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.   

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Comment by Alan Perlman on September 21, 2012 at 10:54am

To Flying Atheist...Thanks for the contribution.  It's clear that remediation is lagging way behind the problem, when coaches resist protective and preventative measures, while just ONE hit, as I learned from your article, can have lifetime implications.  

Comment by The Flying Atheist on September 20, 2012 at 7:24pm

Hey, folks.  Here's an article from Rueters today concerning student football head injuries and new legislation in some states to recognize the symptoms of concussions and to take preventative action. 

A few items stand out that touch on what we've been discussing or are important to note:

Football is akin to religion in Massillon and, like a religion, it can be resistant to change. For decades jolts to the head were written off as "getting your bell rung" and considered part of the game. Now, concerns about serious brain injuries have penetrated American football culture and high schools are taking action.

A 2011 study by researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania found that survivors of a single traumatic brain injury in young adults can show changes in their brains years later, possibly leading to neurodegenerative disease similar to Alzheimer's.

Throughout the country, teenage players are taking cognitive function tests before the season to establish a baseline that can later be used as a comparison for those suspected of suffering concussions.

In Texas, 2011 legislation and increased public awareness have chipped away at old attitudes about concussions, but there are concerns about enforcement.

"I know a lot of coaches who won't go along with it," said Dave Burton, an athletic trainer in Dallas who has worked in pro sports and public schools. "They would rather have a key player at 75 percent than a backup at 100 percent."


Even with preventative measures, I still think football is overly barbaric and dangerous.  As the article states, even one concussion can lead to delayed problems later in life.  I'm glad steps are being taken to recognize the signs of a concussion and to take action, but after the occurrence, it's already too late to prevent it in the first place. 

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 19, 2012 at 10:20pm

Glen...I got teaching jobs when they were gettable.  When the academic job market tanked, I reinvented myself (B-school buzzword) as a speechwriter.

Been called a lotta things, but never a word-licker...

Comment by Frankie Dapper on September 19, 2012 at 7:16pm

Allen, I thought about becoming a linguist. Unfortunately I took the lsat's and turned to the one profession I had ruled out. Oh yeah, after the degree ya gotta make a living. Did not seem likely but you figured it out. 

Your a real word licker. Smith is trite.

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 19, 2012 at 6:43pm

Glen...I thought you might have heard it.

This has long been a humanistic behavioral ideal for me.  It equates with the Latin vir  -- a person of virtue, integrity, altruism, and other qualitites.  Eastern philosophies sometimes refer to such a person as a "sage." 

Above all, a mature, self-controlled, self-aware adult who realizes that there are other people in the world.  I could write a whole post about this.  Others probably have. I'm still working on my own mensch-hood.

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 19, 2012 at 6:30pm

To Atheist,...Welcome to the discussion.  The dirty little un-secret is that football really is about pain and injury.  All the rest is theater (marching, cheerleaders -- highly military).

Comment by Frankie Dapper on September 19, 2012 at 3:35pm

I did not even know how to spell mensch. Would have left off the s. But I can still hear my grandmother's refrain, "Quit your monkey business. Be a mensch."

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 19, 2012 at 3:13pm

Glen...Ah, you're now getting into the kind of greatness that appeals to me: being a mensch.

Comment by The Flying Atheist on September 19, 2012 at 2:38pm

I just stumbled upon this interesting discussion.  (How did I not see this earlier?)  Anyway, first off, my apologies to Asa Watcher.  I'm yet one more person who is going to dump on the game of football.  Sorry!  However, I commend you on your eloquence in explaining your love of the game....and I do understand.   

I've never had any personal interest in sports, but I've always held a particular disdain for football because of it's truly barbaric nature.  To me it ranks right up there with boxing, an activity I hardly consider a "sport"; the intentional maiming of your opponent.  As I've read through the numerous comments here, familiar themes have been repeated.  Unfortunately, some of those themes actively came to light just last week in LaSalle-Peru, a small community southwest of Chicago.  Their high school football team was blindsided by learning that their opponents coach:

"had received an anonymous, detailed and sinister scouting report on LaSalle-Peru.

The estimated 10 pages included specifics on the team's offense and defense, and confidential information on the skill levels, strengths and weaknesses of each Cavalier player. It even listed their medical histories and suggested preying on those who had been injured."

Chicago Tribune article

After reading the article I'm the first person to admit that this particular scandal seems like the uncommon action of one rogue, disgruntled ex-employee, but still, the underlying motif rings clear about the overall strategy on how to win the game, and I find that to be quite uncivilized.

Like others here, I also express my dislike of the unworthy hero-worship that permeates both professional and school-level sports.  Additionally, as a musician it continually angers me when schools, facing budget problems, cut their music and art programs first and sports last.  Music and art are activities that have, over and over, proven to be very beneficial to our intellectual development.  Sports programs are reverently treated as some type of sacred territory that should not be upset or trampled upon.  For many schools, doing so would diminish and shake their whole identity to the core.  To me, this "sports first, education second" mentality has unjustly harmed the education of generations of students.   

Comment by Frankie Dapper on September 19, 2012 at 1:18pm

Allen, greatness is indeed a nebulous notion. And unless you define the parameters of greatness uncertainty is to be expected. I venture that a great failing in one aspect can counteract greatness when analyzed in a vacuum. In the case of a revolutionary who is effectuating social equality against a backdrop of some totalitarian regime it may be justified that the revolutionary treats people like shit under the exigencies of the moment; on the other hand has our revolutionary avoided cruelty and bloodletting where possible. In the case of a business person,  ruthless or uncaring personality and demeanor might not negate the notion that Jobs is a great business person but it might be enough to remove him from consideration as a great person.

Vacuum greatness is of course more achievable than great person status. Perhaps Bertrand Russell was a great person. He was a thinker through and through with a great conscience. He questioned his stances on everything. He was a great thinker, philosopher, and mathematician. He was desirous of improving civilization. He was an advocate of free love. I assume he was honest with his women.





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