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.
Both coaches in today's Super Bowl, Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks and Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, have coached championships teams. They are regarded as the best at what they do. Both have also led teams that were not successful. When Carroll coached New England, many experts thought he would never be a great coach. The same is true of Belichick's time with the Cleveland Browns. Both coaches had faith in themselves and their talent. The picked themselves up and gave themselves another chance to succeed. Successful people often have a low point in their career. Their critics call them losers. Real champions like Carroll and Belichick end up with the last laugh.
[On Sundays this blog looks beyond the world of work and careers in Sabbath.]
The National Pastimes
I grew up a baseball fan and still love the game. Baseball is the summer game, and it has a fascinating history that goes back more than 100 years. A baseball game can turn in an instant on a pitch, hit, error, or base-running mistake. People who love baseball like the game’s pace, which is slow and deliberative.
America’s other pastime is much more fast and ferocious. Today is the first Sunday of the NFL season. No one seems to care about an off-season filled with stories about head injuries. Pro football rules the American sports scene. It’s not unusual for me to watch two or three games on Sunday. And, as hypocritical as it sounds, I still get excited when there’s a big hit. Every week there are offensive and defensive highlights that relayed from Monday through Saturday. Football invites viewers to get into the game in a way that baseball does not.
Part of the difference between the two sports is frequency of games. There are only 16 games in an NFL season; baseball plays 162 games. A win or loss in football is worth 10 times a loss in baseball. A great baseball team can have two 5 game losing streaks in a season. That would be disaster in the NFL.
Football’s also a better sport for TV. In reality, both sports take about 2 ½ - 3 hours to complete a game. Football seems faster because it is easier to follow as teams move up and down the field. While strategy in football is much more complex than baseball, the movement of players and the ball can be followed without the same attention that baseball requires. A squeeze bunt or passed ball happens so fast that only a sophisticated fan who is paying close attention understands the impact. Football has a clear stop before each play that gives fans a chance to know how many yards are needed for a first down, how close their team is to scoring. Nothing is so simple in baseball.
Baseball calls itself America’s pastime, and it holds that title as a legacy. Football rules. Fans want to sit in front of a large screen and party. They want to go to a bar and enjoy the game as a social activity with friends. Baseball asks for more from its fans. Maybe it asks for too much. I will continue to watch and love both games, but I’m not going to fool myself. In 2013, pro football is America’s pastime, if not its social religion.
I love baseball, and this weekend I attended minor league games in Indianapolis, Nashville, and Louisville. While in Louisville, I took a tour of the Louisville Slugger Museum, which features a working factory that makes bats for big leaguers and recreational players. During the tour, we learned that from the 1880s to the 1970s, bats were made by hand. They were the work of craftsmen who used their hands and eyes. A good bat maker could carve a bat in 20-30 minutes. By the late 1970s an automated process was devised with a new lathe that could carve a bat in 30 seconds. Great for the company, not so good for the men who worked the lathes.
This story underscores the impact of automation on work. One of the lathes at Louisville Slugger could cut more in an hour than a man could do in a day. No sane business would continue to work in an inefficient manner. Layoffs were necessary. Similar advances have led to millions of layoffs in manufacturing, assembly, and supply chain. Better technology means fewer jobs. No company can stick with people when machines can do as good or better a job at a much lower cost. We all love innovation, but we have to look realistically at its aftereffects. Faster, cheaper, and more efficient usually means people will lose their jobs. The challenge is to generate new jobs in a world where machines, software, and automation are improving all the time. What will we do if a time comes when we have more people than jobs?
This weekend I had the pleasure of seeing 42, the new film about Jackie Robinson. I love baseball and have read much about Robinson, the first African American to play in the major leagues. The film also had some interesting things to say about work and career.
1. Listen to the boss
To be successful, Robinson had to follow Branch Rickey’s strategy of not fighting back. In turn, Rickey had to understand Robinson’s situation and keep him motivated in standing against racist taunts and physical abuse. The films also shows two other great examples of bosses in control. Rickey tells Robinson’s first manager to treat his new player as he would white players. He then warns the manager that he will be fired if he doesn’t do so. Later in the film, Phillies manager Ben Chapman rained vulgar slurs at Robinson. His team’s executive orders the racist Chapman to pose for a picture with Robinson. Wanting to keep his job, the bigoted manager posed with Jackie Robinson. Moral of the story: want to keep the job? Listen to the boss – or find a new job with a better boss.
2. Be willing to take risks
Both Rickey and Robinson took great risks in going against the long established color code. Rickey bucked the system. Robinson literally put his life on the line. In the end, their risks changed the game and did much to open the eyes of a country. There is still racism in America, but men like Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey changed the game because they were willing to challenge accept wisdom and customs. To achieve our professional goals, we need to be ready to take risks and face our inner fears.
