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 Frankie Dapper on September 8, 2012 at 11:17am

Tribalism serves the powerful and elite of every society. And it works in conjunction with brains evolved for state of nature cooperation. But evolution has taken us out of nature and what was a survival characteristic is an extinction threat. Pernicious obedience, faith, unquestioning allegiance are all in the interest of the elite and contrary to the interst of mankind.

We have to see ourselves as part of the greater group rather than ingroup. How this can be accomplished I suppose is by airing the idea and making it prominent. Atheism helps. It opens up the enormous subject of ethics and morality. And you are correct there is a niche for this theme in literature and movies.

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 8, 2012 at 10:39am

Oh, I'm definitely with you.  I'd love to see the light at the end of the tunnel of barbarism.  One of main obstacles is that political leaders have no interest in exposing tribalism and religion as divisive evils (witness the recent controversy over the word "God' in the Democratic platform).

They're way too invested in promoting them.  Without them, legions of clerics and politicans would be without a job -- hey, maybe that's what we need: a massive Retraining/Jobs Program for these folks so that they can find useful  work.

I note in passing that movies, which have produced every imaginable fantasy (e.g., "The Human Centipede" -- AND sequel) have not dared to touch this theme, with one tiny exception that I know of.  A film called "The Contender" actually featured a presidential candidate who was an atheist but it was a minor theme; the movie was really about  whether she'd been in a sex video years ago.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on September 8, 2012 at 8:55am

Cooperation within groups creates in-groups and out-groups. Tribalism evolved in humans because of its survival value. That same biology of cooperation fosters antagonism. The enemy of cooperation is overidentification within groups: nations, religions, cultures, fraternitys. How can we overcome that insular and sometimes zenophobic "belonging"?

Work with me here. I am attempting to solve seemingly insurmountable issues which will ameliorate civilization and all before breakfast. My creativity is stymied. 

Comment by Rich Goss on September 7, 2012 at 10:31pm

Here's one:  If you work hard and outsmart your opponent, you score a touchdown and you get a bonus.  An extra point. 

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 7, 2012 at 10:23pm

Glen, Nothing's off-topic.  Threads must spin new threads.

Othe scenarios that might promote cooperation: drugs ("Clockwork Orange"), global catastrophe (remember how we all felt so united for about a week after 9/11?)


Rich: one of the most sinister and overworked sports metaphors in business is "team play(er)."  While the course of action in f'ball is decided on and never disputed, a corporate "team player" must swallow legitimate objections and submit to the groupthink - quite a different proposition.  Woe betide the rebel who is not perceived as a t.p.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on September 7, 2012 at 5:06pm

A'ight, Allen figured I was being shunned for going off topic. I can handle the truth. I am an atheist damnit.

Yes evolution beyond war and religion is possible and we need not resort to eugenics. Cooperation is also a biological evolutionary factor. And it is quite possible that it will emerge particularly with the wildcard artificial intelligence just around the corner.

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 7, 2012 at 5:02pm

Belated reply to Glen - Interesting info. about genetic deiversity.  We make such a big deal of it, but we're more alike than chimps! 

Key question: is evolution beyond war and religion possible?

Comment by Alan Perlman on September 7, 2012 at 4:17pm


You are quite right.  I was a corp. speechwriter, and the similarities were deliberately cited in motivational metaphors.  Sports and war were, for a while, the go-to metaphors in executive speeches.  Very manly.

Comment by Rich Goss on September 6, 2012 at 4:12pm

Here’s an interesting consideration as to why football is so popular in a corporate plutocracy:  Football is a microcosm of the corporate state.  The same rules and protocol that govern big business and a well run corporation also apply to football. 




It’s territorial and played on a well defined grid.  Scoring points (making a sale) is achieved by advancing the ball methodically through hard work into the opponent’s end zone.  There are strict time limitations, not only for the quarter but for every play.  Failure to meet deadlines is severely penalized.


There’s a strict hierarchy.  From coach down to the captain and quarterback every player has a distinct job like a worker on an assembly line.  Labor is highly specialized. 


Cheating, lying and spying are allowed if you don’t get court.  Trying to steal the opponent’s signals is corporate spying. 


Advancement is based on how many points you score or tackles you make.  Making an error results in a penalty and often leads to a demotion.  Getting benched is exactly the same as being laid off. 


Winning results in advancement and salary increases. 


Recruiting (head hunting) is often illegal and crooked.  Bribery (lobbying college managers and coaches) is often involved. 


Lateness, absence from practice without a medical note from the doctor, and slovenliness are not tolerated.  Any behavior that damages the reputation of the team can result in dismissal. 


Above all, team work and being able to do your job on the assembly line are key to success.  Everyone is expected to sacrifice individuality for the sake of the team.  Uniforms are issued and each member is a number. 


See if you can think of any other similarities.  There’re many more I didn’t think of.  Fun stuff but sadly true.











Comment by Alan Perlman on September 6, 2012 at 2:23pm

Reply to Rich - How long do these people get a pass for looks and athletic talent?  Only a very few.  I think many are unequipped to get by on anything else. 



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