’t give to make a minimum of even $93K), but is it acceptable to say If we pay you enough, it’s okay to damage you to the point after which it is difficult to enjoy the rest of your life? And if so, how much is ‘enough’ to take away the rest of that person’s life?

That the NFL Player’s Association has thus far done a shitty job of taking care of its members hardly excuses the NFL—or, for that matter, the NCAA (which is a racket deserving of its own post)—for putting its players in a situation in which the only way to do the job well is to damage oneself.

Which leads to the second point: There is a distinction between activities in which risk of damage is omnipresent to those in which risk of damage is necessary. Downhill skiing, rock climbing, bicycle racing, even, as Gladwell points out, professional auto racing, are all risky activities, but to succeed in these endeavors one only risks, but does not necessitate, damage. There is risk of a wipe-out on skis or a bike or in a car, but if you wipe out you probably don’t win. Success does not depend upon damage, but upon the avoidance of damage.

Success in football, however, requires damage. Some positions are risky in the sense of ski or bike racing—punting, say, or perhaps even quarterback—but others require the players face off and smash into one another play after play after play. To be an offensive or defensive linesman is to throw your large body against another large body, to prevent anyone from getting past you or for you to try to get past the other.

That’s the whole point of these positions: to try to hold or break the line.

Football doesn’t work without linesmen. And thus far there is no way to play the game without incurring damage to these players.

So what to do?

Beyond a call for further research, I don’t know. I’m a football fan, but, for many reasons, an ambivalent one. I don’t, for example, enjoy pro boxing, not least because I see damage with every blow. I don’t see the damage to these heavily-equipped and masked men, and as much I recognize the importance of the linemen, I pay more attention to the flash players—the quarterbacks, receivers, running- and cornerbacks. Whoo-hoo! I cheer, when my team scores.

And no, it’s not the linemen who score.

So, again, what to do? Dismiss the whole thing as unworthy of concern: These guys are meatheads. . .  They know what they’re in for. . .  Hey, at least they’re getting paid well. . . ?

Or recognize that players are in fact workers in a large and profitable enterprise and, as such, deserve the same consideration for their safety as is—or ought to be—for every other worker?