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 Rich Goss on September 12, 2012 at 4:06pm

Alan, I’d have to side with John Horgan’s position rather than Wilson’s.  I once had this discussion with Ruth about mankind evolving from gentler frugivorous ancestors. 


A series of researchers, starting with Jane Goodall, have documented the murders within chimpanzee groups and lethal raids conducted between groups…


This may be true but that doesn’t mean murderous territoriality goes back deep into our evolutionary past.  I think it was Louis Leaky who told the story of Proconsul, a baboon in the London Zoo in the ’20s.  Zoo keepers placed several alpha males in the same pen and watched in horror at the constant fighting and carnage.  Anthropologists couldn’t help but conclude that the genus Papio was universally hostile, warlike and aggressive.  But in the wild that’s not the case; once a social pecking order is established murder is extremely rare.  In the case of Goodall’s chimps of Gombe, we have to take into account the pernicious and destructive effects of mankind’s encroachment into their natural habitat. 


At the present time, we are still fundamentally the same as our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but with more food and larger territories.


I have to question this conjecture.  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. 


I had several conversations with Barbara G. Walker on this theme.  In Man Made God, Barbara does a great job explaining how religion metamorphosed from worship of a fertile Earth Goddess into a patriarchal, mafia-boss, all-powerful God.  We agreed that this was a sad event for humanity.  In biology it’s similar to a biological convergence, that is a step backward to an earlier successful lifestyle—wildebeests evolving into whales, for instance.  In the case of humans were regressed back to earlier patriarchal, highly hierarchical monkey behavior and have been paying the price ever since. 


For as long as I can remember the gibbon has been my favorite animal.  In grace and balance, it makes human gymnasts seem like beasts of burden.  The gibbon gives us a glimpse into the remote past, going way back to the Miocene Epoch (the Age of Mammals) 24 million years ago.  It’s a gentle creature compared to the baboon, and lived a gentle carefree lifestyle without predators.  It was a canopy dweller and fruit and berry eater. 


In my view, it’s during this long extended stasis, all the way to the Pliocene just 5.2 mya that the true psyche and subconscious of humanity formed.  I think a modern-day gibbon would be appalled to see an intruder chimp gang attacked and murdered because it wandered into the wrong territory.  Gibbons have been heard singing love songs, a liebestraum, to their mate high in the lofty branches in the rain forests of Java. 


For the sake of humanity I hope I’m right.  I believe this socioeconomic system brings out the worse in people.  The system turns people into ass-kissers and used car salesmen.  Just think, humans are dumping 88 million tons of carbon dioxide in the air daily, and we can’t stop to pick up a hitchhiker.  Does that make sense?  What does that say about us?  Is that really human nature where we can help one another for fear of being attacked by a stranger?  We couldn’t have evolved this far if it were.  The corporate plutocracy doesn’t want people trusting one another; it’s bad for business. 


One of the main theses of Mirror Reversal is that we’re been robbed of our humanity and cheated out of paradise. 










Comment by Alan Perlman on September 11, 2012 at 11:38pm it is: . Let me know what you think. Agriculture + pop. growth = war.

Comment by Rich Goss on September 11, 2012 at 4:25pm

Alan, is there a link for the Wilson article?  The question delves deep into the human psyche. 

My own feeling is that war better not be—inevitable, because mother Earth can't take too many more.


Comment by Alan Perlman on September 11, 2012 at 12:49pm

To Asa...Good exposition on the appeal of the game. I appreciate your sharing this, when so many commentators are anti-f'ball. 

F'ball is violent choreography, no question.  Even afterward, when the play is being analyzed, I still have trouble following the various moves, feints, and blocks.  But you can have the choreography without the violence (and yes, sometime deliberate infliction of pain), e.g., basketball.

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?

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 11, 2012 at 12:41pm

Ruth...Thanks for the info and cultural context.  Does this mean we can't abolish fupball unless we first abolish war?  What does it say about the US that this sport exists almost nowhere else in the world?

See pro and con POVs (one by E.O. Wilson) in the June '12 issue of Discover on "Is War Inevitable?"

Comment by Rich Goss on September 11, 2012 at 12:19pm

Good post,Asa.  It wouldn't be much of a discussion if we didn't disagree.  You made some good points. 

Absolutely no one in the whole stadium.  I have to be careful of these sweeping generalizatiolns and blanket statements.



Comment by Asa Watcher on September 11, 2012 at 11:57am

Richard Goscicki maintains:

"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.”  

I have to disagree.  No real fan wants to see injury.  The injured player, even if from the opposing team, receives applause from the crowd when he walks or is carried from the field.  In the case of an apparent serious injury, players from both sides can be seen expressing concern.  Sometimes there is even hand holding and in some cases “prayer circles”.  Nobody wants the outcome of the game to hinge on the injury of a player.  The exceptions to this attitude are rare and result in real scandal.  Fans and sportscasters grieve over season or career ending injuries.

So why do I enjoy watching NFL football so much?

I think it is tribal with me.  I enjoy rooting for the home team.

I like watching the biggest, fastest, and some of best athletes in the world working closely together.

The pulling Guard.

The pass in the air, thrown even before the receiver turns to catch it.  

The often overlooked offensive and defensive line play.

The discipline, the stamina, the uncovering of the opposition’s weakness, the avoidance of the opposition’s strength.

That football has become metaphor is not the doing of football, but our doing, and commercialization, of course.  But commercialization distorts everything.

That being said, I do not deny that the enjoyment I get from watching a good football game might be a character flaw, and that I also enjoy other things that do not necessarily do me, or society, any good.

And I do share most of the observations made here about social nitch the game has come to fill.

Comment by Ruth Anthony-Gardner on September 10, 2012 at 9:30pm

From the perspective of Cultural Transformation Theory, football is a paradigm Dominator Culture sport. Power and status through violence. It would require a transformation to Partnership Culture for the US to embrace nonviolent athletics. Such a cultural shift involves repudiating hierarchy

for Egalitarian Cooperation.

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 10, 2012 at 9:04pm

"Slutty flight attendant" was, I believe, one of the early comparisons.  The thought of her as Prez probably cost McCain some votes.

Comment by Rich Goss on September 10, 2012 at 2:08pm

I certainly agree with Glen’s contention about the lack of intelligence of our so-called “leaders.”  How about Sarah Palin, she seems to ooze and exude imbecility the same way a voluptuous porn star radiates lust.





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