Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Two-Bits! Four-Bits! Six-Bits, A Dollar! All For Dementia, Stand Up And Holler!

Der Trumpster had an unremarkable career as a prep school football player and an even less remarkable sojourn into professional football as owner of the New Jersey Generals of the upstart United States Football League (1983-1986). The football accomplishments were negligible and Der Trumpster's sneers at concerns about brain injuries and injuries to players; bodies are the mumblings of a wannabe living in a fantasy. If this is (fair & balanced) self-delusion, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
Friday Night Lights Out
By David Remnick

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Theodore Roosevelt was a Rough Rider, a barrel-chested outdoorsman who loved the “manly sports” that brought out the rude, uncomplaining vigor of American youth. “I do not feel any particular sympathy,” he said, in 1903, “for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.” When it came to football, Roosevelt’s motto was “Hit the line hard.” Donald J. Trump is more of a soft-palmed indoorsman, but he would clearly like to join TR on Mt. Machismo someday. It was no doubt in that spirit that he reacted so derisively to the umbrage that followed an N.F.L. playoff game this month, in which Vontaze Burfict, an excitable linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals, exchanged his team’s near-sure chance to win for the even more immediate pleasure of trying to decapitate Antonio Brown, a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

At a rally in Reno, Trump defended Burfict against the moralists who moaned foul. “Football has become soft, like our country has become soft,” Trump said. He longed for the days of Ray Nitschke, Lawrence Taylor, Dick Butkus, and other warriors of the pigskin past: “You used to see these tackles, and it was incredible to watch, right?” Two weeks before the game, Brown, for his part, had taken a group of high-school players to see “Concussion,” the anti-NFL film starring Will Smith, now at a theatre near you.

Since the nineteen-sixties, football has been the most popular American sport, and the Super Bowl is the most highly rated television program of the year. And, for all of football’s violence, what postwar President has dared to question it? Dwight Eisenhower played at West Point and injured his knee tackling Jim Thorpe. Gerald Ford entertained offers from the Lions and the Packers before settling on Yale Law School. Ronald Reagan was a real-life guard for the Eureka College Golden Tornadoes and a make-believe halfback in “Knute Rockne: All American.” Hunter S. Thompson considered Richard Nixon a weirdo and a crook, but he warmed to him when he discovered that the President was a “goddamn stone fanatic on every facet of pro football.”

Yet there is a streak of official reformism when it comes to football. It began with TR. The Chicago Tribune called the season of 1905 a “death harvest.” The game, with its battering-ram formations and minimal equipment, saw nineteen deaths, a hundred and thirty-seven serious injuries, and countless broken bones. The administrators at Northwestern, Columbia, and Duke dumped the sport, Stanford switched to rugby, and Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard, declared that football was “more brutalizing than prizefighting, cockfighting, or bullfighting.” Roosevelt, fearing that Eliot would “emasculate” the game, if not ban it, summoned officials from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to the White House, and implored them to find ways of ratcheting back the carnage or risk the end of football. The next year, college officials outlawed the most punishing formations, instituted the forward pass, and created a “neutral zone” between the defense and the offense.

But, as the players grew bigger and faster, as the incentives to “take out” an opposing player grew with the financial rewards, the TR-era reforms and subsequent tweaks to the rules and the equipment failed to keep up. In 1994, Paul Tagliabue, the league commissioner, dismissed widespread reports about debilitating head injuries as a “pack-journalism issue.” His successor, Roger Goodell, faced with overwhelming evidence of the toll on players, acts with the stealthy instincts of a coal-company executive charged with keeping terrible secrets.

The NFL’s leverage against reform is not limited to its fantastically profitable deals with the networks and the advertisers. The game itself is undeniably alluring. At its best, football is a uniquely American spectacle: fast, brutal, complex, colorful, and have we mentioned brutal? Trump’s entire political talent is to tease out the most dubious instincts of his listeners—their rage at the threatening Other or, in this case, their bloodlust. And he makes a point: to watch Lawrence Taylor, the great Giants linebacker, swat away a pair of blockers, spin past a third, and then demolish the quarterback was thrilling—just as it was thrilling to see Muhammad Ali exhaust, bewitch, and finally level George Foreman, in Zaire.

But the modern football fan in possession of a conscience and a reasonable knowledge of the horrific statistics about injuries suffered by players comes to resemble a nacho-scarfing version of St. Augustine, who, faced with his own lust, addresses God: “Lord, let me be pure . . . but not yet.” Precisely. Let’s confront the crisis in football . . . but not yet. It’s kickoff! Two seasons ago, Barack Obama, while watching an N.F.L. game on Air Force One, responded to a question about the sport with an Augustinian dodge. “I would not let my son play pro football,” he said, adding quickly, “There’s a little bit of caveat emptor. These guys, they know what they’re doing. They know what they’re buying into. It is no longer a secret. It’s sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?”

When parents don’t want their kids to play a sport anymore—which largely became the case with boxing—that sport either dies or shifts to the margins. And yet it is hard to imagine football losing its place in the culture anytime soon, when the ratings for games, college and pro, are so high, and when so many young people—not least young African-Americans and rural whites—continue to play. Friday-night lights still shine bright across Texas. But it’s notable that some of the game’s toughest customers won’t let their kids near the gridiron. Not long ago, Mike Ditka, a legendary tight end and coach for the Chicago Bears, told Bryant Gumbel, of HBO, that he wouldn’t let a son of his play. “I wouldn’t, and my whole life was football,” Ditka said.

In fact, while the NFL takes half-measures and pressures its critics, the better to safeguard its gold mine, each day brings another player who challenges our fandom. Last week, it was Antwaan Randle El, a brilliant all-around player for the Steelers, who told a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he has trouble walking down stairs and that, though he’s only thirty-six, his memory is failing. “I ask my wife things over and over again, and she’s, like, ‘I just told you that.’ ”

Randle El is just one of many players to point out that the violent nature of the game—the focus of our guilty pleasure—is the same thing that breaks spines, shatters bones, renders middle-aged men demented. “I love the game,” he said. “But I tell parents you can have the right helmet, the perfect pads on, and still end up with a paraplegic kid.” Ultimately, there may not be an adequate reform. It may come down to living with the pain (the pain of others) or learning to love the artistry of Serena and LeBron even more than we already do. Ω

[David Remnick is the editor of The New Yorker. Remnick won a Pulitzer Prize in Non-Fiction (1994) for Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. His most recent book is The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (2010). See other books by David Remnick here. Remnick received an AB (comparative literature) from Princeton University.]

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