Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Use Your Head

To the extent I got to watch some football over the weekend, a great deal of the sturm und drang was around "big hits" and the new-found concern that they are much more dangerous and destructive than previously thought, and can lead to seriously debilitating and even life-threatening conditions.  While this is a serious issue, in that people's lives are being put at risk or even wrecked in slow motion, I have to admit, for any number of reasons I find the whole thing laughable.

First there's the obvious tension not just between the parties involved, but within the parties involved.  The players want to be healthy and live long, productive lives, but they also want a chance to get really rich, and that means standing out from your peers as a superior player.  In football that means extremely aggressive play, and hard hits.  Lots of them.  The owners and advertisers are well aware that much of the attraction of the NFL is the violence inherent in the game, to the point where every team has to issue an 'injury report' before each weeks play.  Think about that.  How many other industries are so dangerous that every workday some percentage of the regular workforce is out with a job-related injury?  But those same owners and advertisers know the other attraction of NFL football is the presence of the superstars and the resulting very high level of play quality.  If Tom Brady or Troy Polamalu can't take the field for a game, fans are going to be disappointed, and if it happens enough those fans will find a game that gives them what they want.  The fans have a similar disconnect.  They LOVE the big hits, but they don't want to see their favorite players unable to take the field for weeks on end.  Most of all, they want their team to win, which requires keeping their best players healthy.

Even more laughable is the approach Americans take to athletics and sporting events in the first place.  Much of what captures our attention and holds our interest, both as spectators and as participants, is dangerous or life-threatening.  From auto racing to mountain climbing, from boxing to hockey, we embrace high-risk endeavors even as we demand something be done to 'make them safer'.  So a given sport's governing body will engage in an odd combination of rule-making, safety R&D and elaborate theater to try to appear responsive to the safety concerns, while at the same time retaining enough of the risk and violence that originally attracted the audience in the first place.

At some level we're going to have to make a choice.  You can't entirely remove the risk of serious injury from the game of football any more than you can take that risk out of auto racing.  The current outcry over brain injuries in football will ultimately have to give way to the irrefutable realization that some level of risk, and some permanently injured and even dead players will have to be accepted as the nature of the beast.  Or you essentially put an end to the sport's popularity, thereby putting an end to the sport.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you, and this was on my mind on Sunday also. I was watching all of the flags and calls and penalties.
    you wrote sturm und drang
    and for this, I heart you.