Battered Brains, Blithering Biden, and the Religion of Football (w/new Addendum)

“No child should predecease their parents.  I remember what it’s like (PAUSE).  It brings back (PAUSE)…It brings back memories…that call, out of the blue.”

Joe Biden

 

Why is football still legal?  It’s a serious question.  Why maintain, nay, lionize a pastime that wrecks bodies and minds? 

A century ago, Teddy Roosevelt, that manliest of men, realized that too many young men were dying from football injuries, so he led an effort to modify the rules to prohibit some of the more lethal and injurious practices.   He wasn’t about to abolish the game – can’t be a nation of wimps. 

But it shouldn’t be so lethal.  Imagine the physical chaos caused by the flying wedge.   You could destroy a young man’s knees with a well-aimed tackle.  Major colleges had quit the game.  IMHO, Roosevelt did the nation no favor by saving it.

 

Brain damage??  Who knew??

Now, 100 years later, we find concussions among young players and brain diseases among retired football players.  Ya think?  Isn’t this like the Great Denial about smoking?  Remember cigarette commercials with doctors smoking?  Nah, you’re too young.  But take my word for it.

Same thing with football.  Any child who starts playing, and his parents, are in willful denial of the potential effect of 100 or 1,000 head impacts.  It’s bad enough when they cause concussions. But there’s always the minor traumas to the young brain as it gets jounced around in the cranium with every hit.

Maybe Neanderthals had thicker skulls.  Ours did not evolve for head-to-head combat.  And just NOW (i.e., last few years) coaches, doctors, and football officials are acknowledging the possibility of brain and mental disorders in men with long football careers.  Has there been a 100-year coverup, as with the awful joint and pain problems that plague these men in middle age?

 

Ineradicable memeplex

I wouldn’t be surprised.  Football is a complex of memes that resemble religion.  It’s peculiar to us, with variations in Australia and Canada.  Unlike baseball and basketball, it hasn’t spread much beyond the US.  Wonder why.  Maybe they’ve had (or are having) enough real wars on their soil.

Recall Saturday Night Live’s classic skits with the Superfans – corpulent Chicago (male) Bears fans who worshipped Mike Ditka and ascribed to him supernatural powers, as they wolfed down and had cardiac arrests in response to large quantities of sausage.  The parody came just close enough to the reality, as all good parodies do.

 

Play ball!

We’re ready to start another season!  Young bodies crunching together, perhaps causing injuries that will be serious and permanent.  But there’s no stopping it.

Football  -- or “fupball,” as they call it in its Southern strongholds -- is an almost irresistible blend of violence, pageantry, and quasi-religious identification.  One example: my wife’s ex, now living in Mass., still has a “New York Jets fans” parking sign in front of his house.  Another: the multi-gazillion-dollar sports paraphernalia and wagering industries.

Fans come to games in costume or paint their bodies in their team’s colors.  At the college level, football programs are leading revenue-generators, the coach makes more than the Chair of any academic department, and a successful football team brings in the alumni contributions.  Hereditary fanship and ancient rivalries between colleges and cities, mimicking blood feuds: these complete the picture – and the similarities to religion.

 

“The resta you guys, block out!” 

That was all I knew of football in pickup games with neighborhood kids.  That’s all I was good for: cannon fodder, while the more gifted athletes (how did they learn – because there sure weren’t any football camps or videos?) ran, passed or caught the ball.

I found myself opposite a friend, Robbie Gawthrop, and he and I engaged in half-hearted blocking out and so played out our little role in the game/war.  Robbie became a judge.

What was I supposed to learn? All of football’s supposed virtues – character, resilience, team play, all-out effort – can be acquired and practiced in other ways.  But of all sports, fupball has a unique resemblance to war. (By contrast, as George Carlin noted, baseball is benign, the main goal being to “run home.”)  Two armies strategize, fight battles, some decisive, penetrating and capturing each other’s territory. 

Young men willingly inflicting and enduring pain…just because.  If you want to see the absurdity of it all, listen to Andy Griffith’s naïf classic comedy routine, “What it was, was Football.”

 

Training for war

Football’s resemblance to war makes it excellent preparation for war – and the perfect training ground for potential soldiers and marines …or at least for imparting the virtues that supposedly keep a society strong, virtuous, and obedient.  All that discipline, pain, and stoicism.  And LOTS of following orders! 

I can see fupball coaches  --- smart enough to understand the game, but too dumb to see that it’s meaningless (not original but can’t recall where I read it) – priding themselves on a near-holy calling: the preparation of soldiers, corporate and actual.

Let us NOT pretend that fupball promotes health and fitness.  North Dallas Forty (book and movie, with excellent performances by Nick Nolte and Mac Davis), graphically illustrated how fupball is about pain – and drugs…and the discarding of worn-out human bodies whose owners are unwilling to subject them to continuing pain and injury.  The movie showed an injured player writhing in agony after a hard hit reinjures his knee.  You never see that on TV – they cut right to commercial.

