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Thu Jan 31, 2013, 07:56 PM

Football violence (from a fan)

President Obama the other day said that if he had a son, he would hesitate to let him play football (because of the prevalence of serious and permanent injuries to both young and older players).

I am a sometime football fan--married to a former college football player who absolutely LOVED football (not to watch; to play), and what with Superbowl fever this week--a contest that I'm interested in (rooting for the Niners, though some sympathy for the Ravens, too--just hope it's a really good and clean game)-- I am hearing and reading A LOT of talk about the INCREASE in football injuries, from within the sports world itself, including very serious concerns, from sports commentators, columnists, former players, parents of young players (feature in Sports Illustrated this week) and others. I find it interesting and unusual that reasons NOT to play football, NOT to let your kids play football, and (implied) NOT to support football--especially in the current atmosphere, wherein some coaches at all levels encourage players to seriously hurt and disable opposing players (concuss them, break their legs)--in the week before the Super Bowl.

It gives me pause about my own enthusiasm for this game. And one of the facts I picked up from all this extraordinary discussion within and the around the sport, about injuries, is that many retired pro-football players suffer early dementia, directly caused by repeated brain concussions and serious visible (in x-rays) damage to the brain. That's not the only serious and permanent injury that occurs, but it is perhaps the most tragic, because it is so frequent and because it eventually deprives the sufferers of their reason--their minds, their ability to think and communicate. (i work with dementia patients so I know how serious this is. There is no cure. There is no hope. The "person" is mostly gone, often long before they die. It is a heartbreaker.)

Another commentator said that he did not know a single retired professional football player who was not suffering a serious permanent injury from football, of one kind or another. I also heard about quite young players--children, teenagers--being crippled for life or dying, due to football injuries. Even one such incident is bad. It happens much too frequently to be considered an anomaly. The culture itself demands winning at any cost, in a sport that--more than any other except boxing--requires frequent physical battering as the price of admission. Not a quirk. Not an anomaly. A way of life.

Should a 9 year old or a 15 year old be permitted to choose this (or worse, be pressured into it)? Should battering of the head in particular--with helmets that are NOT preventing repeated concussions leading to early dementia--be allowed to continue as a national sport? Should we all be cheering on these future dementia patients, or future cripples?

I've also been thinking about gladiators--way back during the Roman Empire. There was a period or periods during the Roman Empire when those contests were incredibly bloody and murderous, and disgustingly prurient, as to the sadism of the spectators. The contestants were slaves and seldom benefitted from any skill they might demonstrate. And while our modern professional football players are not slaves--most are well paid, with many perks including the best sports medicine and the best protective equipment--are there not some haunting similarities here?

For instance, does money mean anything to a professional football player who is descending into dementia at an early age? What good is his money to him? Are these owners and corporations who run football not luring him with lots of money into sacrificing his life for them? Also, those on the lower rungs of the sport are not so well paid, and the young players--the kids--aren't paid at all. In any case, what good is money OR fame, if your mind is gone? What good is a scholarship if, two years or five years later, you are undergoing multiple surgeries with, say, only a 50/50 chance of being fully ambulatory again, and no chance at playing sports again? What kind of career is that? Who benefits from that? Who pays for that? What is that worth?

I do understand the male need for danger, having had four brothers (two football players) a football player and AF jet bomber pilot husband and a son (not football but other dangers). Some woman have this need, though in my experience it's mostly a male thing. Women can be aggressive and competitive, and do engage in dangerous sports and love it--but I've never known a woman who wants to be hurt playing sports, the way men court that danger in football. Probably this will change and some day there will be no difference. Anyway, a physical challenge is one thing; courting physical injury is quite another. It is no accident that 18 to 25 year old men have the highest auto insurance rates. They are more reckless than women their age. They do things on a dare that young women would never do (or only the rare young woman would do). Utterly stupid things--to prove their manhood, to show they are not afraid, to show they don't care about themselves but yield their life to the group. It probably goes way back in our evolution to our early hunter-gatherer beginnings and male differentiation into communal hunters. It seems to be a NEED, not a choice.

