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?


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2 responses

26 10 2009
emilylhauser

I am very much not a fan of football, so perhaps I shouldn’t say anything… but I have so few socially acceptable opportunities to express the following that I am choosing not to restrain myself!

One reason I’m not a football fan is because I don’t understand most spectator sports (like, truly: I don’t get it). I do get caring for a team on which you know people or which in some way actually represents you and your home (ie: little league, college sports, the Olympics), but I honestly cannot fathom the emotional attachment people forge to groups of men (and it’s mostly men) they will never meet, who come from Samoa or Toronto or points in between, and who, if given enough money or shed by a coach, will come back next year to try to trample the team on which they currently play. It is, and I mean this, beyond me.

HOWEVER, the reason I am not a fan of football — in any form, at any level — is an extrapolation of the very thing you write about here. Football has long seemed to me to be a kind of male pornography, a situation in which we pay people to live out our unhealthy and entirely non-reality based fantasies about what constitutes the most authentic expression of their gender — in this case, an ability to really, really hurt another people. We value men who are successfully violent, and this is a way to tame that violence while still getting to enjoy it — like Playboy, say, vs. Hustler. I believe that football — like porn — damages not just the people-objects we pay to role-play for us, but also the society which supports it, because of what it tells the men and women, boys and girls of that society about our expectations of men.

Not least that if you get badly hurt — like, you know, brain-fucking-damaged — you suck it up.

Ahem. I don’t say all this very often, for I fear it might get me my citizenship revoked — and I will admit that, as I see the crowds, the wide variety of the humanity in them, and their plainly evident genuine enjoyment, it’s clear that there is some further piece of football that I don’t get.

But oh my I am so glad that my boy has no interest in playing…!

27 10 2009
absurdbeats

EmH! And you live in Chicago!

There are any number of reasons for spectatorship. A big one is fan-dom: You started watching as a kid, went to games in college, got interested because those around you were interested, bonding, fun, etc.

Another is the drama of the sport itself. A game or event is on t.v. or the radio, you pick up the narrative, or you happen to see something which amazes you (What a shot! What a move!) so you stop and pay attention, and get sucked in. I’d guess this is somewhat like being a fan of a t.v. show or gaming (which does not interest me at all)—you get to know characters and ‘plots’ and are transformed into a fan.

Or maybe you’re taken in by a particular personality. Perhaps he or she has a compelling story or whatever, and you follow the sport because you’re following the person. Your interest in the sport may outlast your interest in the person.

You gamble, and think you can make money.

It’s a way to kill an afternoon or evening; it gives you something to talk about with your buddies or coworkers; it’s a form of socializing—take your pick.

Why do we like and follow politics rather than, say, fashion? Unless, you know, you’re a fashionista. . . .

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