The sport has been exposed many times.  Cokes and cigarettes at halftime.  Steroids, painkillers and other performance aids.  Sending injured joints back into battle.  Paying bounties for injuring opposing players. 

Let us NOT pretend that football promotes ethical behavior.  As the tragedy at Penn State, latest in a long line of football abuses, eloquently demonstrates, when ethical behavior conflicts with the football program, the latter wins, always. 

 

Blithering Joe

Finally we come to the first part of the title of this post, prompted by a TIME article that reminded me once again of Biden’s penchant for rambling incoherence.  According to the article, his sister translates him into English.   I can see where it makes him popular: nobody wants to think a politician’s smarter than the voters.  And he’s not.  His clumsy plagiarizing of a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock in 1988 was an early example of his cluelessness.

Also prominent in the article were references to Biden’s football experiences and – of course – how often he got back up, dusted himself off, and went back into the fray.  He notes that he spent a lot of time with his nose in the grass.  How many hits to the head, I wonder?  Are we seeing symptoms of a premature dementia?   The question was actually asked about Gerald Ford (Univ. of Michigan), but never pursued, although his clumsiness was widely enough noted and helped launch the career of comedian Chevy Chase.

 

Scan ‘em!

I think all former football players who seek leadership or even employment positions should undergo a thorough neurological workup and brain scan, just to see what we’re dealing with.  It should be as mandatory as drug tests.  Life and health insurance, too: how come they never ask if you played football? 

If an organization doesn’t want its performance compromised by drug- and alcohol-impaired employees, well, then it certainly doesn’t want brain-damaged employees making important decisions.

 

Wider implications

I do worry about this.  Football is often a path to success in the world beyond.  So there’s a natural flow of brain-damaged people to leadership positions.  Fupball damage goes far beyond the brains of those who subject themselves to it.  Every moronic, incompetent, incoherent thing they do as leaders affects the rest of us.   

On Sept. 19, 2012, the world found out that Tim Tebow, already emblematic of two of America's mental illnesses -- football and religion -- allowed as how he might be interEsted in politics.  Just the kind of leader we need -- religious and, for all we know, brain-damaged (quarterbacks take a lot of hits, never deliver them).

You cannot ban football any more than you can ban religion.  People must be free to destroy their bodies as they will.  (But not with certain, government-disapproved drugs.)

At one of Chicago’s erstwhile sports bars, I saw a pic of the 1947 Bears backfield.  They looked like guys at my health club – fit, but not overly muscular.  Today’s players are 50 or more pounds heavier.  The linemen are immense.  It’s like getting hit by a motorbike, again and again. 

Frivolous suggestion: A switch to flag football, the non-violent alternative we played in high school?  Or putting an upper limit on players' weight, as in "sprint football"?  Are you kidding?  It’s no fun unless ligaments tear, bones break, and brains get rattled.  Again and again.

ADDENDUM: Get ready to roll your eyes and gag, fellow heretics.  Fupball not only resembles religion -- it further conflates the two by USING religion to justify itself.  There is -- not making this up -- a new book called Men of Sunday: How Faith Guides the Players, Coaches and Wives of the NFL (Thomas Nelson, Inc.).  I found out about it in a PARADE (where else?) article "First and Ten Commandments" (9/2/12/). 

Yes, that's right, God wants them to maim each other.  Former Chicago player Mike Singletary had "watched hundreds of opponents [after hard hits] return to the huddle glassy-eyed, unable to remember their name."  Think of all the thousands of brain-bashed young men -- who continued to play!  It's an incredibly telling phrase, but only a lead-in to what Singletary thought after he had delivered a particularly vicious hit to a receiver. 

Warning: here's the gag-me-with-a-spoon part.  Singletary (a hero in Chicago, where he lasted as long as he did because he was delivering hits, not taking them) had his doubts, but comes out with: "this is my gift.  I didn't want to hurt anybody.  I was playing the game as hard as I could to honor the Lord.  I always said, 'Lord, every play I'm going to give you everything I have.  From the bottom of my feet to the top of my head, every tackle, every block.  If the ball was thrown a hundred yards away, I was going to run as hard as I could run to get there.  I though about one thing, and that's giving God what Jesus Christ gave for me on the cross - everything.'  That's how I was going to play.  And I was at peace with that."

I cannot even begin to peel back the layers of illogic.  A mythical figure was supposedly crucified FOR YOU, and so you're going to injure and disable other people as best you can, in a meaningless game?  WTF??  Only in sports, religion, and politics is such craziness tolerated.   

Views: 455

Tags: football, religion, sports

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Comment by Alan Perlman on September 6, 2012 at 10:10am

Pat, you've identified even more ways in which football is harmful.  I was sorta aware that h.s. coaches were expected to teach something but only suspected that they might be lousy at it, to the detriment of non-football-playing students.  I'll bet that college coaches have no teaching responsibilties at all. 

I'd like to stand outside Soldier Field and interview fans after a Bears game: do you remember more than one or two plays?  What was the score at half-time?  Which quarterback had a better day?  Unless you bet on this game, has your life changed at all as a result of it?  99% of them would be too drunk to understand the questions.