I wanted to struggle with this thought because I admire heroics--physical heroics (but much more so, ethical heroics). We need heroes; we need models; we are an imitative species and are heartened by heroics of various kinds. It's not a bad thing. It's who we are. And it's not bad to test yourself--learn your limits, your fears and how to handle them, discover your skills and strengths; and feel confident that you can defend yourself and others. We are all surrounded by known and unknown dangers. We all face death. Of all humans, though, I think it is young men who least believe in their inevitable deaths. Indeed, they don't believe in it at all, most of them. They think they will live forever--and it is so like them to scoff at the danger of permanent injury from playing football, and then to court that danger, to invite it. We CANNOT shield everyone from everything. They WILL court danger. But should we be encouraging it, in this case of known, frequently occurring permanent injury? Should we be glorifying excessively aggressive football, football that demands harm and injury?

My once football-loving husband agrees with these concerns (on his own--I didn't badger him). He says that he was never happier in his life than when he was playing football in high school and college. He was very good at it. He never got seriously hurt on the field (that we know about yet). He clearly was a daredevil in his youth--many risks, many accidents (non-football). But he now thinks that football is much too violent and also way too corporatized. He doesn't have any desire to watch televised (or any) football games, and won't be watching the Superbowl.

I will be watching and probably enjoying the game on Sunday, in fits and starts. I will be at work tending to dementia and other patients. I've never, ever wanted players injured in any game or sport. I don't have any desire to see one side or the other playing dirty football. But I must say that these discussions have sobered me. And I want the sport to be reformed--for the long term health of its players and for all the kids who play it.

One other suggestion--regarding corporate sports. Our entire culture--and our democracy--is in the process of being destroyed by transglobal corporate powers--from the riggable voting machines, to the outsourcing of jobs and destruction of communities, to poisonous food, to toxic wastes, to the oil wars and more. So much that is good about our country and our people is being despoiled. Perhaps the answer, as to football, is a weekly show on "reality TV" of local community or family touch football games, that could be even more engaging than these multi-million dollar gladiators and their sponsors' one-long-commercial, gawdy spectacles.

Every community in the country could plan a little one-week touch football festival--one neighborhood vs another, or one side of the block vs the other side--with a big potluck picnic as the centerpiece and the game, played by everyone, for fun and recreation. It doesn't matter who wins--or it matters only for the fun of it. The only thing that really matters is being together.

I'm modeling this on some wonderful family picnics that I have attended. The food was great. The flag football competition was ferocious--but no one got hurt and no one cared (or can even remember) who won. Winning wasn't the point. Playing was the point. Entertaining each other was the point. For the oldsters, testing whether you could get up on your legs and run like a kid again, or throw a ball with conviction. For the youngsters, seeing their elders make fools of themselves or being surprised by their dash and daring. Feeling the thrill of a successful play or the agony of bad one. Joining the fray as a novice and botching your assignment, or not--succeeding, making a touchdown your first time out. Laughing at it all. Giving the young ones good memories. Giving "the bench" a good show. And--my brilliant idea--sharing it with the whole nation.

Could it replace the Superbowl? Could it change football into something better for all of us, as well as for the future dementia patients that we will be watching on Sunday? Las Vegas could even bet on these little community or family games and someone could take on the role of local sports announcer. All for fun. Amateurism seems to be a new trend. Why not amateur football? (But no kicking anybody off islands or ridiculing their talents! Straight-up play time. No boo's. No trophies. Bets limited to a dollar.)

Well, maybe it's a silly idea. I don't know. What about all those billions of dollars--the vendors, the jobs, the "camps," the hotels, the souvenirs, the development corporations, the stadiums, the mansions, the yachts and so on--lots and lots of money spread around, to big incomes and small ones. Like a war machine, once an economy is invested in it, it's very difficult to stop or even curtail it. It becomes its own justification. That's how the Romans went off the deep end--with war after war to expand and protect their empire, and an addiction to violent spectacles at home, for entertainment. A little simplistic, yeah--but the parallel is there. Do we really care about these gladiators that we are going to gawk at on Sunday more than the Romans cared about their gladiators? A shocking question. Of course we do...don't we?

Do we really care if they start losing their minds at age 45, to extreme damage that multiple concussions have done to their brains? Do we care if our kids suffer multiple concussions or other serious injuries before they even get out of childhood, after being encouraged to win at any cost? And if we care, how do we channel that energy, and how do we create a national entertainment, that doesn't demand permanent injury, or, at the very least, changes the culture to greatly reduce the harm?

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