3. Be willing to change
A few of Robinson’s teammates welcomed him. Most did not. However, the film shows them learning to accept him and, more importantly, respect him. From what I’ve read, the transition wasn’t as fast or smooth as the film depicts. But, as Robinson endured, his teammates accepted him. In many work experiences, accepting change is the first step to being successful.
4. Don’t quit
If I were only given one word to describe Jackie Robinson, it would be strength. He faced hate from all angles. His life was threatened. Still, he did not quit. Robinson knew what kind of treatment he would face, and his determination opened the door for other African American players. It made baseball a better game and America a more equal nation. In the end, Robinson’s fame is as much a matter of his mental strength as it is his great accomplishments on the field. Again, he is a role model for any worker who faces obstacles and still achieves a goal.
I don’t mean to make 42 into a simplistic story. It’s not. I strongly recommend the movie as a great biography and as source of inspiration.
[On Sundays, Career Calling explores questions of life and work in “Sabbath.”]
The Big Game
The Chicago Bears have had an amazing season. A team that many people picked to finish .500 or lower won their division and will play in the conference championship today. Adding to the excitement and hype, the Bear are facing their long-time rivals, the Green Bay Packers. Over the last week, this game has eclipsed all other local news stories, including a heated mayoral campaign and a visit by the President of China.
We love sports in Chicago and across America. In two weeks, most televisions will be tuned to the Super Bowl, which has become an unofficial national holiday. While less popular, the World Series, NBA championship, and NCAA football bowl games and basketball championship grab headlines and big ratings. Star athletes rank with popular musicians and movie actors as some of the country’s best paid and most well known personalities. What does this fascination with sports tell us about ourselves?
In part, I think it says something very good. We as a country celebrate competition and performance. We want to see a game that is played fairly, where either team has a chance to win. We also use sports as a way to share memories across generations. Parents and children are fans of their hometown team, and they swap stories of their heroes. Such memories build community, especially in some of America’s challenged urban areas.
Our fascination with the “big game” also has a negative aspect, especially over recent decades. We seem to be ever more sport-obsessed than previous generations. As newspapers have downsized, the one section that has not shrunk is sports. Local TV news often devotes more time to sports than it does to local politics or community issues. We also now have 24/7 TV and radio networks that focus solely on sports (mostly football, baseball, basketball, and hockey). Beyond that, there are fantasy sports leagues and websites for every professional and amateur team.
Let me be clear. I am a sports fan and enjoy almost any type of competition (except competitive eating, which is vulgar in a world where so many live in hunger). My question is about our cultural fascination – if not addiction – to sports. What does it tell us about our lives and how they have changed from our grandparents and great-grandparents? What do we value and why do we value it?
There was a time when American had a much more diverse range of interests. Someone with a high school education would know more about literature and culture. His or her knowledge of politics would be based on reporting and participation, not talk radio and campaign commercials. Our love of sports has, to some degree, simplified our understanding of life. We cheer for the winner without considering the value of the competition. Is the winner of Survivor, Dancing with the Stars, or The Apprentice really worthy of our time or admiration? Deeper still, does our fascination with The Biggest Loser, The Bachlor/Bachlorette, and Are You Smarter than a Fifth Greater mask more serious concerns about how we are living as individuals, families, and a nation?
We complain about many things: government, jobs, schools, health care. The list of our concerns could fill the page. What do we do change anything? More importantly, what do we do to understand these problems and hold our politicians responsible to fix them? Sports is easy. There is always a new game tomorrow and a new season next year. Our love of sports lets us relive our childish days of innocence. The problem is that we live in a time of great challenges. We can’t afford to spend so much of attention and psychic energy budget on sports. To make our lives better and to make our country better, we need to shut off Sportcenter and spend more time engaging in activities that will make our lives and community better. That’s the real Big Game.
What is Sabbath? On Sundays, Career Calling looks at work and life.
The Chicago Marathon takes place today, and my friend Rich Lalich and his wife Marion will be running in the race. They have trained long and hard for this race, which should remind us that fun often takes work and endurance.
Larry Moon ran in the first Chicago Marathon in 1977. He has run in all 32 races to follow, an example of focus and determination – if not a little insanity. He has run the race injured and in pain. His advice to runners applies well to all kinds of projects: “I don’t think of the finish line. I just think of the next mile.”
Good luck to Larry Moon, Rich, Marion, and the rest of the 45,000 runner participating in the race. They have worked hard preparing for the marathon. May each of them cross the finish line.
Photos I took at the race
Focus & Determination
Where Work Meets Play