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 10, 2012 at 11:10am

To Glen: It is a truism that the Presidency is a unique job, different for each President, and the job is learned by doing the job.  But it would certainly help if the Prez could proceed from a base of knowledge, especially about other parts of the world. 

So much of American foreign policy is based on ignorance of peoples, history, cultures.  Don't get involved in a land war in Asia.  Don't try to take sides in the fucked-up Muslim world.  Is this so difficult?  Typically the Prez' advisors are as clueless as he is.

I wouldn't question Palin's knowledge, though.  After all, she can see Russia from her back porch.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on September 9, 2012 at 10:27pm

Alan, I dont think it is wildly improbable that something similar would be supported by democrats. Republicans are the party of christian right and therefore anti-intellectual. So I cant imagine there would be a great deal of support from them.

Can you imagine how entertaining it would be to see Herman Cain, Sarah Palin and so many others examined as to even the most basic knowledge? Implement this amendment and we no longer have as many scary stupid ignorant candidates. Fear of being embaressed would trump the ego driven quest for power.

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 9, 2012 at 7:37pm

To Steph...I'll try to keep it interesting for you.  Thanks!  I should have mentioned Tebow.  Athletes have been thanking God and Jesus for quite a while - he just makes stagecraft of it.  Asshole. 

To Asa: as a linguist/speechwriter, I like the change of emphasis.

To Glen: I had that same thought years ago, but it seemed too far out.  It's as if the voters lap up the candidates' images of themselves and make a leap of faith - but never ask about these basic competencies.  Bush wouldn't have passed.  Nor Reagan.  Yes, you are right, we are such pack animals.

To Rich: I love your elaborations, but let's not pile up the PC images.  The Christian opponent should be an Elmer Gantry/Rick Perry type of politician.  A pious prick you love to hate.


Comment by Asa Watcher on September 9, 2012 at 11:53am

When appropriate I’ve always countered the “team” metaphor with the “crew” metaphor.  The very concept of a team implies opposition, an enemy, a rival, a foe, bent on thwarting your efforts.

The idea of a “crew” on the other hand, has no such inherent connotation, but, rather, denotes an organized group working together to reach a destination or achieve a goal.  

Nip the team metaphor as quickly as possible if you are in some sort of public forum . . . School Board meeting, Town Board, community action group, and introduce the “crew” concept.  I’ve witnessed it making a difference in the tone of a gathering  when the goal of the crew rather than opposition to the team becomes the matter at hand.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on September 9, 2012 at 10:00am

In addition to our evolutionary inheritance in what I call overidentification there is the issue of lionizing and hero worship. Comes from alpha male pack dominance I imagine. We pay homage to our heros. Fanatical mindless gagagagaga fawning reverence for average people who have athletic superiority or are figures in pop culture. It speaks to misplaced values and empty worship. And then we want to make war heros, athletes and actors into political leaders. Not philosopher kings or meritorious candidates.

I would love to see constitutional amendment requiring our presidential candidates pass a written test to prove their competence in history, international affairs, geography and ethics. If they pass the threshold they are publicly examined by experts in those fields. Extemporaneous answers, no advance notice of questions. What a great way to weed out the unworthy and stimulate conversation of real issues. Ya got to take a test to be a lawyer and every other profession. But you can be a no nothing, sound biting, sloganeering demagogue and attain the highest us office. Makes alot of sense. 

Comment by Rich Goss on September 9, 2012 at 9:28am

How about a movie where atheism is front and center


Great idea, Alan.  A movie about an atheist politician is certainly overdue.  I wrote a pretty coherent novel so I’d be glad to help with the dialog and plot development. 


First, let’s look at other possibilities:  Our non-believing pol cold pull a Fidel Castro and conceal his true color until gaining power, then turn into a modern-day Robespierre, denouncing the first estate by taxing the church’s income and real estate and requiring the clergy to get jobs like everybody else. 


Your plot would also work.  Our candidate runs against a Mike Huckabee and the people decide what they want.  Being we’re only 15% of the electorate, we’d have to figure out some event which would turn things around.  I don’t think Huckabee caught in an airport men’s room with Ted Haggard would do it. 


Also, instead of a good-looking Robert Redford, let’s make our candidate something different.  We never had a black, midget, lesbian candidate.  Something like that.  I’m sure the Tea Party will love it. 


Comment by Steph S. on September 9, 2012 at 1:07am
Just read your addendum! So thankful for your blog - many people don't think like I do. I think our society worships football players and sports in general. It's gotten out of hand - or seems to be getting worse. Now there's Tim Tebow - yuck!
Alan I really love your writings!
Comment by Alan Perlman on September 8, 2012 at 8:31pm

Thanks, guys, for most thoughtful comments.  Agreed that some sort of advance or intervention is necessary before we destroy ourselves and the planet. 

