As USC and Oregon prepare to battle for the Rose Bowl and potential BCS glory, I'm also reading Domer Dan Lungren's foolish comments about USC's "headhunter," and I realize how football as we know it could end someday.
A hundred years ago, baseball became our "National Passtime," but football has far surpassed it in the last 40 years, becoming a National Obsession. Politicians took note of its popularity and tried to use it to promote themselves; but for some, the game became an irresistible target due to its violent nature. More recently Orrin Hatch, Dan Lungren and other clueless pols have been getting in on the act for their own selfish reasons.
America's elites have always viewed football disdainfully, but they've left it alone. Now, with clueless repubs like Lungren trying to score some cheap political points, the lefties see a golden opportunity to emasculate, er... "Change" the game.
In an October 19, 2009 article in The New Yorker magazine, Malcolm Gladwell (Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers) compared football to dog fighting; yeah, dog fighting:
How different are dogfighting and football?
by Malcolm Gladwell
In a few short words, Gladwell makes an searing indictment: Football is the human equivalent of dogfighting.
As America's unofficial pop sociologist and a best selling author his words carry a lot of weight. The readership of The New Yorker is heavy with amateur social engineers, high minded dowagers, academic elites, and the politicians that love them. Surely they know what's best for us children.
The LAT reports that yesterday, a House Judiciary Committee panel held a hearing. Former NFL football players demanded Federal scrutiny of the NFL.
"The causes and pervasiveness of these football injuries warrant federal scrutiny," said committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), who called for the league to release its injury data for an independent review. "These are not the types of risks these players or their families associate with the game of football."
Gladwell has definitely started something.
In the nineteenth century, dogfighting was widely accepted by the American public. But we no longer find that kind of transaction morally acceptable in a sport. "I was not aware of dogfighting and the terrible things that happen around dogfighting," Goodell said, explaining why he responded so sternly in the (Michael) Vick case. One wonders whether, had he spent as much time talking to (former NFL player) Kyle Turley as he did to Michael Vick, he’d start to have similar doubts about his own sport.
Like a modern day Harriet Beecher Stowe, Gladwell is taking up the cause to rid America of football, one of its last unholy institutions. The point of his argument is aimed squarely at the NFL, but Gladwell is too smart overlook football's soft underbelly, College and High School football.
(College) Football faced a version of this question a hundred years ago, after a series of ugly incidents. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt called an emergency summit at the White House, alarmed, as the historian John Sayle Watterson writes, "that the brutality of the prize ring had invaded college football and might end up destroying it." Columbia University dropped the sport entirely. A professor at the University of Chicago called it a "boy-killing, man-mutilating, money-making, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport." In December of 1905, the presidents of twelve prominent colleges met in New York and came within one vote of abolishing the game.
If such a meeting took place in these enlightened times, would the result be the same? Picking up where John Sayle Watterson left off, Gladwell opines:
But the main objection at the time was to a style of play—densely and dangerously packed offensive strategies—that, it turns out, could be largely corrected with rule changes, like the legalization of the forward pass and the doubling of the first-down distance from five yards to ten. Today, when we consider subtler and more insidious forms of injury, it’s far from clear whether the problem is the style of play or the play itself.
Perhaps I'm Loco, but it's probably not be a coincidence that our friends up at Berkeley are hearing faculty demands (not wanting to waste a good crisis) for cuts in athletic programs with football front and center. Just prior there was all that hand wringing in the media over Tim Tebow's concussion, and the "Congressional investigation" of the BCS, and clown Lungren unloading on Taylor Mays.
But a football player’s real issue isn’t simply with repetitive concussive trauma. It is, as the concussion specialist Robert Cantu argues, with repetitive subconcussive trauma. It’s not just the handful of big hits that matter. It’s lots of little hits, too. That’s why, Cantu says, so many of the ex-players who have been given a diagnosis of C.T.E. were linemen: line play lends itself to lots of little hits. The HITS data suggest that, in an average football season, a lineman could get struck in the head a thousand times, which means that a ten-year N.F.L. veteran, when you bring in his college and high-school playing days, could well have been hit in the head eighteen thousand times: that’s thousands of jarring blows that shake the brain from front to back and side to side, stretching and weakening and tearing the connections among nerve cells, and making the brain increasingly vulnerable to long-term damage.
According to the scientists Gladwell interviewed for his piece, there's no way to prevent concussions, even with improved gear:
Would better helmets help? Perhaps. And there have been better models introduced that absorb more of the shock from a hit. But, Nowinski says, the better helmets have become—and the more invulnerable they have made the player seem—the more athletes have been inclined to play recklessly.
So if better gear won't help, what can you do? You neuter the game.
Guskiewicz says his data show that a disproportionate number of serious head impacts happen on kickoffs, so he wonders whether it might make sense, in theory, anyway, to dispense with them altogether.
And finally Gladwell reaches a not-so surprising conclusion:
What football must confront, in the end, is not just the problem of injuries or scientific findings. It is the fact that there is something profoundly awry in the relationship between the players and the game.
In "Outliers," Gladwell makes the following comment regarding Bill Gates:
"Our world only allowed one 13-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?"
Perhaps Gladwell thinks those million 13-year-olds should be sitting safely at home in front of their computers, instead of being out there bashing each other on a football field. We are definitely missing several thousand Microsofts.
All that recent crazy talk about NFL franchise "plantations" and who the players will and won't play for shows that indeed there is something awry. Politics invaded the NFL decades years ago, but could it be possible that politics will destroy it? Probably not, but politics may change the game into something we won't recognize.
Beat the Ducks!