David Brooks has a pleasant piece in the NYTimes about the different eras of sports, and how our current era reflects the earlier ones. I like his conclusion about how rooting for your favorite team cuts across many lines of division and brings people together. I agree with this, and its one of the reasons I admire sports and athletics. I love the ideas of cooperation within a team and competition between teams. I also liked Brooks’ mentions of how we form much of our morals and sense of fairness from sports.
Though I enjoyed Brooks’ article, I can’t help but think that football isn’t the best sport that to use in this case. Sure, it does illustrate very well the loyalty and devotion to the team that Brooks wants to show. But, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in this New Yorker piece from late last year, football is, if not like the coliseum death matches that the Roman government sponsored, a lot like dogfighting.
Gladwell comes to this conclusion from his investigations into the head injuries that many football players are afflicted with. Reading the article, you will find that while a player may not suffer a serious head injury on the field, he will be impacted brain problems later in life from the many blows he has taken on the field. This article in the NYTimes also addresses this issue.
Aren’t sports supposed to make us healthier and to improve our bodies? That’s why I partake in the sports, and why I admire my favorite athletes and team. But the retired football players with scar tissue in their brains certainly don’t seem to fit this vision of an athlete. And most of us are blind to the damage that is going on. As this Freakonomics podcast notes, there hasn’t been an on-field deaths in the NFL, but football players do die on the field in other leagues and also suffer later in life the serious consequences of continuous blows to the head. By not seeing these injuries or being shocked into a changed attitude, we don’t see this as a problem, and we are implicitly giving reassurance that football and similar contact sports are safe.
In addition, this Freakonomics podcast also looks at this by investigating the safety of football helmets. In turns out helmets are great at absorbing a hit and preventing the player from being knocked out cold. What they don’t do anything about are the cumulative effects of being hit in the head over and over again, and there most likely won’t be a helmet that will do that.
This hypothesis in the Freakanomics podcast also makes me think of the recent attention to barefoot running. As Barefoot Ted remarks in this interview, while wearing conventional running shoes, runners are more likely to overstride, causing more impact because of the cushioning that the shoe provides. This leads often to injury and imbalance when running. While this may not seem as serious as the consequences of brain injuries, it does present the same point that the feeling of safety may actually encourage risks, and the negative results of those risks accumulate over time and impact you in a way that you could not have foreseen.
Tomorrow is the Super Bowl, and I am still going to watch this Sunday’s big game, and I will continue to root for the Wolverines every Fall, but I will also keep aware of any new findings and hoping that steps are taken, no matter how necessarily drastic those steps may have to be.