Steph, thank you...I always try to be provocative. 

Don, you remind me of my father -- a true "sports atheist."   Men chasing balls had no appeal whatsoever.  He could not name even one of the local pro teams. He cut himself off from conversation with many men (who probably thought he was a communist or something), but he was right, and the payoff is that you don't clutter your mind and your precious hours with meaningless crap.

Comment by Pat on September 6, 2012 at 7:30am

I'm like Viking Don. I find watching the NFL (National Felony League) slightly less entertaining that a documentary on the life cycle of amoebic dysentery. What bothers me most about the sport, though, are the coaches; mostly high school. The ones I've come in contact with, both in and after high school, are lionized if they have a "winning" team. Yet, as educators, and in my experience, they're generally the bottom of the barrel. They've obtained a degree in how to read a rule book, and such grand stratemegyzin' as "getting the ball to the hoop, goal, in-zone, net, because that way, we get more points than the other team. And if we get more points, we win the 'big' game'." Off the field or court, they're usually consigned to teaching driver's education, or, if actually assigned to a substantive course, it's usually where the principal thinks he/she will do the least amount of damage, e.g. history. Have the students memorize names, dates, places, battles, and call it education. And, with those whom I know from less populated ares, they're more than willing to make the black kid the star of the team (irrespective of the quality of education the child is receiving), so they can win games and improve their record. But, wouldn't want that same kid's family moving in next door.

Comment by Steph S. on September 5, 2012 at 10:10pm

Love the discussion here.

Comment by Richard Goscicki on September 5, 2012 at 2:09pm

I was reasonably popular in high school, but nowhere near the reverence saved for football jocks (and, later, soldiers). 

 

Wow, I have a personal anecdote concerning this:  When I was teaching bio in the late 60s, I had a student named Jane C. in my class who was an absolute pain in the ass.  Never did her homework and scorned learning and science in general—a numbskull.  Another plump, pimply-faced girl named Margaret was into every word I said and followed the classroom discussions to the letter, a model A student. 

 

But Jane was the star of the girl’s high school basketball team and was regarded as a role model.  She had her own groupies while Margaret was a virtual loner.  It used to piss me off but I couldn’t do a damn thing about it except do my job the best I could.  Nothing I said seemed to matter.  Basketball was more important than bio.

 

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on September 5, 2012 at 1:38pm

Hi Alan. More recently I have read 97 or 98 percent. But the interesting thing is that there is greater genetic diversity among chimps than humans. This possibly due to near extinction of our ancestors and limited gene pool. So chimps have greater justification in delineating "races" than we do, I guess.

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 5, 2012 at 12:14pm

To Glen:  I stand corrected on the detail, but genetically, we are 99% chimps.

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on September 4, 2012 at 8:53pm

Alan, we have a common ancestor. Did not evolve from chimps. Or so the scienctific mantra goes.

Now lets play some goddamn football!

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 4, 2012 at 7:55pm

Thanks to Steph and Rich.  Nice to get off my chest all my resentments of football.  I was reasonably popular in high school, but nowhere near the reverence saved for football jocks (and, later, soldiers). 

Steph brings up another problem: they get away with all sorts of misbehavior and academic failure their whole lives, as long as they play.  What does that teach them?

To Rich: another hypothesis -- what if we'd evolved from the bonobos instead of the more aggressive chimps?  Nope, not evolved beyond bread and circuses, which leaders now, as then, recognize as a subtle means of regimentation and control of the mob. 

Comment by Steph S. on September 4, 2012 at 6:32pm

I agree with Richard! One of the best posts!

I have always thought that football was like a religion in our culture - the players are treated like gods.

Comment by Richard Goscicki on September 4, 2012 at 5:17pm

Beautiful.  This is great.  One of the best posts I’ve read in a long time.  In Mirror Reversal, I try hard to convince people we need to continue evolving into a spiritual creature.  Chris Hitchens proposed that humans are still in young adolescent stages.  (I can’t remember the exact footnote, but it’s in God Is Not Great somewhere.)  Hey, it was two thousand years ago that Nero said, “Give ‘em bread and circuses.”  The Coliseum wasn’t there yet, but the Romans had plenty of hippodromes at the time just as every U.S. city has a stadium.  The point is:  humans haven’t evolved very far in two thousand years, except for technological advances.  We don’t fight to the death in our games, but many athletes would like to. 

 

Consider this:  if a young hunk of a rookie, body ripped and toned from grueling hours of training, falls to the ground after an ugly and brutal tackle, absolutely no one in the whole stadium nor TV audience feels his pain.  There is absolutely no empathy or human compassion.  Most people are annoyed at “the delay of game.”    

 

To evolve, I’m convinced humans have to develop a gentler side.  Our unique evolution supports my contention.  Before humans came down to Earth developing into bipedal Ardipithecus sp around five million years ago, humans were canopy dwellers.  Our ancestors were frugivores, fruit and berry eaters.  So my contention is that humans have a gentler biological makeup, but modern-day society indoctrinates the young to comply with competitive social and industrial requirements.

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