Sunday, October 18, 2009

Football, Dog Fighting, People Fighting

I tend not to read the New Yorker. Maybe I am not intellectual enough, or maybe I just hate all of those annoying cartoons, or maybe it is my personal West Coast bias, which is simply a reaction to the East coast bias,that I couldn’t bring myself to read a magazine with such a title. But apparently there is a lot of good writing in it, I know my boy David Sedaris routinely publishes in there so maybe I should look at it more often.

However I do watch ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, damn near everyday. The guest this Friday was author Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell has a couple of books on my ever increasing, rarely diminishing “Books I Want to Read” list. In his appearance Gladwell talked his New Yorker piece about the increasingly troubling incidents of brain damage, Alzheimer’s and dementia in former football players. Host Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser seemed to be a little shaken by a good piece of writing, that indicts the football machine and as well as it’s fans.

Gladwell likens football to dog fighting an analogy that Wilbon and Kornheiser avoided, and for good reason. After the Vick episode, it has been universal accepted that dog fighting is cruel, and its participants (handlers and breeders) as well as its spectators are culpable in this inhumane criminal activity. Since this appeared on “world wide leader”, likening the football fan audience to red-necks, mouth-breathing yokels at a dog fight, would kill completely overshadow the evidence Gladwell presents which is disturbing.

There maybe a kernel of truth in the analogy though. I often compare football to Gladiatorial games. Stating that I like to eat chicken wings because "eating meat off the bone while watching football makes it extra Roman”. Watching a decadent game in a dying empire is one thing, but watching two dumb animals tear themselves apart is quite another. But I think that the appeal of both “sports” rests in a part of the brain that we are uncomfortable with embracing, and probably for good reason.

Is this the end of football? Unlikely, but is it the beginning of the end? Possibly, as the camera panned out, Wilbon turned to his co-host and said “I tell who isn’t going to play football, Matthew Wilbon” (his 2 year old son). If more and more people like Wilbon, a man who has made his living writing about athletes, then the fewer kids will be going out for football, and the game could wither, maybe becoming like boxing, an analogy that was also made on the show. But while boxing has withered, the more brutal Mixed Martial Arts seems to have taken its place. Boxing withered because the sport was seen as corrupt, crooked, and exploitive, not because people were concerned about brain injuries, Mohammed Ali is a cautionary tale though. But even the “Greatest of All Time” hasn’t stopped the rising popularity of people fighting one another in steel cages. I don’t think have steel cages in dog fighting, do they?


  1. I don't get the connection to dog fighting. Because there are injuries? Please. The comparison of an NFL fan watching the game and an owner sending his dog in for the slaughter is laughable.

    Looks like Cycling results in the most head injuries of any sport -- perhaps we should shut down the barbaric Tour de France. Or perhaps Nascar fans should be indicted for the death of Dale Earnhardt.

    The article doesn't seems to make much of a point other than making clear that the author doesn't like football, and the only sport we should play (or watch) is gymnastics floor exercise (perhaps with extra padding).

    Is the point that a percentage of football players develop serious head injuries? No kidding. A percentage of race car drivers will crash, a percentage of rock climbers will fall, a percentage of [insert sport] will [insert injury]. Does that mean we are barbarians for enjoying those activities or enjoying watching them? Can't we all choose for ourselves what is an acceptable amount of risk?

  2. Did you read the New Yorker piece? Gladwell said on PTI that he is a football fan, and I believe him.
    There are technological fixes for racing fatalities (there hasn't been a NASCAR fatality since Earnhardt), and as of now helmet technologies are being outpaced by the players who are bigger and stronger than they were before.