How about a movie where atheism is front and center, as one party dares nominate a secular candidate?  He/she wants to take God's name off the money and totally separate chruch and state.  No more praying in Congress (assuming he/she has a secular coalition).

Worse, he derides religion as a bunch of faitry tales for weak minds (with soaring humanist rhetoric, of course).  The right goes nuts. Death threats. Violence in the streets -- until the other party's Christian candidate is found guilty of child porn. Who's moral now, huh?  Robert Redford as the humanist candidate

Comment by Frankie Dapper on September 8, 2012 at 2:00pm

Richard as I started reading your last entry Lord of the Flies came to mind. I was young when I read it and I understood it to be an exploration of human nature. Did not know Freud's theories were being personified.

Seems like mammals grow more malleable as grey matter complexity increases. Our brains are adapted to learn from parents and  tribe. No place for 'heretics' in a state of nature. The tiny group of homo sapiens has overcome the odds and proliferated like rabbits without predators.

Maybe we can get to the point that science can make genetic alterations that allow reason to be primary guiding force of humanity. Movements that prioritize humanity over ingroups can make there mark.

Comment by Rich Goss on September 8, 2012 at 1:12pm

Interesting conversation.  No movie dared to touch this theme, with one tiny exception that I know of…


There is one old movie that definitely deals with tribalism—big time.  In my opinion it’s the most important novel of the 20th century.  Just a dozen years after it was written, the author won the Nobel Prize for Literature. 


I recently mentioned Prof Phillip Zimbardo to Alan.  As part of his social psych class in 1965, we studied Lord of the Flies for a whole week.  We discussed every character and line of dialog.  The story is an allegory where each character represents an aspect of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory.  Piggy was the superego, Ralph the ego and the Ralph, of course, that part of human nature that Freud couldn’t even name, so he just called it the “It” or Id in Latin. 


It’s the story of humanity under a microscope.  What makes it relevant here is that Ralph uses tribalism to gain power to the point where he could burn down the whole island in an attempt to get revenge.  Piggy who represents Christian morality had his head bashed in, but Simon the mystical rationalist was the first to be murdered.  ‘Til this day I remember Simon’s famous line, “Maybe we are the beastie.”  It’s certainly true if we look at the planet in terms of Gaia theory. 


Freud’s theory has been widely updated but not discarded.  The “id” is now referred to as the “R complex” or “Reptilian Factor.”  It’s our hindbrain evolutionary baggage which is the seat of fear, anger and territoriality, long before the higher emotions like maternal love, empathy and pair bonding developed in the limbic or mammalian brain. 


Another biological concept relates to our conversation, the Prime Directive.  It’s an important term because it governs all life from the earliest Archaean replicators on up the Darwinian tree.  The PD is “the force” referred to in the Star Wars cycle but not quite so benign and glamorous:  Self Preservation and Reproduce as much as possible.  Steph S. started a popular discussion here on the “Purpose of Life.”  Looking at life on the planet as a whole, the question is simply answered:  Spread DNA and increase biodiversity. 


To me, Simon is the most important contribution of this masterpiece.  Simon transcended the mundane and always relied on reason.  Ralph hated him even more than Piggy.  It becomes clear that reason is the only part of our humanity that can save us.  Yet Simon was not liked by the “Little Uns” and not considered a member of the tribe.    


Selfish Gene theory demonstrates how our very genetic makeup is composed of parasites that care nothing about the genome host they reside in.  (How can they care, they are merely bits of information?)  In our world of over seven billion our genes will motivate us to make as many babies as we can.  Genes propel sardines to retreat into a tighter and tighter ball making it easier for sharks.  Genes incite various bugs at a nighttime gas station to fly around the light bulbs until they burn to death. 



If you enjoyed this perspective, it continues into Mirror Reversal, the “Atheist Novel” at the right.  The characters in MR are Richard Dawkins’ genes set in an allegory in the fashion as Lord of the Flies.  The theory itself tells the story. 


For humans to survive and thrive, Simon will have to have his day and overthrow Jack as the programmer of our behavior.  Instead of “In God We Thrust” as our national motto, we need “In Reason We Thrust” as our human motto. 


Afterthought:  I’ve always appreciated that fact that it was William Golding and James Lovelock (who’s still alive) who are the co-founders of Gaia theory.  Reason tells us we have to look at our Earth as superorganism, with delicate checks and balances and intricate biofeedback.







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