Hit me with your best shot

21 01 2013

This is a problem:

“The worst injury I ever got, in terms of pain, was breaking my collarbone,” says Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux. “That was in high school. I remember exactly what caused it. I had some new shoulder pads and they didn’t fit right. So I went to make a tackle on a big guy, and I broke my collarbone in two places. And it was excruciating pain. I’ve gotten injured on every level I’ve played at. In college, I broke my ankle. I mean, it was hanging. And three or four years ago, I tore my biceps. My ankle hurt when I broke it. But it didn’t have no comparison to the collarbone. I was lying there, and my first thought was Can I do this? Can I handle this kind of pain?

And then, at almost the same moment, in almost the same breath, came his second thought: “How long am I going to be out, and will it jeopardize me playing football again?”

It wasn’t the injury that was decisive then, or even the pain. It was Jonathan Babineaux’s thought, that arousal of instinct pitched halfway between survival and suicide. Like every other player in the NFL, he’s been selected at every level along the way for his size, strength, speed, skill, and level of aggression. But like every other player in the NFL he’s also been selected for something else: that first desperate thought when he suffered his first injury at the outer limits of his endurance. Somewhere in every football player’s career, pain offers a way out. The football player who makes it to the NFL is the one who understands from the start that what pain is really offering is a way in.

I’ve long been a football fan, cheering first the Packers, then the Badgers, then both. I fell off the Packers for some years, but jumped back on the fanwagon while living in Albuquerque and going to the Packer bar with T. and her then-husband became a Sunday ritual.

It didn’t hurt, of course, that the Packers began their resurgence around then, first with Dan “Magic Man” Majowski and then with footloose Brett Favre. It was fun to hang out and drink beer and yell at the t.v.; it was fun when the team won. And then when I moved back to Minneapolis, well, nothing like living in the land of the opponent to fire up one’s fandom.

This fell off again while I lived in Montreal and never really picked back up. I still caught college and pro games while in Somerville and checked out the sports pages after I moved to Brooklyn, but while I was happy the Packers won the Superbowl in 2011, it was just sort of . . . a nice feeling, nothing more.

This was good, actually. I hated the downside to following a team: the hollow-pit feeling after a blown game or frustration with the fumbles and dropped balls. I hated that I was caught up in something over which I had no control.

Except, of course, I did have control: I could stop watching. And so I did.

I still paid attention, however, still checked the scores and followed the fortunes of the players, until two more misgivings tamped down even that mild enthusiasm.

One was an old twinge. You remember my sense that brand loyalty is for suckers? Well, what the hell was I doing cheering for one corporation in their competition with another? Yes, the Pack is publicly owned, but they play in corporate league with is all about “brand”; isn’t fandom just another word for sucker?

And the effect of the sports complex on universities, Jesus, what a mess. Football and basketball coaches are routinely paid more than college presidents, and certainly more than any professor, while the players, who are allegedly benefitting from their “free” education, are often just working for free without being educated. Even before Sandusky and Notre Dame abandoning Elizabeth Seeberg so as to protect a football player from her accusations of assault, it was clear that the need to nurture a sporting culture mattered more to the institutions of the NCAA than the need to nurture an intellectual culture.

So just get rid of it. I’d really like to bust up the NCAA and reduce all sports to intramural status, but that’ll never happen. What could happen, perhaps, would be to turn the major sports programs into minor league teams (associated with the universities, if you really want, but no longer a part of them), and let the NFL and NBA (and NHL) pay the  coaches and, of course, the players.

Still, that doesn’t deal with the second, newer, concern: that football (and likely hockey) are really fucking dangerous sports. Football used to joke about “gladiator battles”; now, that ain’t so funny. Players subject themselves to broken bones and torn ligaments and traumatic brain injury and it’s all somehow okay because they get paid to do so.

Money washes away all sins.

This notion that they’re grown men and they know what they’re getting into is, in a word, bullshit. Consider this tidbit from the afore-linked Tom Junod Esquire piece:

“It goes back to pee-wee ball,” Ryan Clark says. “When I was six, I was a punt returner on my dad’s team. I got hurt. I went up and told him, ‘Dad, I can’t straighten my neck.’ But I made sure I told him that after I returned a punt for a touchdown.”

