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.





The needle and the damage done

18 06 2012

MI5 hates me.

The show, that is, not the actual service. And I don’t take it personally, because I think MI5 hates everyone.

I’ve previously discussed my weakness for caper flicks and police procedurals, so it should come as no surprise that I like spy stuff. (I mean, I even watch Covert Affairs, which is a really lousy show. Really.) I turned off 24 after the first season, as it was less clever than angry, and CONSTANT SHOUTY ANGER bores and CONSTANT SHOUTY ANGER justifying torture offends, but if you can get past that low bar (i.e., not constantly shouting angrily in favor of torture) in making a show, I’ll watch it.

There’s shouting in MI5 (known in the UK as Spooks), and torture, but the truly interesting dialogue tended to be quiet, and the torture damaged both victim and perpetrator alike.

And I guess it’s that damage that leads me to think that MI5 hates everyone (SPOILER ALERT!!): All of its characters are damaged, but with the exception of only a handful of it many characters, only a few of them live long enough to have to come to terms with the damage done, both to and by them.

In other words, just as you get attached to Danny or Fiona or Jo or Ros, they’re shot or blown up or shot or, er, blow up. And just as I was starting to warm to Adam (who replaced Tom, one of the few who was ushered out of the service rather than sacrificed to it), he gets, yes, blown up.

Huh, now that I think about it, I stopped watching MI5 after Adam took over the lead, but I picked the show back up again (skipping episodes and perhaps even a season or two) this weekend. Hermione Norris (who I liked in Wire in the Blood, even though I ended up truly not liking that creepfest) was cast as Ros against Adam’s lead, then took over after Adam went boom, only to go boom herself a season or so later.

(Huh, I should put a spoiler alert somewhere near the top of this post, shouldn’t I? Okay, done.)

I mean, for crying out loud, they even killed off Ruth—Ruth! And you knew as soon as Sasha picked up that bit of broken glass that she was going to get it, because no way would MI5 let anyone (well, okay, Zoe got a happy ending—but only after she went to prison and then was smuggled to South America, and Malcolm got to retire) walk away whole from the Grid.

Harry survives. He’s got nothing else in his life than Section D, nothing to live for beyond the job—hell, maybe that’s why he gets to live: With the exception of Ros, everyone else has something else, or the hopes of something else, off the Grid.

Maybe that’s why Ros’s death hit Harry so hard: She was him, and she was dead and he was alive.

MI5 flayed its characters and it flayed us for watching its characters. There were no redshirts in MI5, which from a plot point of view was good, but killing off everyone is, in its own way, equally predictable, and even more cynical.

Followed Danny through his credit and impulse-control problems and grown to admire his decency? Shot in the head.

Like how Ben Caplan reacted to almost getting (yup) blown up and deciding to abandon journalism for intelligence work? Then turn away as Connie slices through his throat.

Colin and Tariq, the tech guys—tech guys!—hanged and poisoned, respectively.

And Jo, Jesus, Jo and Ros. Jo so much like Danny, so decent in her need to hold the line against the consequentialism of spy-trade in lives, signalling to Ros to shoot Finn as she stands clutched behind him, trying to prevent him from (oh, man, this is getting ridiculous) blowing up the room.

Forcing Ros to shoot Finn, which means she shoots Jo.

That’s just some fucking hateful writing.

So I’m pissed for having dipped back into the show, for forgetting how pissed I was last time I watched at the sheer cussedness of getting rid of the people we, the audience, have the gall to care about, and pissed about the laziness of the constant killing itself.

It’s not so much the brutality—if you kept watching after the second episode, you knew the show wouldn’t skimp on the brutal—but the repetition of it, the leaching away of cleverness in favor of killing that ultimately turned me off.

I’m open to the idea of a morality of brutality (any Game of Thrones fans here to chip in a thought or two?), but as a mere dramatic device, it cannot exist unto itself if it is to retain its power. And a brutality which bores is a waste, in every way.





If I’m so wrong and you’re so right

5 09 2011

is this all about convincing other people to share our intuitions and if people don’t share such faith (religious or otherwise) convictions on what possible basis would they be convinced by anything we say that builds on them? Is there no obligation to try and have some researched basis for our public opinions?—dmf

No easy questions, eh, d?

