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.

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?

Brett Favre signs with Vikings

18 08 2009