I don’t often link to contemporary news stories, but this one was worth a mention. Now, it’s a sports-related story, so bear with me. It’s about sports, but not a game summary or anything like that. As you may (or may not know) the National Football League has put a lot of emphasis (or paid a lot of lip service, at least) to injury-related issues. The sports (and even non-sports) media spent a lot of time talking about concussions and head injuries earlier in the season. One big news item arose when the autopsy of a college football player who committed suicide, Owen Thomas from UPenn, revealed that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition common in older football players. That condition also occurs in boxers, and the cause is simple: repeated violent blows to the head.
More recently this season, the league and media have started to pay more attention to the brutality of tackles in the game. Two football players, one pro and one in college, were paralyzed in one weekend. The pro player recovered; as I write this, the college player remains paralyzed from the neck down. The NFL saw a series of absolutely mind-numbing hits which caused a great deal of consternation, and the league promises to crack down. That’s what led me to this thought-provoking article by Joe Posnanski in Sports Illustrated. One excerpt stayed with me:
So where are we now? There’s a real momentum to stop the most bloodthirsty of hits. We do, many of us, most of us even, worry that the game is getting too scary, too painful, that it’s hard to maintain our suspension of disbelief. We want the NFL to do something about the injuries. But … what? We still want the NFL to be about pain. We want both those things, same time. And are we really willing — in that place deep down, in what Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men called “places you don’t talk about at parties” — really willing as fans to give up pain to stop injuries?
I like that Nicholson quote, as well. The movie is fairly dull, but the famous interrogation of Nicholson by Tom Cruise – the “you can’t handle the truth!” scene – is very good:
Nicholson’s rant is a bit on the “you are with us or against us” side that I find unappealing. But his point is valid, and applies to many parts of our lives. We don’t want to see how our meat is “processed.” We don’t want to experience prison life. We don’t even want to know how our wars are run. We may read exposes about Abu Ghraib, but after a brief spell of (well-deserved) collective national disgust (or, in certain quarters, glee) the news returned to the Kardashians.
But what brought this all together for me is the fact that we have to be conscious of almost everything in our lives in order to live deliberately by a set of values. Some actions are clearly negative: smoking, for example. Some are negative if not pursued in moderation: eating, drinking, working hard, religious fervor, political fervor and so on. But if you sit back and focus on more subtle activities and habits, you may realize they have a negative impact on you, too.
Now, I love football. I have never played football at any level other than after school on the high school field with a group of buddies. I played a non-team sport throughout high school (tennis). I was tall at a young age – a picture of me from tennis camp (maybe 8th or 9th grade?) has me towering over the other boys – I don’t think one head reached as high as my shoulder. My size and tennis conditioning made me a constant target of pressure from the high school football coach: every year, when getting my physical for tennis, he’d be there, telling me I could start, I could have an instant impact. My parents never signed the permission forms, though, fearing exactly the type of violence I wrote about above. I never played a team sport until, burned out on tennis, I joined the lacrosse team in college.
But despite never playing, I remain an avid fan (this blog actually ranks very high in searches for the New York Jets, ironically). But for the first time in a long time I started thinking about football, past my enjoyment of it. I don’t watch the news, although I do read some online occasionally. So the violence of war and crime come at me mostly in the form of words. But with football I bring a lot of violence into my mind. A great deal of enjoyment comes with that violence, too. I love a brutal tackle as much as the next person. You can’t love football without loving the violence that finishes every single play (with the exception of out-of-bounds, but even there you often see brutal hits). The sport shoves a great deal of violent imagery and language into my head.
I doubt I will stop watching football tomorrow, but for the first time I thought about it. I doubt I will quit many of my somewhat-bad habits even when confronted with the negatives (for example, meat eating). I still have plenty of downright bad habits to confront before I focus on those: temper, laziness, lack of focus and so on. But in confronting those bad habits – like temper, for example – it is valuable for me to understand that things like the underlying violence in a sport that brings me joy may actually be building up habits that don’t – like my temper. This observation – prompted by a Sports Illustrated article, of all things – made me think about a fully conscious and designed life for the first time.