I don’t know that there’s any one, good, way to deal both with clashing ontologies and the question of the quality of the opinion. Habermas attempts to do so, as do Guttmann and Thompson and deliberative theorists generally—attempts which tend toward the suppression of fundamental conflicts and an optimism regarding shared language. Focus on a respectful process and practical goals, G&T advise, and use reasons which can make sense across any epistemological or ontological divides. Aim for consensus rather than winning, or rather, see consensus as winning. The point is not just to solve problems, but to deepen democratic discourse generally.

I am, unsurprisingly, skeptical of the deliberative approach, of the willingness of different sides to agree to a shared approach, and of the desire for mutually-agreed-upon outcomes over a clear win. That said, I think it can work in specific instances, especially those in which participants really do want to solve a problem and where some version of splitting the difference (as in, allocation of funds) is possible.

It does not work on matters where an underlying principle is so closely related to the position that any disagreement on the principle makes impossible any agreement on outcome. The exemplar of this kind of conflict is that over abortion: female autonomy runs up against fetal personhood, such that the right to choose cancels the right to life, and vice versa. There is no splitting this difference, at least as it is currently configured; there are only winners and losers.

These sorts of polarized debates (which can arise for any number of reasons, including hyped-up partisanship) make it very difficult both for us to find a shared language (fetus/baby; undocumented immigrant/illegal alien; etc.) and to agree upon any standards of debate. If I am convinced I am right I won’t agree to any standards which might allow you to win the argument, and will dispute your starting point, reason, evidence, and conclusion.

The abortion debate, however frustrating and exhausting it may be, may nonetheless remain within the confines of democratic debate. We may not be able to resolve the conflict, but in the main (not, necessarily, on the margins), it can at least be contained by such debate.

That’s not always the case.

Consider the political debate over global warming. Most scientists agree that the planet is warming and that human activity has contributed to increased temperatures. If I think global warming is scam designed by extremist leftist-environmental types, I’m not going to listen to anything you have to offer which might prove me wrong. I’ll bring up the so-called climate-gate and take issue with any inexactness of your evidence, and will offer my own scientists and state that the reason they’re not published in scholarly journals is bias, plain and simple.

I am energized by fierce political argument, but this shit is disturbing. This isn’t simply about two sides disagreeing about the evidence, this is one side outright rejecting the relevance of evidence: it can’t be so it must not be. And if we can’t stand on the same ground on an issue for which there is clearly only one place to stand, then how the hell are we going to have any kind of conversation or debate about what to do about that issue?

In other words, what should be a good and vigorous political debate about what to do in response to a phenomenon (anthropocentric global warming) has been made impossible by one side of that debate declaring, in effect, that its politics don’t allow it to see the preponderance of evidence for that phenomenon. In short, the political commitments of one side has forced it to rule out the existence of the phenomenon itself.

There is no way to deal with this kind of reality-shifting except to defeat it. By any means necessary.

There are other kinds of less dire political debate wherein some notion of reason and evidence is accepted by the various participants. There may be scuffling over evidence or even the sources of evidence but not over the need for evidence itself. In these cases, your question of obligation for a researched basis is mooted insofar as it is beneficial for the participants to have done their homework ahead of time.

In other words, the best way to get people to meet an obligation to inform themselves before offering an opinion is both to reward such information and punish its lack.

Dealing with reality-shifters, I’m afraid, is largely a negative affair. You have to beat them (metaphorically, of course!) into submission, allowing them no quarter in any debates. You’ll never win them over, but you might be able to win nonetheless by so discrediting them to any larger audience. You trample over the shifters to speak directly to the audience, and smack ’em back down whenever they pop up with an objection. You rely, as ever, on reason and evidence, and offer zero respect for arguments which rely on neither.

However much such a strategy may be in service to a democratic politics, it is not democratic itself; it is, instead, brute, and brutal, politics. It is a ground war, one fought to establish whether the elements necessary to democracy will be encouraged to flourish, or not.

There will always be disagreements over the grounds, the standards, and the desired outcomes of debates; a democratic politics takes for granted the disagreement over desires, accommodates those over standards, but may shatter if it becomes too preoccupied with the grounds.

Whatever other commitments its citizens make, whether some have one foot nestled in heaven and some, dangling over the abyss, the other must be planted on common ground.