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 19, 2012 at 11:22am

Glen, Thanks for the enlightening info.  I've been familiar with the notions that animals feel and think a lot more than we thought they did, and all the new evidence sems to point in that direction.  Religion tells us the the world is ours to exploit and use up - a really dangerous idea, as Rich G. so eloquently points out.

Greatness is a nebulous notion.  No matter how acomplished, the person is always going to have flaws, just because they're human.  My brother sent me the new autobiograhy of Steve Jobs,  assuming I would be as impresssed as he was by Jobs' ability to make things happen.  I couldn't get past the fact, reported on almost every page, that he was a jerk who treated people like shit.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on September 17, 2012 at 12:27pm

To Allen. . .If evolution is to be our guide it is to be expected that our traits though different in degree will be same in kind. Science is uncovering more and more surprises showing similraties berween species. According to some ethologists animals have empathy and morals and sense of justice. Cetaceans have greater number of mirror neurons than humans, significant because of connection to empathy. If you are not familiar and you start to review the anecdotes and experiments you are bound to exclaim "holy shit".

On the other paw, if religion is to be our guide then we assume that the universe in its complexity and vastness is all here for our benefit and animals on our planet are to be used for our benefit. They lack souls and we can use em up. We are special creation. They are food. Fuck em.

Inasmuch as human stupidity, wars, genocides, religious intolerance (tautology) are legion it is not likely that any meaningful movement against cruelty to animals will commence. But if we can produce meat without bleat we ought'er.

In defining greatness a person must rise above the mores of her time. Critical thinking results in examinination of the mundane and rejection of all that is indefensible. Jefferson a man of letters, was skeptical at one point when a black scientist wrote him a letter. It was too elegant to be written by a black person. To think otherwise would threaten his sense of self. And even in Jefferson's day there were abolitionists a plenty. I guess you can argue limited scope of greatness. I look at greatness as a comprehensive test.

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 17, 2012 at 11:31am

Reply to Glen...Yes, there's a certain hypocrisy or denial in the notion that animals have feelings and emotions, yet we continue to murder and eat them.  Some would say "tough shit, we're at the top of the food chain and that's what we do" (actually heard this).  I welcome further debate and discussion. 

I'd like to see humans stop warring and killing each other for religious motives.  That would be a BIG step forward; then we can talk about the animals.

I am equally indeterminate about assessing greatness.   I think the first principle is to realize that "great" people are only human, are products of their times, and can't be expected to get everything right. 

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 14, 2012 at 4:05pm

That's "Joe Dumars."

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 14, 2012 at 4:04pm

Asa...I stand corrected.  Read it in the Boston Globe and thought "Brady."  Also appreciate the correction about the neck.  But my point still stands: people are risking permanent injury -- especially to the brain, and the other guy is going to hit you as hard as he can.

I agree, the whole thing's driven by tidal waves of money. I read that there's only 12 minuters of actual action in the game.  Again, like war: long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror" (can't remember who said it).

I did watch b'ball in the Bulls' glory years in the 90s (had played in h.s. and camp), but always while doing something else.  And yes, I did get to the point where I could see the play developing, the players switching and screening, etc. 

Before the Jordan/Pippen Bulls, I lived in the Detroit area and followed the championship Pistons (Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Joe Dumsrs and a skinny Dennis Rodman). 

Comment by Asa Watcher on September 14, 2012 at 3:32pm

Alan Perlman writes:

Tom Brady is going into this season after THREE neck surgeries. One wrong hit and he's a quadriplegic. Do you think the pass rushers are going to be easy on him?”

Actually, Alan, it’s Payton Manning, and he plays for my beloved Broncos here in Colorado.  

The guy has already had a Hall of Fame career, is probably set for life, and you gotta assume that he is playing for the love of the game.  (that and a $90 million contract)

His three neck surgeries, according to doctors, have left him with a “reenforced” neck that is probably less susceptible to injury than most other players in the NFL.  It is his age that has fans concerned.

"But you can have the choreography without the violence (and yes, sometime deliberate infliction of pain), e.g., basketball".  

(you don’t watch much B-ball either do you?)

Don’t get me wrong, Alan, I think all fans and players are bothered by the number of concussions that have come to be a genuine concern, and are well aware of the heightened potential of injury connected to the game.  Then again, people keep skiing too.

But fupball keeps being played, is the most popular team sport in the U.S. and makes a lot of people a lot of money.  And that probably is the prime mover, rather than some socio-psyco overtones of life or death warfare subdude only by the thin veneer of civilization.

I think fupball is popular for pretty straignt forward reasons.

That being said, I really appreciate your essay, and it has motivated  some great postings here which have caused me to think about this subject from a different perspective.


Comment by Frankie Dapper on September 14, 2012 at 3:20pm

Actually I think bonobos and chimps are first cousins. The Jane Goodall of bonobo observation will quickly be desensitized to sex. Like breathing.

The endlessly destructive fairy tale posits special creation. Makes it easy to abuse and use animals for our benefit. I dont consider Jefferson a truly great man. He had to know slavery was no no. I dont excuse him because of the contemporary customs. Our custom of slaughtering animals for food and medical experimentation is modern day slavery. I know better but I still eat meat. When you realize just how fucking sentient and emotional and empathic our relatives are it aint a good thing. I understand there is a whole foods in california which is selling petri dish grown meat. Bring it on.

I think you are talking about what used to be called ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. I am sure Richard G knows.

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 14, 2012 at 3:00pm

To Glen...Thanks for confirming what I had thought about bonobos.  Now I really wish they had shared a closer ancestor with hominids.  Life would be one long porn film.

It is difficult for religous folks to accept just how much we share with our animal ancestors. Recent book about your "3.5 billion year old fish" shows vestigial evidence of physical resemblances to much lower animals. 

Not surprised to learn that we mimic a lot of animal behaviors.  When I read about the male Australian bowerbird, how he assembles trinkets to beguile his mate, I thought, "Oh yeah, yuppies with Beemers."

Comment by Frankie Dapper on September 14, 2012 at 2:07pm

Alan we share common ancestors with all of the great apes. Dawkins gives details. The separation with orangs and gorillas was more distant than chimps. Bonobos are hyper-sexual.

I am reading an interesting book about ethology. The thrust is how not special humans are. Empathy throughout the animal kingdom, not just great apes and monkeys, elephants and cetaceans, right down to the lowly mouse, oh yeah birds too. Once you overcome religiously derived anthropomorphism ya gotta check your mammalcentric instincts.

But I think the stuff of human goodness is as prominent as our destructive nature. The question is how we call it forth. Exorcise the demons. hallelujah Now lets play some goddamn ball!


Comment by Alan Perlman on September 14, 2012 at 12:51pm


Many thanks for your extended and edifying commentary.  I agree 1000% with your last paragraph and with this (and had even surmised it on my own after reading Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel - I think that's the title): 

"For one thing the agricultural revolution changed human nature more than any other event, bringing on a farmer-herdsman stage about 10,000 years ago.  This changed the whole dynamic, allowing cities to develop and populations to soar.  Private property came into being and changed everything.  It’s here that specialized labor evolved, including a policeman/soldier class whose job it was to protect wealth and territory.  Interestingly, a scribe/lawyer/priest class also came into play here.  Shamans were already around but more as medicine man than priest."

The nexus between religion and medicine was inevitable.  If the shaman's herbs didn't cure you, his prayers and dances would certainly do the job.

Yes, it would have been very different if we shared a common ancestor with some other kind of ape.  Bonobos are, I understand, intelligent and less aggressive than chimps. 

I'm delighted that my critique of football elicited commentary on so many levels.  Thanks to everyone!



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