Sunday, October 18, 2009

We are all Michael Vick [updated]

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece last week that has quickly gained much notice--that football players are ravaged by the game, that we know that (more or less) and watch anyway. What makes us different from those who watch and wager on dog-fighting? Gladwell makes the comparison quite explicit. The article focuses on the brain damage caused by lots of collisions:

chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), which is a progressive neurological disorder found in people who have suffered some kind of brain trauma. C.T.E. has many of the same manifestations as Alzheimer’s: it begins with behavioral and personality changes, followed by disinhibition and irritability, before moving on to dementia. And C.T.E. appears later in life as well, because it takes a long time for the initial trauma to give rise to nerve-cell breakdown and death. But C.T.E. isn’t the result of an endogenous disease. It’s the result of injury.
The article documents how much higher the rate at which ex-football players have dementia-like symptoms, especially on those younger than fifty.
At the core of the C.T.E. research is a critical question: is the kind of injury being uncovered by McKee and Omalu incidental to the game of football or inherent in it? Part of what makes dogfighting so repulsive is the understanding that violence and injury cannot be removed from the sport. It’s a feature of the sport that dogs almost always get hurt. Something like stock-car racing, by contrast, is dangerous, but not unavoidably so.
Yes, but actually, what makes dogfighting so repulsive is not just that violence and injury are inherent in the sport, but that victory is out-injuring the other side. In football, injuries affect the game, but are not the game. It is not quite Deathrace 2000. Sure, we find ourselves somewhat happy when the other side loses a player so that our team's chances of winning are increased, but we are not rooting for the injury itself. Of course, the past ten years or so have seen a greater fetish for big hits, replayed by EPSN and simulated in videogames, and that should raise questions. I am not saying that the comparison is not a good one, just that the analogy has some limits.

This is not the first time, of course, that this has come up. Teddy Roosevelt got involved at the turn of the century. One doctor at the time referred to college football as: A professor at the University of Chicago called it a “boy-killing, man-mutilating, money-making, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport.” And that statement is still pretty accurate.
What if you did everything you could, and banned kickoffs and full-contact practices and used the most state-of-the-art techniques for diagnosing and treating concussion, and behaved as responsibly as Nascar has in the past several years—and players were still getting too many dangerous little hits to the head?
What can we do?
There is nothing else to be done, not so long as fans stand and cheer. We are in love with football players, with their courage and grit, and nothing else—neither considerations of science nor those of morality—can compete with the destructive power of that love.
Well, that might be an overstatement. A writer who spent a short time on a football team has a variety of recommendations that would improve things a bit, giving the players a few more rights and making the doctors more independent from the team. Another piece in the NY Times focuses on the problem of repeated head injuries that are short of concussions, arguing that teams might want to reduce the intensity of practices--that practices would not have tackling.

So, we can improve the medicine, we can reduce the intensity of practices, we can change the game (as they did in the early 1900s) by eliminating kickoffs (the league did away with the wedge strategy during kickoffs before this season). Fundamentally, we can take better care of the players. Gladwell talks about how Vick's former dogs are being cared for, but what he surprisingly overlooks is the current scandal that is the NFL's retirement package. As we approach the next contract/work stoppage, one of the issues may well be how well do the players get taken care of after they leave the league. There have been plenty of stories of retired players living and dying in poverty.

Given that so many people make so much money on such a damaging sport, it should not be that hard to take care of those who play the game. Eliminating the game or fundamentally altering is not going to happen, but we could do a better job of taking care of those who pay the price of our Sundays and Monday nights.

No small irony that I write this on a Sunday morning with plans to watch a game or two this afternoon.

[Update] New article on CTE afflicting those who only played in high school or college:
The focus of the discussion of brain-trauma issue has been on the N.F.L. — it really needs to be on youth players,” Nowinski said. “Ninety-nine percent of football players in this country are college and below. They’re not being paid. They don’t have as good access to medical people. And the fact that they’re at risk for this disease should give us great pause.”


Anonymous said...

Football is not a humane activity any more than dog-fighting. The only difference between the two activities is that dogs have no choice in their behavior while football players can choose to be landscapers instead. Injuring one's opponent might not be the stated goal of football, but it is its necessary consequence. Once this generation of players moves on to a life enfeebled, a new generation of young, momentarily healthy athletes will emerge. They are just cogs in this great machine.

I'm not even sure injuring one's opponent is not the goal. During each play, one group of players smash into the other. The greater object of winning makes the possibility of injury loom that much larger. Players will even play hurt and risk greater injury for that noble object of victory. Come to think of it, football is worse than dog-fighting.

Bill Ayres said...

I think the experience of the XFL a few years ago is instructive. The whole point of the XFL was to make explicit what some are arguing is the implicit logic of NFL football--that the point is to injure your opponent. The XFL was supposed to be the "real smash-mouth" football, with bigger hits and more obvious glorification of the crush-the-other-side mentality.

Interestingly, despite all the hype that could be generated by the considerable WWE publicity machine (another entertainment that thrives on the illusion of explicit violence), the XFL tanked. Quickly. Nobody was really that interested.

This suggests that the NFL, and its fans, may have more in common with NASCAR than with dogfighting. Could the league do more, especially to protect retired players? Sure. But anybody who remembers the NFL from the 1970s has seen the rules changes that protect against the worst of abuses (remember when clotheslining was legal? free shots at the QB? when there was no "roughing the kicker" call?) For all that they still have ground to cover, it's a much safer game than it used to be.

Mrs. Spew said...

Football is about humans voluntarily agreeing to be players and signing contracts to that effect. They risk injury, but they choose to do so, just as a mountain climber chooses to climb a mountain and risk injury or a person decides to be a cop or soldier and risk injury and death. Football's money is perhaps a less noble reason to risk injury than a cop or a soldier, but it's still a personal choice. Whereas dogs have no choice and are being tortured for human pleasure.

But this is my problem with college football and why I don't watch it. College football players don't really have full choice. They are supposed to be getting an education and pay for it by playing football on scholarship. They are therefore forced to keep playing if they want to get a degree. They are under the same amount of risk as professionals, but without the money and resources to compensate for that risk or the possibility of an NFL career for most players. They are a sort of indentured servant off of whom lots of money is made.

But at the same time, what do you do? Remove sports from colleges and deny those who want to have a career in athletics their opportunity and proper training? So that one's tricky.

Bill Ayres said...

Actually, the college sports problem isn't tricky at all. If professional sports leagues want development leagues for future athletes to train in, let THEM create, fund, and run them. Major League Baseball does this quite ably with the minor leagues, with an astonishing array of levels. Yes, college baseball teams get scouted too, but not nearly to the degree that college football teams do.

I've taught in Division 1 schools. Some of those athletes get an education. Many don't. And those that graduate, get a lot less of an educational experience than their non-athlete student counterparts.

So by all means, remove sports from colleges. Big-money pro sports (and the NFL has PLENTY of money) will find a way to scout and develop talent.