You don’t suddenly become a pro football player at 22; no, the process starts long before that, in pee-wee ball, then junior-high ball, high school, and college. You begin to shape yourself into a football player long before you have any sense of the consequences of doing so, such that after a certain point you, like Ryan Clark, have been

fused by pain and blood to a way of playing the game that fuses the cardinal rules of the NFL — that indeed sees them as inextricable:”If you can go, you go.

“Play hard, play tough, and hit anything that moves.”

Clark is almost certainly not an outlier, Consider Jason Taylor, profiled by Dan Le Batard in The Miami Herald:

He had torn tissues in the bottom of both of [his feet]. But he wanted to play. He always wanted to play. So he went to a private room inside the football stadium.

“Like a dungeon,” he says now. “One light bulb swaying back and forth. There was a damp, musty smell. It was like the basement in Pulp Fiction.”

The doctors handed him a towel. For his mouth. To keep him from biting his tongue. And to muffle his screaming.

“It is the worst ever,” he says. “By far. All the nerve endings in your feet.”

That wasn’t the ailment. No, that was the cure. A needle has to go in that foot, and there aren’t a lot of soft, friendly places for a big needle in a foot. That foot pain is there for a reason, of course. It is your body screaming to your brain for help. A warning. The needle mutes the screaming and the warning.

“The first shot is ridiculous,” Taylor says. “Ridiculously horrible. Excruciating.”

But the first shot to the foot wasn’t even the remedy. The first shot was just to numb the area … in preparation for the second shot, which was worse.

“You can’t kill the foot because then it is just a dead nub,” he says. “You’ve got to get the perfect mix [of anesthesia]. I was crying and screaming. I’m sweating just speaking about it now.”

How’d he play?

“I didn’t play well,” he says. “But I played better than my backup would have.”

I was going to say, Where’s the fucking union for these abused workers?!—but, of course, the union is complicit. They might be named a “players union”, but really, they’re there to make sure the guys on the field get paid, not that they don’t get hurt.

It’s a fucking racket.

The football field is a workplace and the players, workers, but unlike other workers the dangers of the conditions of their workplace are not only dismissed with a they-know-what-they’re-getting-into wave of the hand, but actively celebrated. And those whose apparently-not-serious injuries take them out of the game? Pussies.

I know this country as a whole doesn’t care much about its workers, and workplace protections for, say, slaughterhouse workers and miners have been eviscerated in our bottom-feeding quest for competitiveness and profits, but Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, do we really have to cheer for men to get hurt?

Because that’s exactly what we’re doing when we watch these large and fast men crash into one another.

One final note. Although I’d been reading about concussions and brain injuries among football issues since, well, since it became news, I didn’t necessarily connect it to my own viewing habits. It wasn’t until Ta-Nehisi Coates, a former Cowboys fan, began to take this apart a coupla’ years ago that I began to consider the moral dimensions of my fandom.

I don’t know that I would have gotten over the hump on this without that prodding—and do note, he was speaking only for himself, not making recommendations to others—but I am now at the point that, like him, while I can still wonder at the players’ athleticism, I can no longer overlook the brutality of the so-called game.

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4 responses

21 01 2013
geekhiker

Forget even football and hockey, what about boxing? How much do we (as a society) laud and lionize two men who are set against each other to literally knock each others brains out?

Then again, there’s a long history to this whole thing. The Colosseum, after all, wasn’t built for theatrical plays…

22 01 2013
satanicpanic

Finding out that so many players are suffering from CTE was really last straw for me.

22 01 2013
BJ

No need to wonder about the historic culture of gladiators and their fans…this is the modern version.

Chicken meet egg… People play a game. We watch. That generates money. When there is money, people chase it, meaning, people play. They desire to play, and choose to play.

As a sport, boxing all but died. Now MMA has crept into the mainstream. People choose to participate. And they choose to watch.

Does that make it right, wholesome, or logical? You’d know the philosophy better than I.

History tells me it’s not going away. But, we have the choice to avoid it.

23 01 2013
absurdbeats

@gh & BJ: I do find it curious the exceptions we make to workplace safety when it comes to our entertainment—but, like you, I doubt this will change.

@sp: Yeah, that got to be too much for me. I used to see the hits just as hits, now I think, “ooh, that’s real damage”. Tough to enjoy the game after that realization, well, hits.

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