Saturday, March 7, 2015

Against Football: Concussion and the NFL

Steve Almond grew up in a fighting family. Fist fights among his brothers were as natural as breathing. He says he made up for it vicariously by watching Raiders games, where giant men either symbolically (or in reality) broke their opponents into bone fragments. He reveled in the violence which scientists now say does a disservice to young men both physically and mentally, while many high schools have become as much about football as about education. As a mature writer, author of AGAINST FOOTBALL, he still appreciates the attraction to football, but questions some of the uncomfortable realities which have made it America's sport (or religion.) The game almost didn't survive early problems as a hazing ritual, described as two lines of human battering rams, seen as war complete with land and air assaults. But Roosevelt stood up for it, citing it as "manly," somewhat like the Spartans, who forced their children to fight with swords or die. (Spartans is a popular name for young teams today.) Ever since football began to take advantage of its battle narrative "story" structure and make money, promoters and organizers like the NFL have done everything they can to keep the myth alive that it is good and "wholesome" fun...even as they dismiss accusations to the contrary (or bribe officials to stay silent.) Truth is, pro players live, on average, ten years less than non-players. And there are other tolls not calculated in concussions or other injuries. The "glorious triviality" that is football consumes large chunks of public attention that cannot be spent elsewhere, like fixing the problems that we create faster than anyone can solve. It makes our culture, like that of ancient Rome, accepting of the idea that one must choose sides in all debates, and beat the opposition by brute force of will (rather than reason.) Fundamentally, it is about primal instincts---clanish patriotic US vs THEM myopia, while real progress in society usually comes from compromise and innovation. (Sports have fixed rule books that almost never change.) We have made football so important, Almond says, because we are bewildered by the complexity of politics and greed and corruption, but we understand the matchups between teams that stand in for an imperfect and violent world. We want simple answers that feel good, have definitive outcomes, and provide the resolution that life seldom does (except in novels.) Narrated by an always engaging and "manly" Peter Berkrot, the book is a wakeup call to a society that is okay with punishing whistleblowers and encouraging voyeurism in a time when activism, meaning, and truth are in short supply. Also listen to the audiobook CONCUSSION, by Jeanne Marie Laskas, now a movie starring Will Smith.

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