For the Good of the Team: Football Coaches & Conscience

In his latest essay for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes about one of the greatest dangers football players face: long-term brain damage from all the impact. It’s a grim, worthwhile read.

Gladwell doesn’t discuss the element that most disturbs me: the role of coaches in perpetuating the “programm[ing],” as one former NFL player calls it, that keeps players putting the team above their own well-being.

Gladwell looks to the testimony of Kyle Turley, who played in the NFL for nearly a decade, to show how players with recent head, neck, or spine injuries decide to put themselves back in harm’s way “on behalf of the team.”

I understand that players get caught up in the physicality and camaraderie of the game, and how those factors might contribute to their making certain dangerous choices. But how can a coach feel OK about sending recently-injured players back out onto the field? How can he hold the good of the team above the short- or long-term mental and physical health of the player?

As Phil Ochs put it:

It’s always the old to lead us to the war,
Always the young to fall.

3 thoughts on “For the Good of the Team: Football Coaches & Conscience

  1. Eric Kroczek October 13, 2009 / 10:31 am

    I was just reading this article yesterday when Cathy said “Oh, Devan just posted something about this on his blog.” Although I have always said–if only in jest–that I wouldn’t be satisfied with the violence level in football until dudes were being slaughtered ancient-Rome-style on the field to propitiate their corporate sponsors, I don’t believe I will ever watch football (or any other combat sport) the same way again. That men continue to pursue the sport is an interesting example of the “it can never happen to me” syndrome, as in “I will never get cancer from smoking, even though all those other people have,” etc.

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  2. devan October 13, 2009 / 11:05 am

    Let me issue a blanket “Me, too.” I get more and more uncomfortable with not just the most damaging hits, but with hits further and further below the “He’s not getting up” threshold.

    As an aside, I would argue that your gladiator-style football league might be *more* humane, because the stakes would be more explicit. Maybe that’s a bit of a reach.

    Incidentally, you might check out Steven King’s The Long Walk, which Aubrey recommended to me some years ago and which takes up just these issues. You’ll get through it in like two hours.

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  3. Eric Kroczek October 13, 2009 / 4:37 pm

    Mmm, I remember reading Long Walk in high school–pretty good. Much more interesting than that other deathmatch-themed Richard Bachman/Stephen King novel, The Running Man, which was made into a terrible movie.

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