In response to Drew Magary’s assertion that “No One Gives a Shit About Cheap Shots”:
- Magary’s obviously wrong to think this was just one weekend of hits followed by some out-of-the-blue media shitstorm. Coverage has been steadily increasing for years, especially this past year, when I’ve read about the issue in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the New York Times, the fucking Post-Gazette, and in perhaps a half-dozen other places—and that was all before week six. Hell, I even wrote about it myself last year.
- Every time I post a link to some article about brain injury in the NFL on Facebook, I get a long thread and the odd private message from people who either aren’t watching football anymore or who are but really wish it were different. I think hard-core sports fans—like just about everybody Magary seems to be in touch with—don’t give a shit about the hits, but they’re not as much in the mainstream as they might like to think. I myself turned off the RedZone in week six (of all weeks!) in part to give myself a break from all the carnage. It’s honestly more than I want to see most Sundays, and it’s getting harder and harder to watch.
- NFL players have indeed been subject to shorter life spans for a long time, but they’re getting shorter and shorter with every passing decade. And the argument that people know what they’re getting into is horseshit. When you’re in college getting drafted, you know what you’re getting into. But when you’re a fucking nine-year-old running back whose NFL dreams are already changing the decisions you make in life, you are in no way capable of evaluating the consequences of your repeated head traumas. Frankly, even high-schoolers—who get some terrible concussions and subconcussive brain injuries playing football—simply don’t have fully-developed cognitive architectures yet, and in particular, they’re terrible (on average) at thinking about futures and consequences (which is obvious on the face of it, but also backed by plenty of good science). In short, once you’re in the NFL, it’s way too late to back out. People are simply not equipped to back off of a dozen years of attachment to a dream because suddenly some team lawyer is reading them a bunch of legalese about the risks of concussion. (And that’s to say nothing of the overwhelming majority of high-school players who never get to the NFL. Where’s the payoff for their brain damage?)
- This is a societal problem, not a sports problem. Magary’s not the only one to miss that point. On SportsCenter, Trent Dilfer defended the as-it-has-been NFL by using the word “gladiatorial.” But there’s a reason dogfighting is illegal, a reason certain kinds of bloodsporty mixed martial arts are illegal, a reason we don’t fucking bait bears anymore. As a civilized society, we understand the dangers of indulging human instincts that may well be natural. (Or at least, we did at the time of the release of The Running Man.) That football has become gladiatorial is an argument against its current role in our society, not for it.
Hear, hear!!! I agree with it all 100%, of course; I think that point 3 is probably the strongest and least-discussed. I once read a mini-bio of Chinese basketball player Yao Ming that expressed mild horror at the way in which he was the offspring of basketball players, who were themselves selected by the state for their height and natural ability, and how Yao was the product of a sinister, intensive breeding and training regimen. BUT…A close friend of mine has a stepson who is now a DL for the UC Bearcats–through him I received a quick course in the life and preparation of a young “gladiator”-in-training, beginning at a very young age. I’ve also done plenty of reading into the way in which being selected to play in feeder teams that train athletes for a life in professional sports is practically the only way out of poverty for many African-American men. If, for some reason, a young athlete with professional aspirations is derailed from this highly specialized career track, they are done, left with few (if any) options. How this is NOT, de facto, what the Chinese do is beyond me, and you are absolutely correct–once the athlete is in the pros, or even Div. IA, which is the final proving ground for the pros for most players, it is far too late for anyone to stop doing what they’ve been chosen and molded and trained to do.
Thanks, Eric! I’m most passionate about the third point, for sure. And I didn’t even mention the natural consequence that the NFL has a responsibility to the high-schoolers to change how the game is played at the highest level. If the NFL sticks to penalizing headshots and devastating hits, young players will be coached to avoid such things—every bit as much as they’ve been coached to deliver them until now.
Anyway the comparison to Yao Ming and the Chinese situation is fascinating, and I think you’re right that it is so similar to what we’re facing here. A set of insane, almost incomprehensible socioeconomic pressures combined with a network of people (coaches, recruiters, etc.) who really do love the game—and the money they can make on it—makes for an irresistible career path. You know, as long as you’re in the elite minority for whom the sport actually becomes a career.