I've always been a sports fan, and watching football has been one of my favorite pastimes. Over the last few years, however, it's been a guilty please at best and, maybe, hypocrisy at its worst. A few years ago, I attended a presentation on brain injuries that woke me up to the cost football players pay to entertain fans like me. PBS's Frontline series went even deeper into the issue, showing how pervasive brain injuries are for professional football players. The news has not gotten better.
On Thursday, a 17 year old football player, at Chicago's Bogan High School, Andre Smith, died after a game. He was the seventh high school player to die in the U.S. this season. At first, it was reported that he was injured on the last play of the game, but, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, he walked off the field and collapsed as he was leaving the field. No one knows the exact cause of death, and there will be an autopsy next week. Here's what we do know: He died playing football.
Is football so dangerous that it should be made illegal? Once upon a time, I scoffed at this question. There is risk in everything we do. Players willingly participate in the sport, which they know is dangerous. I've used all of those reasons to convince myself that football is the same as basketball and baseball. It's a game. But something interesting happens when we compare football and hockey. It is possible to play a much less violent version of hockey than we see in the NHL. Fighting is banned in the international game. Checking is limited or banned in many leagues. Unless you're playing some kind of touch or flag version of the game, football is all about violence, hitting another person with your body and knocking them to the ground. Fans like me often cheer loud when both the offensive and defensive player collide at full speed. Violent hits make us cheers, and we do not ask the question: What is happening to their brains and bodies when such collisions occur?
This blog is about career and work issues, and whether they are amateur or professional athletes, football players work very hard at what they do. They practice, lift weights, and eat special diets to maintain a certain weight. They learn complicated plays and signals that are called out before each play. Paid or unpaid, their work needs to be taken the same way we consider other workplace or work-like recreational activities. Is this game too violent however it is played? Tomorrow I am meeting two friends to watch the Carolina Panthers play the Philadelphia Eagles. We meet several times over the course of the season, but it's getting harder for me to watch football given what we now know about the price paid by those who play the game, those who are working for our pleasure. Andre Smith's death has made me question my complicity as a fan. Is it time to turn off football?
P.S. DNAInfo reports that Andre's Smith's autopsy has been completed. It found that he died of football related injuries, "blunt force trauma" to his head.
Apparently, college football players do. Think Progress reports that the National College Players Association has filed a petition on behalf of football players from Northwestern University to be recognized as members of a union. This effort is being support by the United Steelworkers Union.
I’ve long believed that college athletes who generate millions of dollars for their universities deserve some kind of compensation, and I have no problem with their organizing. However, it says a lot about our country when this story gets so much attention while the ongoing effort of low wage workers at Walmart and similar companies is almost ignored. Public sectors unions are under fire at the Supreme Court, again, with little or no coverage.
Until working people recognize that we are all in this together, it will be easy for the super rich and their lackeys in politics and the media to play games of divide and conquer. I hope low wage workers stand with college athletes in their struggle for union right. And I hope college athletes do the same for the people who serve them at fast food restaurants and big box retail stores. On this day that has seen the passing of the great Peter Seeger, a man who loved working people, we need to all stand together and support unions.
[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that explores subject above and beyond the job world.]
The Lesson of Violence
The 60s radical H. Rap Brown said, “It [violence] is as American as cherry pie.” Little has changed since he spoke those words. Just over the past few months, we’ve witnessed two mass shootings at a movie theater and a temple. In my city of Chicago, gang wars take lives every weekend, often innocent bystanders, including young children. We shake our heads and speak pieties, but we never look in the mirror. Are we, those of us who would never pick up a gun, part of the problem?
This weekend the Air and Water Show is taking place in Chicago. One of the most popular features of the show is displays of fighter planes and pilots, including the Blue Angels. A local peace group has been running commercials asking listeners to call the mayor and their alderman to protest the glorification of war and violence. When I first heard the commercial, my response was to dismiss it. It’s only an air show. People enjoy seeing the planes. No one is being harmed.
Then I remembered a lesson that one of my friends in Kiwanis taught me some years ago. Someone gave me a hand-held version of the game Battleship. I didn’t want it (I’m addicted to Scrabble and don’t have time for a second addiction). I offered the game to Reverend John Hudson to give to a kid at his church. He politely declined to take it. When I asked why, he answered, “Clay, it teaches violence.” At first I didn’t get it. Even kids know the difference between a game and real life. Then I thought more deeply about what John was saying. We teach violence in our games, our movies, and our language. It’s easy for us to accept violence because it’s all around us, which makes us think it is natural, just the way things are – inevitable.
Take football as one example. When a quarterback is pressured by linebackers or the secondary, we call it “blitzing,” a term taken from the German blitzkrieg attacks of World War II. A long pass completion is “the bomb.” More recently, it’s common to refer to a hard hit as “blowing up” an opponent. Big hits are shown again and again during games, and they are available anytime on the Internet. I won’t deny that I’ve whooped and hollered when one of my favorite players leaves someone from the other team prone on the field. But what does that kind of reaction do to our minds, the way we look at life? Does the language of football make us more accepting of violence?
I don’t have an answer to this question. Part of me is with Reverend John, we do teach violence and we should work just as hard (even harder) to teach peace. Another part of me wants to give people credit. They know the difference between an air show and the air attacks a dictator is making on his people in Syria. They know that a first-person shooter game is not the same thing as a madman committing murder in a movie theater. Are we as a culture culpable for the violence around us, or is it simply a matter of individual responsibility? That question is too easy. The answer is much harder, and I don’t pretend to know it.