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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On football, and our passion for violence

The always insightful Garry Wills had an interesting take on The New York Review of Books blog yesterday heading into Super Bowl Weekend, which has become our annual celebration of violence.

Wills' point of departure is the viciousness at the heart of the sport, and the irony that the very equipment meant to protect players becomes, when worn by 300-plus pound behemoths, weapons.
This “protection” is like the boxing gloves mandated by the Marquess of Queensberry Rules in 1867. Some supposed they were meant to protect a fighter’s hands. Their real function was to make it possible to strike at an opponent’s head with maximum force. Back in the days of bare-knuckle fights, the only way to do real damage to another man’s head, without crippling oneself, was to break his nose with the heel of the hand. Otherwise, the long bouts were waged with wallops to the muscle-padded torso. The gloves made it possible to score knockouts to the head—and to do that head permanent damage, registered in the high degree of dementia among fighters.

The same “gain” has been achieved for football with the heavy helmet.
The chilling result is the high number of former pro football players suffering from trauma-induced dementia. And it becomes even more tragic when you consider the number of kids who have been killed or suffered crippling injuries from the sport as they emulate the toughness lauded on television every Sunday.
Between 1982 and 2009 according to the National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research, 295 fatalities directly or indirectly resulted from high-school football. From 1977 to 2009, at all levels, 307 cervical-cord injuries were recorded. And between 1984 and 2009 there were 133 instances of brain damage—not slowly accruing damage, as in the case of C.T.E., but damage upon impact.
All of which has me mulling this national ethos that celebrates violence. Fights make the hockey game. We celebrate boxers who, by definition, earn their livings by committing felonies. The most violent and macabre movies and TV shows become cultural icons, then we react with disgust when life imitates art. John Hinckley's attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, emulating the character Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver stands as the ultimate crossover.

In the back of my mind lurks the sections of the current book project about the 1970s and 1980s in Detroit, when the gun slinging drug-dealer became a folk hero to a generation of youths who saw - and not in the romanticized nihilistic sense - nothing but prison or death in their futures. The hit movie "Scarface, though set in Miami, captured that sense in all of its gory glory. Which, of course, was a remake of a Depression-era movie about the violent gangster world propelled by Prohibition. So this thing of ours - the glorification of violence - is nothing new. And I'm as guilty as the next. I love hockey, fights and all, and will be watching the Super Bowl on Sunday, though I hope I have the good grace to wince instead of cheer when a player gets knocked senseless.

More broadly, though, I wonder what history will have to say about us, and the choices we've made as a culture, and as a political society. I used to think we have come to treat free-market capitalism, with all of its faults, as a national religion, albeit one without a soul. But I'm beginning to think that at a deeper level we worship, first, Darwinism, from our social policies to our entertainment choices to our sports. It's a faith in which only the tough survive. And that's not a good thing if we are to have any credibility when we say we value human life.

It reminds of that old David Gray song, "Let the Truth Sting," with its lyric, "If we're searching for peace, how come we still believe in hatred as the catalyst?"9K4N5ZN8ZM7X
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